Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bernard Rice (1900 - 1998): the Bosnian woodcuts

Some artists find the environment that makes them what they are; for Bernard Rice that place was Bosnia. He was born in Innsbruck only 21 year after the occupation of the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzogovina by Austria-Hungary. His father, also Bernard, was a maker of stained glass and Rice learned the craft of glass-making with him but also attended art school in Innsbruck (1915 - 1918). It was there he began to learn woodcut. (The family were not repatriated untill 1919). Frustratingly, I never met Rice but I now suspect he knew Bosnia before he left Austria. He began his adult training at the Westminster School of Art in London, followed by the Royal Academy Schools. Presumably, he studied drawing and painting because he painted later in life. He left London in 1922 to teach furniture design in a craft school in Bosnia, by then part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia. For a twenty-two year old, he already had a wide range of skills and he immediately began to put them to use.

He settled in the village of Vlasenica in eastern Bosnia some miles to the north-east of Sarajevo and many of his most memorable prints feature the snow-bound village and its inhabitants (fewer than 2,000). Not content with printmaking in this remote little country, he set about making his own blocks. But not just any blocks. For the one below of Travnik (in central Bosnia) he used limewood, a notably soft wood and quite different from the very hard boxwood his English contemporaries were using for their engravings. You can see the typically open, undulating grain of the limewood at the top of the print - he would have had to lower the block very slightly to have achieved that effect. Of course, not only that, he had pinned the planks in such a way that the gaps between showed as unprinted lines. This may have started out to some extent as truth to materials but he was also affected by the strict divisions of images used by stained glass artists. It's this adaptation of the technique that really is the remarkable thing. It shows someoneone with an unconventional imagination, to say the least, and also someone who was quite ready to throw out the rule-book, which I am pretty sure he had off by heart.

The minarets, tower and lines all combine as if the structures are suspended on cotton. At the bottom of the print you can see more of the gentle lowering of surface to achieve, which gives it the feel of mezzotint. Of course, this treatment would require equally individual printing. In fact, block preparation, cutting and printing are combined by Rice into works quite unlike any others in British printmaking. The do-it-yourself ethos is quite close to that of Eric Gill and his followers who began to move to the Sussex village of Ditchling after 1912 but the end result is basically central European. You can see Vlasenica in the woodcut below with its woven fences and haystacks, though cut is not quite the right word because Rice combines cutting and engraving in one and the same print.

The houses are better defined in the print below. You can see here they are made of wood and almost certainly thatched. Nor do I think you could tell that he had broken another cardinal rule here, the print being only a central section of a much larger work. He did this at least three times - in 'Podgorica', 'Vlasenica' and 'Travnik' (you can see a rather over-exposed photo of the big 'Travnik' below). I have to say this is one of my favourite prints. It doesn't have to be great but I have to say again that reproduction doesn't do it any justice. The effect of the printed areas against the wonderful handmade paper is magical - as all good prints need to be. What made me leave this print in the print box at Ayres on Museum St in London, I do not know; inexperience, I should think, and not being quite sure what to make of Rice at the time. Nevertheless, it came into my possession one fine day and many years later. It doesn't try hard, the organisation of black, white and line appears effortless. What he wanted to get across was the place, his numerous skills in the end are quite subordinate to what he obviously thinks is a marvellous subject. But my reaction then was a typical one. If it hadn't been for the writer and printmaker Albert Garret and his very untidy book and the London dealer Jonathan Blond, Rice would have been left disregarded in his Chelsea studio. The print establishment were bemused, or sniffy about his Bosnian woodcuts. Not easy to categorise - and they also probably saw things they just didn't care for.

We come now to my latest acquisition (it arrived two days ago). I am far from beyond making criticisms of Rice. There is often something I find irritating or dubious about his prints - the sketchy Serbian spruce and smoky printing in 'The Mill' (top) is annoying. Some of them I feel entirely dubious about. But this has no faults or far-fetched technique. It is quite different in both feel and scale to the previous one and is the only engraving he made on boxwood hence the small size. The relationship between the buildings, orchards, stacks and surrounding hills is one of considerable intimacy and isolation.

As a dismal addendum to this post, I need to say that only two villages like Vlasenica survived the civil war: Lukomir, which you see below, and another hamlet, are in the mountains to the south of Sarajevo near the boundary of the Federation and Republika Srpska. As you can see many have lost their wooden shingles and don't have the same Ottoman overhangs and plaster. You shouldn't assume that all the buildings are habitations. Some of the smaller ones are a combination of barn and byre (cowshed). I should also say these two places, like Rice's prints, are a precious part of the Bosnian patrimony.

Rice returned to London to study at the Royal College of Art in 1926. (No doubt he was in Malcolm Osborne's etching class). He married in 1927 and returned to Bosnia for another year. There were also exhibitions at the Chenil Gallery (1925) and the St George's Gallery (1926). It is now hard to work out what his reputation was then. He was certainly selling because the prints turn up, especially his images of Travnik. But many of the smaller prints are very scarce. Significantly, some of the prints I own have never been framed, always a big plus, mainly because their condition is so good.

He left for Cairo in 1929 to teach both wood and copper engraving, etching and fresco, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Sometimes I think he had too many skills for his own good. He left Cairo in 1939 and after the second war, taught wood engraving and drawing to sculptors at the Sir John Cass School (1949 - 1952). Work in other mediums does turn up, but not much. He made one very large print called 'Rammuda' on cotton. I even have a tablecloth he designed with Chinese style horses. His darker experiments (not included here) often seem to lack conception and rarely make satisfying images but he probed the ambiguities. The figure studies in particular are certainly not to contemporary taste and I can understand why Rice doesn't appeal to everyone. No matter. For me, there is only one issue: the next print, just around the corner. What else will it say about this rather extraordinary man and his sympathies?


  1. Thank you Charles for again introducing a relatively unknown (to me) but wonderful artist. Comparing the two Travnik prints I am curious about the dimensions. Either the planks are quite small or the prints are rather big. Bernard was, besides a master of the cutting knife, also handy with the saw too which he appearently used to create the smaller of the two compositions.

  2. Good points, Gerrie, but Rice didn't take a saw to the large block because it was reprinted by Sasa Marinkov about a couple of years before he died. (There was an exhibtions of both the old and new editions).

    My copy of the larger print is inscribed '13/35 Town Travnik Bosnia' and is 42 x 36.5 cm ie quite large. He wasn't consistent with his titles and this one was shorthand. It comes from 1925 and my assumption is that it was exhibited in London the following year and sold well so he decided to do a second edition. 35 is a small number for a work he put so much time into.

    The smaller of the two is inscribed '8/40 Travnik Bosnia'. The numbers obviously went on earlier because they are in finer pencil. How he went about blanking out the unwanted areas I don't know but the edge is sharper than a block would be. A mystery. The paper though was British laid and is nicely aged.

    Interestingly, the large print is in the original twenties frame from Ryman's of Oxford so he was obviously being sold through dealers. I am tempted to take it out and have a look.

    The variety of cuts and printed effects is very rewarding.

    Anyway, I'm glad you like Rice. You must have one.

  3. I forgot to say most of the planks are just over 26 mm. He aligned the grain at the top with great care. They represent the slopes of mountains behind the town.

    His view of Tranik isn't actually possible so far as I can make out. He moved and telescoped but many of the details still exist. I am pretty sure he used El Greco's 'View of Toledo' as a model. I think he had thought about what it was like to belong to different places.

  4. Dear Mr Clarke. You have solved my puzzle! Some years ago my father gave me a large print on silk entitled Rammuda And since then I have been trying to find out who it was by.Now I know!When I was A child it hung in my grandmothers house and was then passed on to my uncle and thence to my father.I remember Bernard Rice most vividly. As we were growing up he was often in our house in Chelsea and was a longtime friend of my fathers who was also A printmaker by the name of Frank Martin
    Yours Mel Martin

  5. Fascinating stuff, Mel, and only too pleased I could be of use. Things like this really do make the blog worthwhile. I knew that Rice still had a studio in Chelsea when I began collecting his work in the 1980s.

    I think Rammuda must be pretty rare! My information comes from John Buckland Wright's book on printmaking where I think part of the work is illustrated. I wonder of he printed images on both cotton and silk. If you have any other information or reminisences, please do write to me

    Did you know he painted the portrait of the actor Paul Eddington? It was featured in the Guardian or Observer many years ago.

  6. Dear sir,
    Thank you so much for this very important post, i did send some questions about Rice on your mail:
    Please check it, and it will be graet if i will find further data from your side, or from other specialists on this valuable blog.
    Best Regards

  7. Dear Gordon,
    I just want to announce my gratitude here publicly.
    And as I said in my book dedication page: "To my friend Gordon Clarke, for his great effort exerted, and the good spirit he show when providing me with the scientific material and rare photographs, documenting some of the most important works and the events of Rice's life".
    Thank you Gordon, my book owed you so much.
    Bernard Rice: The Unknown Father of Egyptian Printmaking
    "برنارد رايس: الأب المجهول للجرافيك المصري".
    Your friend
    Yasser Mongy


  9. Thanks very much, Yasser. It was the least I could do, particularly when so many people have ben generous with me.

    The link is invalid but people will probably find their way there.

  10. I am delighted to see a re-appraisal of our dear friend's work.
    He was bright, active,gracious, intelligent and a wonderful man whom we still miss.
    We knew Bernard in his latter years 1980-90s.
    De developed a special' secret' technique in his early wood cuts that resembled an aquatint. These works entered the BMs print collection.
    This technique is particularly evident in the early Venetian studies.
    We also have an early print of the Bosnian Peasants dancing and a large later wood cut of St Marks Square in which he added gold leaf to the black print.

    We are delighted on the publication of biography and hope that his work will become acknowledged once again.

    Paolo Guidi

  11. You are fortunate to have such rare work by him. I didn't even know he had made woodcuts of Venice. It's a shame that you didn't see the post untill after Yasser Mongy had published the book. I'm sure he would have been very interested.

    If you wanted to send any images you have to, I could always post them on the blog. I assume you have seen the other posts about him on Modern Printmakers.

  12. I knew Bernard Rice during the 60s, 70s and early 80s. He lived in a studio in Millman Street overlooking Moravian Close where my great aunt lived. She was the artist and medallist Mary Gillick. She had arthritis in her later years and he helped he with the plasticine work to build up the profiles. He always admired her skill and said whatever he did she would come along with the magic touch to make it better. I used to visit him for tea when I was in London and loved his stories and exploits as well as his 'positive' views. He would not compromise his art....I have 2 woodcuts by him and he also painted a lovely portrait of my sister as a child. He had a partner Flora...I wondered what happened to her

    1. You know, I think you might be one of the two people who met a friend of mine called Alan Guest one day at the old Queen St cafe during the eighties and gave him Bernard Rice's address. At the time Ann Stevens at the Ashmolean (who died quite recently) thought about holding an exhibition, but nothing happened till Jonathan Blond held his some years later.

      Although his work isn't universally popular, I still get more mail and comments about him than about any other artist, including one recently from some who had found a very rare woodcut in a charity shop.

      He was very much an individualist but I get the impression from people who write in that he was equally sociable.

      There are a number of other posts about him on the blog. It's a shame you didn't contact me before the book was published in Cairo.

      If you could get in contact with Jonathan Blond, he would probably know about Flora.

  13. I don't think it was me....I was an unworldly teenager who just accidentally knew Bernard through my aunt and loved his company and eccentricities. I never thought about his art at the time but I now really appreciate it.

  14. Hi

    I thought I would contact you as Molly, who married Bernard, was my Great Aunt. I still have several paintings and prints.


  15. Hi Nick,

    I know very little about Bernard's life apart from the various places he lived and worked. He was still alive when I first became interested and had a studio in Chelsea but I never met him. I assume your great aunt Molly had died by then. As you can see, there are still people around who look after his work and remember him.

    Unfortunately, he missed a great opportunity while still alive when Anne Stevens considered arranging an exhibition of his prints at the Ashmolean. Now they are both dead, alas.

    Which prints do you own? If there were new ones to the internet, I could always do another post. You can always contact me at

  16. How exciting it was to see Bernard's wood blocks again! I used to visit him regularly in Chelsea and he once did a portrait of me. I also met Flora many times and liked her so much. Bernard was a famous sight in Chelsea riding his bike to Waitrose, ageless and always about to return to his beloved Bosnia - for the twenty years I knew him this was about to happen at any moment.....(I don't think he went much further than the King's Road, but for twenty years his return to Bosnia was talked of daily...) He was always kind and had such wonderful eyes, full of dreams of the past. Flora looked after him devotedly..Thank you for delightful reminder of him.

  17. The enthusiasm that people feel for Bernard Rice and his work is remarkable. And I am so pleased this post acted as a reminder. Someone above asked what happened to Flora. Do you happen to know?

  18. Does anyone know if the book 'Bernard Rice: the unknown father of Egyptian printmaking' is still available for sale anywhere?

    Tim Jones

    1. The impression I got from what Yasser Mongy said here was that the book is in Arabic but I can look for his email if you would like it.

  19. My husband found a framed print today by this artist it is called Bosnian mill. It is numbered 1/30 we hadn't heard of this artist before. Can you tell me if this has any value.

    1. Hi Sue,

      I assume it isn't the woodcut of the ruined mill at the top of this post. Is that right?

      Without seeing the print, it is hard to put any value on it. It depends of size, rarity and condition. If you could send me an image to, I could give you more of an idea. Also if you want to sell, just let me know. I like his work but not everybody does and generally it isn't all that rare for work from the 1920s. The sixth print down is currently for sale at £120 but a dealer would offer a lot less than that.