Thursday, 2 December 2010

Allen Seaby (1867 - 1953): a sort of magic

AW Seaby was a sort of late Victorian. A Londoner by birth, he must have trained as a painter but where no one seems to know. What is certain is this: he moved to Reading in Berkshire where he fell under the spell of Frank Morley Fletcher (1866 - 1950) who was a teacher at the university college. Or he may already have trained under Fletcher, who was only a year older, at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. It wasn't the classic student/teacher relationship, which says alot about the rapid development of colour printing in Britain at the time. Like Ethel Kirkpatrick, he started as a painter but understood the opportunities that colour woodcut provided.

Fletcher is the ghost in the machine - both for this blog and others. He is famous for reading T Tokuno's article 'Japanese wood-cutting and wood-cut printing' (published by the Smithsonian in 1894) and then joining up with John Dickson Batten, to teach themselves how to make woodcuts using the Japanese method himself. This involved using cherry wood blocks, applying a watercolour based ink with a brush, printing without a press etc but neithern were so keen on Japanese style. If Morley Fletcher was quick to adapt, like other Londoners before him, Seaby had a good eye for character. In his case, he leant his considerable printmaking talents to birdlife. Personally, I've never been keen on his birds in flight but the secretive, searching behaviour of the ones here appeal very strongly. But then he was a naturalist. He knew them what they were like.

He obviously worked very hard and was well-thought of because by 1908 many of his early prints had been bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 'Printmaking' as he put it, 'is a sort of magic very captivating to many minds'. This is true of his work. A Seaby impression in good condition has a brilliant, subtle surface and it isn't hard to imagine his own wonder as he pulled the prints. I have chosen close-ups because they show the sheer quality of his brushwork and the almost casual details. This makes him very much the late Victorian aesthete.

After becoming professor of Fine Art at Reading in 1920, he began to write. He obviously knew a great deal about different subjects. In one of is early books, 'Colour printing with linoleum and woodblocks' (1925) he says this about the making of colour prints: 'Wood is obviously superior to linoleum in many ways... Those who wish to take the craft seriously as a means of artistic expression should certainly use wood'. You have to assume that if he knew what the fashion department at the Vienna Workshops or, even worse, the members of Die Brucke were up to (see previous post), he chose to ignore it. He was an individualist and emphatically not a modernist. Interesting as well that his own grandson, Robert Gillmor (b 1936) is a notable contemporary linocutter. It's even more interesting that many of his books were for children, or teachers. Gillmor describes the memorable experience of seeing his grandfather at work in the studio and he had learned enough to publish his own work at the age of sixteen. Seaby's prints, like his birds, are innocent.

He observed children. As he says himself, the prints here are the very opposite of what they tend to do. His birds fill up the picture space in the way Japanese birds do; children are in the habit of drawing little people in big worlds (my paraphrase). He's the high art paternalist but can we blame him when he produces such beautifully sensational images as these? And from 1928 onwards, he began publishing his four volumes of 'Art in the life of mankind'. I have to say it sounds more Germanic than Japanese. In fact, when he draws or paints there is nothing Japanese about him at all. And when he tries figure subjects, the results are not always good. He produced an 'Adoration' where the attitudes of all concerned are very hackneyed indeed.

That image is stuck on my old pc - fortunately, in many ways - otherwise I would have shown it in the next post. Because I haven't finsished with AWS and his varied career just yet. There is more to him than birds. There are also rabbits and ponies.


  1. I am already looking forward to your next informative posting. The pictures shown aren't seen often and of great quality too. A shame there is no biography or book on this very infuential british artist and his art and his pupils. Your (and the Aesthete's) writings inspiring others I've noticed.
    The friendly ghost

  2. It's blog eat blog. But I think all the art bloggers need to give each other a bit of lee way, Gerrie.

    As for AWS, glad you like the selection. At least with Seaby, there is a choice. These were very much set pieces for him. The next lot will be more personal and low-key.