Monday, 13 December 2021

The black bull: the print catalogue of S.G. Boxsius

 


The only way a collector of prints made by an individual artist can really know what they are doing is to have a catalogue if their work. Even now, very few of the colour print artists who have featured on Modern Printmakers have anything like an adequate catalogue but they do exist, both in the United States and the U.K. Notable among them are the catalogues put together in Britain by James Trollope for Arthur Rigden Read and Eric Slater. There are also well-produced hardback catalogues for the prints of Norma Bassett Hall, Edna Boies Hopkins, Walter Phillips and Sydney Lee. Then there are further catalogues for three artists associated with the Grosvenor School, namely Claude Flight, Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews. Finally, there is the compendious catalogue for Yoshijiro Urushibara and the meticulous catalogue for John Platt produced by Hilary Chapman.

As a curator at the V&A once warned me, it can take years to put together proper catalogues like these and while this is true, a working document of some sort can also also very useful. For example, I know of check lists for Mabel Royds, Ian Cheyne, Helen Stevenson and Kenneth Broad put together by individuals or by two people working together (as I did with Broad's grandson). The print catalogue for S.G. Boxsius is ongoing and The black bull (featured at the top) tells you why. The image was sent to me by a reader only quite recently. Not only had I never seen it before, I had never even heard of it simply because there is no exhibition record for it - at least not that I know of.

Boxsius often tried to create mood in his prints one way or another. The black bull was not the only occasion he attempted to catch the fleeting effect of sunshine and rain that is typical of Britain, specially near the coast. Corfe Castle is one print people will know. There is also Rain, St, Michael's Mount where his attempt to depict falling rain tends to spoil what is otherwise a beautifully made print. With The black bull he decided on a more stylised effect and although the rays remind me of the sunburst on my grandmother's 1930s drive-way gate, it does ring true to the period and without doubt he gets away with it.



Another print that I came across only this year was his linocut Ruins at Walberswick (above) which I have talked about in a previous post. All this only goes to show that there are almost certainly others which are in private or public collections like these two. As institutions like the University of Wales and the National Gallery of Scotland put more of their collections online, we are gradually getting a better idea of the range of  work [produced by artists like Boxsius. But it is the same for Modern Printmakers. As readers send in images that are new, the more we get an idea of just how many prints he made. In all, I have records for forty colour woodcuts or colour linocuts and most of these I can match up with images. There are a few like Wind and Pines that may be hiding somewhere. It is hard to say but I tend to think there are other prints by Boxsius still out there. One reason I say this is because after his death, his wife, Daisy, kept much of his preparatory work which was then inherited by members of her family. It has always been believed there was a studio sale at some stage after Boxsius' death. Whatever happened, the watercolour designs and sketchbooks that survive are exceptional not only in their quality but by the very fact that they have survived at all. No one that I know of except for Mable Royds left so much studio material behind them and this makes the preparation of a Boxsius catalogue as rewarding as it is demanding.



At least one preparatory drawing I have seen matches the linocut Twilight at Winchelsea. It shows Boxsius making meticulous drawings he then transposed to wood or lino. Alongside many of the designs, he there are colour charts with notes. Unfortunately, the images I was sent are not square but I have decided to post one of the drawings which looks to me like a design for a linocut. This should give readers a better idea of the way the artist worked and may encourage people to send in other images. There is no colour chart beside this one, but it is the best image I have and the best example of the careful planning Boxsius undertook before cutting the block.



There are two problems when it comes to putting together any kind of Boxsius catalogue. Firstly, no one has any real idea when he began making colour prints. He may have begun as early as 1899 to 1900 when he was a student at the Royal College of Art. William Giles was probably teaching there at the time and published his first colour woodcut in 1900. A number of Boxsius prints owe a debt to Giles and in 1926 he wrote an article about linocut for Giles' Colour Print Magazine. Obviously this means that Giles must have known his linocuts by then. Boxsius certainly knew Ethel Spower's The green bridge (above) also from 1926 and made after a visit to Walberswick. The fact that both artists worked at Walberswick is too much of a coincidence and the figure on the bridge could be Daisy Boxsius taking a break from making watercolours. After all Boxsius placed what looks the same woman on the same bridge!



But as you all know by now matters are never straightforward when it comes to Boxsius. Another artist who depicted the Kissing Bridge was Sydney Lee and the other possibility is that Boxsius took Lee's colour woodcut class at the Central School some time after 1906. Boxsius owed more to Lee than he did to Giles. You only need to compare Lee's Drying sails, St. Ives (above) to the drawing by Boxsius below to appreciate the way Boxsius used the work of other artists as a starting-point. It is not the same but they are similar in scale though Boxsius' figures are greater style and charm than Lee's. So far as I know no-one was using lino in Britain at the time Lee was running his colour woodcut and wood-engraving class in London but Boxsius must have been making them soon after the end of the first war. There is nothing exceptional about that. What is unusual is the way he used both wood and lino. Most artists who did used both were like Isabel de B. Lockyer, Anna Findlay or Spowers who all used wood before adopting lino from the early to mid twenties onwards. Boxsius first exhibition date is for the linocut Rain, St. Michael's Mount in 1928 when he was already fifty years old.



This leads us to the other problem anyone would be faced with when putting together a Boxsius catalogue: how does anyone date the prints? None of them are dated and the exhibition record is patchy considering we now know of forty prints. It may be the first record we have for him, but Rain, St. Michael's Mount is obviously not an early work. But then how many obviously early prints are there? To my mind, there is only Old mill, Sussex. All the rest are the work of an experienced printmaker which can only mean that Boxsius had been more concerned with teaching others how to make prints rather producing professional work himself. It also suggests that making prints for exhibition should be classified as the special achievement of a mature artist in line with, say, the superb results gained by Arabella Rankin when she began making colour woodcuts at the age of fifty or Mabel Royds great flowers prints made during the last ten years of her life. All three of them were class performers and prove how far maturity can win out for artists who are determined and have the nerve to break loose.


Sunday, 5 December 2021

Ian Cheyne, S.G. Boxsius & John Hall Thorpe at Mallam's

 


I owe a debt to the two readers who wrote to tell me about the forthcoming sale of modern prints at Mallam's in Oxford on Wednesday, 8th December. It is not only a matter of the sale including an artist who I like as much as many other readers do. The sale includes many prints by post-war British artists, including members of the the well-known group like Patrick Caulfield, Allen Jones and David Hockney who all studied at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s. When I began this blog, none of us would have predicted that a teacher-graduate of the R.C.A. in the 1920s like S.G. Boxsius would find a place among  professional artists like Caulfield and Jones. But here is he is, with two woodcuts and a linocut, which attest to the central place the R.C.A. has had for post-graduate studies in Britain for many years now.



It is all about money. We all all know that if  Boxsius prices had not been going up, he would not be there alongside bankable artists like Ian Cheyne and John Hall Thorpe and the information they give about the prints is wrong. But starting with Cheyne (top) Loch Shiel is one of the later, more decorative prints he made in the thirties and went up for sale first in 1937. Like all his prints, Loch Shiel is exceptionally well-made and designed and as Cheynes don't come on the market that often, it should sell for a good price. Generally, I prefer the earlier ones but anything by him is worth having.



Mallam's in common with so many people before' have decided Boxsius' Autumn (second from the top) depicts summer. It is the less common one where the farmhouse has a yellow roof and like most of them is signed only in the block. The print was based on a drawing still owned by a member of the family but the trees have been made far bigger and the effect of the olive green against the sky in the top left corner is magnificent. Also notable is the faint view across the bay, a typical Boxsius piece of subtlety which is possibly at its best here. Made in 1930, there was also an edition though I have never come across an record of it being exhibited anywhere. Also included in the sale is By the quay, Looe, (above) given a first viewing online here only a few weeks ago and if their cataloguer read Modern Printmakers, he would not have made the obvious mistake of saying it was a woodcut. The majority of his prints were lino, though to be fair, it is never easy to say which is which.



Also up for auction are a number of flower prints by John Hall Thorpe, including this one of forget-me-nots and daisies which I have never seem before. There is one early print called forget-me-nots where the main flower is, in fact, primulas, but that one is typical of his style while the one above is bolder and could be one of the woodcuts sold at his first London exhibitions in 1919. Unusually, the area outside the black background is printed in blue. I am not sure what is happening there and I can't think of any other example like it.

Monday, 29 November 2021

Robert Howey, north & south




Of all the British artists I have written about, Robert Howey is about the only one I can think of who kept a base at his home in the northern town of West Hartlepool but managed to have a career as a professional artist who had a dealer in London and exhibited across the country. At the age of twenty-five, he st up in business as a show-card artist and designer at premises in Hartlepool. This was in 1925. I do not know how long that the business lasted but four years later he helped make a decisive  contribution to the way the public was introduced to colour linocut. By then,  he had a dealer in London who was publishing his prints and held a show of them in Chelsea in 1929. More importantly, at the end of June the Gray Art Gallery in West Hartlepool became the first municipal gallery to hold an exhibition of colour linocuts and when the thirty prints moved to Sunderland, Howey was present to give demonstrations of the technique.




Sunderland is now celebrated for being one of the most successful of the venues of the first tour of the Exhibition of British Linocut that had opened at the Redfern Gallery in London within days of Howey's Sunderland show opening in the north. Being a public gallery, Sunderland was keen to count numbers of visitors. In all, there were 10,629 and when British Linocut closed at the same venue, Claude Flight was pleased to boast about the 12,000 visitors that exhibition had had. Generally, it has been assumed that Flight was the main organiser of these tours - and this may well be the case. But frankly, given the success Howey had both in London and in the north, we need to consider how much help he had, particularly from provincial curators and Howey himself.




No-one seems to have asked how it was that Flight and the Redfern between them had such a good base in the north. The first exhibition visited Blackpool, Carlisle and Gateshead before reaching Sunderland. It then went on to Darlington - and it is a very surprising list. The last three towns were at the heart of the development of the railways and the industrial expansion of the C19th. Thy were hardly Chelsea or Kensington. Someone had had a brain-wave and clearly the idea appealed to Flight who had declared the democratic nature of colour linocut in emulation of the same claim made for colour woodcut by Frank Morley Fletcher. If this was all hocus-pocus, it hardly matters, The tours continued for another nine years.



By now you will have gained some idea of the style of Howey's own linocut. Nothing at all like the prints made by the artists who had studied with Flight at the Grosvenor School. Many of them have more in common with European artists like Helen Tupke Grande, Leo Frank and Carl Rotky who exhibited alongside him in the 1930s. Only the spire of the church beyond the staithes in the print third from the top lets us know it is Hartlepool rather than Martigues or Bordighera. When he depicts summer (above) the emphasis is on form and decoration not sentiment and for all the evocativeness of the rider in the shadow of the elm tree, the flat forms and broken shadows could be German. You need to remind yourself that the summer image with its rich intensity isn't a lost print by Helen Mass.



Here is an artist who has learned to copy the styles of other artists at a provincial English school of art in about 1916 or 1917. When it came to watercolour, it was often J.M.W. Turner he turned to. With the prints, the simplification he used betrayed his work as a commercial artist and when you have the linocuts in front of you, there is little of the fine effects you would expect from a good artist's print and they are unexciting. Everything depends on design and image. This does not mean he is not worth buying. The fact that I was disappointed by the one print I bought, does not mean I do not admire the images you see her for their brevity and sense of style. But West Hartlepool and Gateshead were never going to be Vienna or Trieste. The engineers of northern England changed the world forever. What they did not do was change art and what you see in Howey is an ability to learn and adapt styles, but styles whose energy had run out many years before.





Saturday, 20 November 2021

The colour linocuts of Norbertine von Bresslern Roth

 


Over the years, the linocuts of Norbertine von Bresslern Roth have received scant attention on Modern Printmakers. There are various reasons for this, none of them very good ones, especially as her print of wolves walking down through a snowy forest (below) is one of the most memorable images I own. Even though she studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts before the first war, she was essentially a designer and she had more in common with the modern artists and other designers who taught at the School of Arts and Crafts and, appropriately enough, she exhibited with the Vienna Secession in 1916 where so many of those same people had begun exhibiting before the war.



The colour linocuts she began making about 1920 owe almost all of their style to woodcut artists like Hans Frank, Walther Klemm and, most notably, to L.H. Jungnickel (who has featured widely and deservedly on my blog).  Jungnickel was responsible for the head of a snarling lion from 1903 and this set the tone for a lot of what Bresslern Roth did. Nor were the grouping of animals, which she is famous for, her own idea. Jungnickel not only led the way led the way to the Vienna Tiergarten, it was him who identified the parrots terrorising the sedate drawing-rooms of the city and made colour woodcuts of such vivid candour they have never been bettered. Bresslern Roth ignored humour and character but did give us very well-made prints that were clearly meant to attract attention on the same drawing room walls. This brings her well into line with what British artists were doing from about 1912 onwards. What she offered were professional prints from an identifiable series. William Nicholson and John Hall Thorpe had similar brands as did Gustave Bauman in the U.S. 



The importance of the formula to her becomes evident when she tried another genre, one problem being the genres were difficult to pin down. The best example are the prints she made after a visit to North Africa in 1928. How could it be that a country like Tunisia could turn out to be so bland? Perhaps she had only pretended to go  and went to a fancy dress party at the zoo instead. With their lurking camels, shaggy shelters and bundled women, they all remind me of banal versions of The Nativity (if you do want me to name the genre). An artist goes to North Africa for the blistering light and although it is apparent in the print above, you only need to consider what Henri Matisse did with Tangier to see how feeble Bresslern Roth could be once she was out of her comfort zone. Even Elizabeth Keith, a far less talented artist than Roth, rendered China and Korea with real character. With Roth you suspect a gaggle of Tunisians had one day wandered up the Hohe Warte in Vienna and squatted in the shade of one of  the villas designed by Josef Hoffman for his artist friends. Just look at the jazzy decoration in the background! Easy of course to mock, harder to get it right. And get it right, she quite often did.




Saturday, 13 November 2021

Hilary Chapman's 'John Edgar Platt, master of the colour woodcut' for sale.




In 2018, Hilary Chapman bought out John Edgar Platt, master of the colour woodcut as an updated version of a book about Platt's colour woodcuts she had published way back in 1999 and which had long been unavailable. The present book is now available from Pallant House in Chichester at half price and is worth £6.25 of anybody's money. At the last count, there were about 140 copies left - and sensible people are buying two.



The format is larger than the first book so the illustrations are larger and there are far more in colour. Whether the new book did Platt any more justice is another thing. Like the old one (and like the Urushibara I talked about in the previous post) this is a catalogue with an introductory essay. To be honest, I have not re-read them. Chapman is content to give some biography and some information about colour woodcut in the Japanese manner without providing much context. 



To my own mind so many of these little books are lost opportunities to provide insight about the way the artist worked and also perceptive commentary. Praising technical skill simply isn't enough. There is no comparison with work he did in other media, for instance, and you only have to compare The scrum with Platt's design for stained glass at All Saints, Leek, to see how academic he could be. The approach is all too literal and safe. The book also misses two more aspects to The scrum: it obviously represents a Scotland/England game at Murrayfield and the person to the left of the main figure is an ironic portrait of one of Platt's contemporaries. All I will say is that he is an artist. Can you supply the name?

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Yoshijiro Urushibara visits Kew Gardens




Quite a few years ago, someone had a blog where they identified at least some of the vases Yoshijiro Urushibara made use of in his flower prints. It was not a pottery I was familiar with, I don't remember what it was called and for some reason the blogger has since removed the post. But this said a lot about the reproductive training Urushibara had received with the firm of Shimbi Shoin he worked for in Tokyo. He had not only to reproduce the work of artists to a high standard in colour woodcut, he was also been trained to imitate their styles. But this was not unique to the workshops of Japan. Frank Brangwyn once complained that British arts schools did nothing but train clever imitators. On a more subtle level, when George Moore tactlessly described Edgar Degas as 'a revolutionary painter', Degas response was, 'We are tradition'. And it is that French 'we' that is so important once we begin to try and assess the work of Urushibara with any seriousness because in the current age of pick 'n' mix pronouns, Ursuhibara was certainly in the plural.

I wilfully misrepresenting what Degas meant when he referred to himself in the first person plural. In common with other British artists, Urushibara spent a fair amount of of time to-ing and fro-ing between London and Paris where the people he knew were artists in the French decorative tradition. London itself was home to other French artists, notably Theodore Roussel who was president of the Graver Printers in Colour. It was Roussel who had begun making prints of vases of flowers in the 1890s and who exhibited colour versions of them when the Graver Printers had their first exhibitions, I am saying this all over again because not everyone who actually reads what I say was convinced the first time.

 Far from being copyist, the best of Urushibara's flower prints like Chrysanthemums (above) an early tour-de-force from 1922, drew on both modern French decorative art and the Japanese tradition of bird and flowers prints they called kacho-e  This print not only depicts a vase of orange spider chrysanthemums, it suggests November. The icy atmosphere, the frosty table, the frozen dribbles of glaze are all chosen with the care of a very sensitive practitioner where the interior of his studio is transformed into a wintry garden. At the time, Urushibara's work on Brangwyn's drawings were aptly described as 'translations'. When it came to his own original work, the sense of transformation was greater. Everywhere the power of suggestion is at work, notably in the vase itself. This has turned into a tuber, lifted from the earth ready for storing in the greenhouse. With this print, everything is turned around. The studio has become a landscape, what was contained in the earth has become a container.



Peonies made about three years later in c 1925 works in a similar way but in two versions, the one above and the well-known aniline blue version. I like the way the table suggests the earth in the blue version but I prefer this one mainly because Urushibara gets closer to engraving and the way the decoration on the vase suggests a garden more clearly. You can also seen i this print why modern Japanese printmakers have adopted the  European difficult technique of mezzotint. This was widely used in ritaon by professional engravers reproducing paintings or designs by fine artists in much the same way craftsmen at Shimbi Shoin did. One strength of mezzotint is that is allows for fine gradations of tone, which makes it very suggestive of atmosphere.




Different rules apply in Japanese fine art because the sensibility is a different one. Take Dahlias (above). A friend once had the pale version on loan for a number of years and had it hanging above his television so I came to know it very well. (It was also the way I came to recognise Urushibara's signature). Unfortunately, the edition was probably only twenty so it is now very uncommon. This may be because dark prints like this were less popular. Nevertheless, this is another personal favourite and suggests exactly the way Urushibara's sensibility worked. Which modern British artist would combine montbretia, dahlias and chestnut leaves or would have used two receptacles instead of one so he could place the larger vase off-centre?




Unless you own a copy of Hilary Chapman's Yoshijiro Urushibara, you will probably not have seen the darker version because this is the first time it has appeared online. Despite all its obvious faults, Hilary's book is worth buying (and was reviewed on Modern Printmakers in 2017 when it first came out). I have had to take a photo of the reproduction in the book, not ideal because the light reflects off the glossy paper. I have included an illustration of the pale version, too, so you can decided for yourself which you like best. Either way, I would buy the one that turned up first and then the other one when it turned up afterwards. If only.


Hilary Chapman & Libby Horner Yoshijiro Urushibara, a Japanese printmaker in London is available in softback in the UK on Abe for £52 and on Amazon Books for £56. 

Sunday, 31 October 2021

Elizabeth Colwell: Reading, Cornwall & Chicago

 


Never a good idea, but I had always believed for no special reason that Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing  published in Britain in 1916 was the first manual on the subject in English. I was wrong. A far less well-known American colour woodcut artist got there first. This was Elizabeth Colwell whose own book On the making of  woodblock colour prints came out in the United States in 1910. I have to say here that I don't think Colwell is in the first rank of America colour woodcutters not because she didn't have talent but she failed to throw off the method of making colour woodcuts she had learned from others.


                                                                                                 Annex Galleries


Colwell was born in Bronson, Michigan, in 1881, and trained at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago where she met the colour woodcut artist, B. J. O. Nordfeldt. He has a studio in the city's South Side district and it appears it was there was was introduced to a way of making colour woodcuts based on the Japanese method. What is unusual about all this is that Nordfeldt had worked for a friend of Fletcher's called Albert Herter who ran a family design business and after Nordfeldt had been to Paris to work on the firm's exhibit at the Paris Exposition in he went to Reading to take the class in colour woodcut that Fletcher was running at the Extension College there. What has to be said is that none of the were all that experienced as printmakers. Fletcher had made up the method as he went along  a few years previously and then tried to make everyone else keep to it. Ironically, in Reading Nordfeldt made friends with William Giles who at twenty-seven refused to take Fletcher's prescriptive approach on board and eventually went off to Sweden where Nordfeldt's family came from.



As for Colwell herself a biographical note published by the Art Institute says she also trained abroad and the only evidence of where she went is the print above, Cornwall coast, England, now in the Museum of Fin Arts at San Francisco. Friendships and connections between American and British artists between about 1897 and the first war are poorly understood but they did exist and they were a way that artists often learned how to make prints. Norma Bassett Hall's visit to Edinburgh in the twenties is well-documented but we have far less to go on with Nordfeldt, Colwell, Arthur Wesley Dow and Edna Boies Hopkins who almost certainly came to Britain too. Colwell's technique in the Cornwall print are in some ways exemplary. All the main elements are there - the depth of colour, the brushwork, the keyblock - but behind it all is the ghost of yet one more American artist and it is James MacNeill Whistler. The importance of tone and the arrangement of the image is more Whistler than Hiroshige. I was only looking at the strange blues in Whistler's Symphony in white number III on Friday in Birmingham and here they are again! You will also notice the Japanese fan the girl has let slip. (The other woman is Joanna Hiffernan who was Irish and lived with Whistler in London in the 1860s. Her father referred to the artist as 'mi son-in-law'.)



The difficulty is that all these early colour woodcuts can tend to look generic. You ask yourself whether it is Cornwall or Eagle Bay or Provincetown. Because what matters most is the mood. I constantly mix up the work of Colwell, Nordfeldt and sometimes Sidney Lee who also trained with Fletcher and worked at St. Ives. What holds them all together (and restricted them) was the method Fletcher insisted on teaching. His excuse was that colour woodcut method was good training for them. The unfortunate result were prints that were constricted by the keyblock, the artful application of ink and general lack of vigour. The artifice exemplified by Whistler's languorous young women lounging about in his Charlotte St. studio had become a burden by 1910 when Cowell was at her most prolific. Fitzrovia is not Chicago's South Side and that is that!



By now you may see my drift. They all of them (given half the chance) wandered from one art colony to another. It didn't matter whether it was the area around Fitzroy St. off Tottenham Court Road in London or St. Ives or the quartier latin, they met the same people and more importantly the same ideas. And the same assumptions too.




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