As some of you will already know, Eric Slater's colour woodcut Tregenna Castle Hotel (below) is up for sale on ebay with only a couple of days left to go. Only yesterday a reader commented that Cornwall was outside his usual balliewick, a point that is valid in more ways than one. Slater has always been associated with the Sussex coast because he made chalk cliffs and Martello towers part of his stock-in-trade. But Slater was not as solitary as his lonely mills and Martello towers might suggest and was dependant on a number of people, not least his mother and grandmother who he always lived with.
James Trollope who owns the copyright to Slater's woodcuts likes to emphasise the influence of Arthur Rigden Read who he believes showed Slater how to make colour woodcuts after Slater moved to live not far from him at Winchelsea. Though I would not dispute that this is very likely true, there were others who had an effect, especially the Yorkshire artist, George Graham, who moved to Winchelsea in the early twenties and made a couple of colour woodcuts. The other is S.G. Boxsius who also worked in Sussex and in particular made a woodcut of Rottingdean Mill before he began making colour woodcuts.
Interestingly enough, Boxsius and his wife, Daisy, used to visit Devon and Cornwall and more than once old hotels and inns like the Crown Inn at Shaldon were the subject of his work. What is more to the point is how much better Icklesham Mill is than so much of Slater's work - and it is better for the debt he owes to Boxsius. The delicate use of pink, white and shadow against a cloudless sky is not very Slater, but turns the centre of the print into a little Boxsius rather than the decorative kind of mish-mash we are now well-accustomed to - and I am not denying that Slater doesn't have charm and appeal and I wouldn't buy one but I was never prepared to stump up the kind of money people seem to expect for a Slater.
The question is, though, where has Icklesham Mill been hiding all this time? And why is there no record of Slater exhibiting the print? Could it be that the print was a collaboration? Rottingdean Mill has the same small groups of houses to give the mill extra scale and, if anything, Slater handles light better than he does in Icklesham Mill. The light catching the sails and the depth of shadow at the back of the mill are particularly well done in Slater's naive way. But again it is the sense of calm and of background that is so Boxsius, especially the way the farther cliff is made into a second landscape. The print is subtle in a way so many of his prints never are. It was first exhibited in 1936 so it is quite late in his career as a print artist. In all, the count I have based on James Trollope's catalogue is 45. This was some going between about 1926 and The stackyard, his final print apparently, in 1938. My feeling is work like Icklesham Mill may be later than that or simply remained. in his studio once he stopped exhibiting.
This doesn't answer the question why so many prints never seem to have been exhibited or why some work was only shown at the Sedon Galleries in Melbourne in 1932. Slater was a successful young printmaker by that point but most other artists exhibited at home and Australia came second. The answer was partly that Slater was taken up by the galleries as a bankable artist in the late twenties and early thirties just as much as he has been taken up by the print trade since the 1980s. One of his skills was to take what worked for other artists and to amalgamate them into his own. Given that his training at art school was limited, it isn't surprising that he had to learn on the job. Which brings me to Alfriston (above). The village is inland from Seaford where Slater lived so it is was on his patch. But is it the Slater we know? Not to me it isn't. The figures and the space are so much better handled than they are elsewhere in his work. The man in the cap creates a social space as he watches the people conversing. The figures also gives the scene greater depth by introducing exact scale. Slater's vases of flowers like his Tulips are sociable too but so far as I am aware this is the only place an everyday social space occurs in Slater's work. Not only that, it is very similar to Boxsius' Corfe Castle where the women on the grass are sketching the inn and the castle beyond them. My guess is that Slater sometimes needed considerable tuition. Beyond that, when his grandmother and then his mother died, the colour woodcuts died too. I find it odd than James had not found these two titles after all the work he had done (although a giclee print is now for sale). But there are others still missing for you to look out for and that he did record in his book, notably Stonehenge at sunrise and An inn by the sea - one of his better titles.