Friday, 12 November 2010

Frank Morley Fletcher: Woodblock Printing, 1916

Probably the closest any of us of very modest means will get to owning a colour woodcut like this one is a copy of Morley Fletcher's small handbook, Woodblock Printing. Not only was Morley Fletcher (1866 - 1949) a superb printmaker, for many years he also had a successful teaching career based on his practical knowledge of woodblock printing in the Japanese manner. Beginning with classes at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts, he progressed to University College, Reading where Allen Seaby (1867 - 1953) was also a teacher. 1907 to 1923 saw him director of Edinburgh College of Art where both Mabel Royds (1874 - 1941) and John Platt (1866 - 1947) were on the staff. In 1916 John Hogg published the first edition of his primer.

If you can find a copy of the book for sale, you also acquire this small print because it was included as an exemplar in each copy. The book was so successful it was reprinted by Pitman with the print below acting as exemplar. Interestingly enough, this second edition includes advertisements for pigments and tools. I can only assume the first book had had an effect. Fletcher left Edinburgh in 1924 to take up the post of first school director of the School of the Arts at Santa Barbara. He stayed there till 1930.

And just in case anyone should doubt a student could learn a technique as complex as Japanese woodcut from a handbook, Steven Hutchins, a dealer specialising in Japanese woodblock prints, once did exactly that. He also produced two very passable prints. A good deal is also made of Morley Fletcher's innovations and while I don't wish to belittle his significant work as a teacher, Emil Orlik went to Japan to study printmaking at the same time that Fletcher and John Dixon Batten (1860 - 1932) were experimenting in London. (Orlik's early career is summarised in an October posting). Unlike FMF, he didn't make a career out of woodcut but dropped them before the first war - Orlik was also a wonderful portrait etcher. Either you have it or you don't.


  1. Short and to the point Charles. Am I to assume you choose Orlik over Fletcher? I think certainly the later works by Fletcher show a man stretching his wings, and perhaps the dramatic landscapes of the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains, as well as the dramatic Lost Coast of California did something to him. It sure as hell blew the cobwebs out of his printing.

  2. We take note because Fletcher is pivotal but I've never really looked at him that hard for years because he doesn't appeal that much. Also in many ways he is a gallery artist not someone you pick up along the way. You have talked about his later prints before and I have to admit I am very sketchy about them. I shall check 'Art & the Aesthete'.

    Orlik appeals to me but readers of 'Modern Printmakers' appear to have voted with their feet and don't share my enthusiasm. I am at a loss.

  3. Oh fear not Charles,the less interest the more for us, however poor souls like you and I who love our art where we can see them (I just did the new-art's-a-comin' wall shuffle)suffer a problem. The problem is that the only other people we compete against are institutions and dealers.
    Fletcher is dry and his works are, sadly, predictable. He was I think less interesting even than a gallery artist, I think he was an academic in both approach and philosophy and it comes through in his print work. As you know, I much prefer William Giles, just for his sense of balance and his play of colour. Giles is a garden party in Spring, Fletcher is onion soup in the kitchen.