Monday, 20 December 2010

The definitive Ethel Kirkpatrick

I need to completely revise the few details I gave about the life of the British artist Ethel Kirkpatrick (1869 - 1966). Needless to say, I haven't changed my view that she fits well within the British topographical tradition, is both a keen and accurate observer, a talented colourist, a skilful woodcutter and, last but not least, has the kind of appeal many modern British printmakers can only dream of.

She was born in Holborn, London, the daughter of Mary and Thomas Sutton Kirkpatrick. Her mother was from Yorkshire, her father a professional soldier from a landed family at Coolmine in Dublin. He had left the army the year she was born and the family eventually moved to Exeter when her father was made governor of the prison and then to Harrow-on-the-Hill near London when he became governor of Newgate. There was an older sister, Ida Kirkpatrick (1866 - 1950) who also became an artist.

Ethel had the broader art education, studying at the RA Schools and the Central School of Arts and Crafts before taking the well-worn path of British artists at the time to the Academie Julien in Paris. Some time after this Ethel moved to St Ives in Cornwall where the artist Lily Kirkpatrick lived and worked and where there was a growing colony of artists. Ethel Kirkpatrick also exhibited in the town.

Ida also moved to St Ives but both sisters moved back to the family home, The Grange at Harrow, in 1906. Ironically, it is still impossible to date much of the work shown here except on the grounds of style and subject. The second image of the woman walking towards the full moon could be a Cornish scene but has a French genre feel to it. Both I would think are early woodcuts. The river scene above, variously described as the Clyde and the Thames, is dated 1911. I think the hills are too close and the river too broad to be the Thames but a work of this skill suggests she had taken up colour woodcut a few years before.

The third image with the windblown hedge may be somewhere like Carbis Bay near St Ives. As she probably used watercolour sketches as a basis for her woodcuts, she could have made them quite a lot later. Even so, she must be one of Morley Fletcher's earlier followers, along with Sidney Lee, and once the two women returned to Harrow they made frequent trips to join the artists at Walberswick in Suffolk. Lee also made a colour print there.

The rocky, hilly coasts I think we can safely say are Cornwall rather than Suffolk and I've included another fine proof of Kirkpatrick's view of Mousehole near Penzance. As a woman of independant means and mind, she travelled elsewhere and I especially like this view below of Venice. It shows just how much she took note of the light in Cornwall. Her Cornish pieces are never as limpid as this.

She could quite obviously ring the changes, both in mood and style as you can see from the second, strikingly expressive view of the city from the lagoon. Even if she did train initially with Frank Morley Fletcher, the way she handles those reflections is closer to Munch. Everything depends on the subtle and brilliant tonality and disparate array of shapes. You can hardly believe it is the same artist whose keen eye apprehended the pilchard boats as they left Mousehole.

Readers will have seen this view of the Thames before as well but this is a better image and will appear in larger format. It is strikingly fresh with all kinds of subtle reflections.

The print below of nesting rooks is still near London. In fact, it's at Harrow-on-the Hill, with what looks like a subtle smoggy dawn. Her mauves are as improbable as they are irresistable. The rooks are also a bit flat and unconvincing but she has top marks for the original bird's eye view. One wonders how she got so close. It shows by just how much her work depends on empathy and imagination.

I think the last two images are later work. The first is a Swiss view, the second is called 'Communication, past and present'. The line is sharper and more modern but the tone alot less sympathetic but we have to acknowledge that she always varied her approach. Boats and colour woodcut may have been great loves, but her style changes.

It's fascinating to see her take on the world of the inter-war years even if the print itself is less appealing - at least for me. And I need to add that I was totally dependant on the London dealers Abbott and Holder for these images. They all come from their Christmas exhibition and some are still for sale: . If you go onto the site, just scroll down to the prints section.


  1. Let me be the first to compliment you on this post. Many never seen before prints and some most welcome commentary on her life and art. On the other side of the Channel contemporary Henri Rivière (1864-1951)did his thing on the French side although to be honest I think he took the art of printing his native Brittany to an even higher level. He was certainly more productive. At least his oevre/works is covered in several publications.

  2. Yes, the French took a professional approach but often end up looking neat and selfconscious. It's the casualness of Kirkpatrick, when she really takes her subject on, that appeals to me; she has that wayward lyricism at her best - so funnily enough she is more Irish than he is Breton. I mean, it's all about expression in the end and not technique. The structures sometimes look awkward but if you look at the shapes and colours as a complete but complex image, the effects she achieves are quite remarkable. Riviere is more like Platt for technical mastery. To me it's carpentry in colours. She doesn't really do that very well.

    Anyway, thank you for your appreciation. When I told Bill Carl I wanted to make her work better known, he suggested an exhibition. This is it.

  3. Charles,
    I absolutely agree with you on the lyrical quality of Kirkpatrick's prints. Especially the print of the lagoon (at the top of your site) and the rooks appeal to me. I wouldn't underestimate Riviere's work, though. It is true that some of his lithographs are rather bloodless. Having said that, there are a number Riviere`s designs that are unsurpassed for their soft colours and lines. They really capture the spirit of the Breton landscape, I think. By the way: as I suggested on Clive's blog, it is very interesting to compare Riviere with the greatest Japanese printmaker as far as landscapes are concerned: Kawase Hasui.
    Have a great holiday!


  4. I remember a friend coming back with one of her Italian lake scenes he had found on Portobello Road and being stunned by the barmy brilliance of it all. Her application of paint is just outrageous. She starts off with the Japanese manner but often throws all caution to the wind once she has the design down. It's all very Virginia Woolf. And, as you know, I think the Japanese influence for some of the freer spirits was more apparent than real but, yes, Riviere is alot like his Japanese contemporaries - much more than Kirkpatrick ever meant to be.

    I only found all this material in the early hours of yesterday morning and didn't really have time to absorb it all. I can't help but feel we have a Celtic fringe follow-up in the offing.

    But the key point is this: you are now the third member of the Ethel Kirkpatrick Society and we hope to see you on the summer pilgrimage to St Ives, weather permitting.

  5. i've only found so few of her images before, and none of these... so thank you!

  6. Exquisite images, and your biography does her memory a great justice. Her sense of colour is the true hero in her works, because she uses colour to convey life, season and depth. That skill is something a few women printmakers captured and did well, and a few men also, but in general it is the strength of the British printmakers. This post is the final word on her I suspect. Merry Christmas

  7. Please return to the Cornwall Artists' Index where you will find a yet more updated version of the family history for Ida and Ethel, and another update for Lily - who was not a sister, though possibly (and probably) a relative. Over the holidays I have benefitted greatly from communication with family descendants of the Kirkpatrick artists, and now have a clearer biographical picture (though your art critique is great!! I am now a follower & will join the Kirkpatrick Society with the other 3.
    Happy New Year

  8. Welcome to the Ethel Kirkpatrick Society, Melissa, and thank you for the update. I really should have credited you at the Index but got rather carried away. No excuse, I know, but please accept my belated thanks. I was surprised no one else appeared to have made use of your tremendous resource.

  9. Well it is easy to get carried away, I scrolled through the images again, and they are really extraordinary. The sisters are certainly deserving of far greater recognition and celebration, and I think your postings go some way to correcting that.

  10. Well, I hope so. Many of these images are new to all of us so we've had the chance to take a fresh look at Kirkpatrick and what she could do.

  11. Hi!! Where i can found Lily Kirkpatrick's paints? I'm studying art and i'd like to see her works on web because i came from Itlay!! Tkensssssssssssssss ;)

  12. Hi Alex, There are two posts on Modern Printmakers about Kirkpatrick's watercolours, one called 'Ethel Kirkpatrick and watercolour' not surprisingly and the other 'Ethel Kirkpatrick and isola san Giorgio Maggiore'. Sorry I can't include the links but just google those titles and you will get there.

  13. mmmm thank you so much but i can't see Lily's works but just the works of her sister

  14. Very sorry. I can see now you were asking about Lily not Ethel! They were not sisters but probably cousins. I don't think I have ever seen anything by Lily. Cornwall Artists Index might be able to help. They have a website.

    1. There is one nice Lily Kirkpatrick landscape on Arcadia. Just google her.