Sunday, 5 December 2010

Allen Seaby: the later years

Having left London to go and work at Reading, Allen Seaby eventually bought a plot of land at the small place of Tiptoe in Hampshire. Tiptoe lies in the New Forest which still has large areas of common grazing and woodland that make a home for one of the native breeds of pony. It was both the ponies and birdlife that attracted him and he set about building a hut for himself and his family and began recording the wildife all around it.

I would guess he also made trips to Exmoor and Dartmoor and perhaps even as far as Shetland to see the different breeds that lived there. He had become an enthusiast for the conservation of native ponies, believing that 'We can only be sure that our native British ponies are, like ourselves, of Celtic origin'. Surprisingly, in a way, they provided the subject for only three of his colour woodcuts, the one above of the Exmoor breed, the one below for Dartmoor (it's the central section) and Shetland. No doubt he realised he hadn't set himself an easy task, depicting both a herd of ponies and where they lived. He adds a touch of windswept nobilty but they remain nice if uneventful as pictures. He also admitted to the 'agony of composition' so I think picture-making didn't come naturally. Even so, they are intimate and personal in a way some of his other work is not. And this, really, is the aim of the post, to bring out a quieter side to Seaby's work.

If it also brings out his limitations, well, it does. I think the monochrome print of rabbits at the head of the post is a fine piece of work - domestic, unpretentious and wonderfully realised. Urushibara's rabbits are more stylish but much less like actual rabbits than Seaby's. But his landscapes with ponies rely on the keyblock for modelling. He's a wonderful printer and colourist but a conventional draughtsman and they tend towards colour-by-numbers. That said, if I could have the Shetland ponies back that I once sold, I would - though preferably not laid down this time.

This is the Seaby hut at Tiptoe. Perhaps when it was too wet to go out and draw, he stayed inside and wrote because in the early twenties he became a prolific writer. He was particularly well-known for his 'Skewbald' series for children set in the New Forest but also wrote Welsh and Exmoor pony books. He was well aware of the changes in the lives of the ponies. There are stories of wild ponies that are brought onto farms and when they are no longer of use there become beach or circus ponies. Afraid at the time that the native breeds had outlived their usefulness and would die out, he wanted to interest children in the the hope that they would want to ride them.

I think you can just make out that 'Exmoor Lass' was published in 1928. The illustration below is from a Dartmoor series. I have to admit that I've not read any of the books but they have been described as 'rambling and episodic' which just goes to show that the lives of native ponies and bloggers are really quite similar.

There may be other reasons why Seaby began to write so much. It may be as the twenties came to a close even his prints failed to sell. As few of them have dates, for me it's hard to tell where many come in his career. His Dartmoor ponies are certainly from 1927 and for those of you who don't want to lose sight of the Japanese Seaby, a woodcut with a crow and a fox, followed by one of a hare.

'Our ponies' was one of the Puffin Picture book series and it's a shame Seaby didn't get to use lithography for them. This was published in 1949.

He finally published two editions of British Birds and their nests in 1953 and 1954. This was part of a ground-breaking project by Ladybird Books in Britain. Untill then, they had only published in a cheaper format and Seaby was chosen for the obvious first topic to interest children in native wildlife. He was 86 the year of the second edition and I think we can forgive him if he did fall back on a woodcut design.

It's not exactly the same as the cover. But it is close to Walther Klemm's kingfisher of 1913 (see Walther Klemm: a book of birds). It's a fine image, Japanese in feel and more true to a kingfisher than Klemm would be. And this is where his achievement was remarkable. He stayed true to his subject while he approachesd them either with bravura as we saw in the last post or subtlety as we see here. They may all be of animals and perhaps his style became set but he was able to work at different levels. He was pragmatic.

To finish off, here vare the Shetland ponies in their Celtic homeland, what he called 'the high, far and lonely islands'. He was a countryman by adoption but there speaks the native Londoner. And that brings us to Eric Hesketh Hubbard, another Londoner. His version of the New Forest is coming next.


  1. 000 i love the fox and crow one. and i don't think i've seen it before, so thank you!

  2. It'sa pleasure. This one intrigues me so I'm glad you like it, too. As you know, I try not to recycle.

  3. The rabbit looks like an illustration for a children's book, but nonetheless it is absolutely enchanting!

  4. The one in the snow? Is it a rabbit or a hare?

  5. You're right, it's a hare. But gorgeous,anyway.

  6. Hello and thank you for this blog. I have a water colour signed AWS in his usual way, and the style is similar to Seaby - however, I am unable to confirm this. How can I confirm? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    The subject is - the back of a mounted red jacket huntsman holding a riderless horse.
    Kind regards, Neil

  7. I tend to think this is a colour woodcut not a watercolour because I know that Seaby's grandson has a print like that. It is marked AWS in the block then initialled AWS in pencil underneath.

    You could always send me a photo at and I can confirm. Alternatively, if you let me have your e mail, I can send my photo to you for comparison.

    I think that print is rare and nice to have. The initial in pencil is odd. He may have only done a few proofs. I'd be interested to know how you came by it because the one I've seen was left in Seaby's studio after his death.

    Please try and send me a photo as I'd like to see your copy.

    1. Hi,
      I will send over photo/scan to your email.
      please send by return a copy of the woodcut you mention.
      I look forward to your response,
      Kind regards

  8. I have a Seaby colour print of the New Forest Ponies picture above.. These are not Exmoor ponies as stated as are signed in pencil underneath New Forest Ponies on left and his signature on right. Any info on this please.

  9. Yes, there was more than one mistake there. Seaby's pony woodcuts are difficult to sort out but he probably made five if not six. One called 'New Forest ponies' was first exhibited in 1924 but I have a record of another with the same name for 1938. Unfortunately, the person who put the records together is now dead but I think the one shown above is the 1924 image. 'Shetland mares and foals' dates from the same year. They were the first ones he made. It was around the same time he began publishing his pony stories.