Saturday 29 January 2011

Paul Leschhorn: master of light

Of all the German colour woodcut artists, Paul Leschhorn (1876 - 1951) was one of the most sensitive and serious. In some ways he is also one of the most elusive. He was born in Metz where his father had moved from Saarbrucken - not very far but a move that was to have repercussions all through his son's life. Georg Leschhorn had come to this new western province only after the end of the Franco-Prussian war (1870 - 1871). He was a hydraulic engineer with a talent for drawing and at the age of seventeen Paul duly became a student at the school of applied arts in Strasbourg. This led to his first career as a decorative painter.
This wasn't an unusual start for someone who was eventually to become a full-time artist. Schools of arts and crafts, like the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, had been opening in emulation of the South Kensington school in London. The emphasis was on the study of all the arts of the past but as you see from these colour woodcuts, Leschhorn eventually made a complete break from C19th historicism even though he became a great collector of oriental art himself. From about 1900, when he wasn't working, he began to make trips across the Vosges on skis - trips that eventually provided the subject for his colour prints. It was also at this time he began a second two-year course at Strasbourg. He also went on to study etching in Karlsruhe but, as so often with other colour wooodcut artists, no one seems to know where he learned to make woodcuts. On the evidence of his drawings and paintings, he wasn't a particularly good draughtsman - this may be one reason why he changed tack - but the prints he began to make after 1908 have a sense of varying light and atmosphere that are his own and quite unique. He often shares the same woodland subjects with his German contemporary Hans Neumann (1873 - 1957) but ironically for someone who trained as a decorative artist, it is Leschhorn's lack of decorativeness that makes him better than Neumann. In the next generation Oscar Droege (1898 - 1982) described the same atmospheric landscapes. But again, I don't think he ever equalled Leschhorn.
In his colour prints, everything that happens is subordinate to the landscape and the particular kind of light he wants to describes. There are no cheap thrills. He constantly uses a subtle sense of recession, especially between trees, and very delicate printing to evoke a time of day or year. The snow is there not because it is easy to do for a woodcut artist but to reflect the light. It's rarely pure; it's almost always shaded. Superficially, he has only two related subjects for his colour prints - snowy mountains and snowy forests. You would never think that he had travelled in Corsica or Morocco. But I think the real subject is the nature of light itself. Looking at all these images, one after the other, the mountains and trees are very similar; it's the light that shifts. He's particularly good when it comes to distance and the darkening light of winter eg in the valley scene above and also the farm seen across the lake. Here is someone who very much likes what he represents and finds nothing oppressive in either isolation or gloom.
Then as war approached again in 1938, he and his wife Anna left Strasbourg for the safety of Frankfurt - a second very fateful move. They had taken 180 woodcuts with them and these were left in the city when they returned to the Alsace in 1941. But in 1944 the couple were forced to flee once again. In Frankfurt, much of his work had been destroyed during Allied bombing. This time they left for the Bodensee/Lake Constance. It is alot harder to date any of his prints. The approach is remarkably consistent. As a late developper, if you like, he was sufficiently mature when he began printmaking in his thirties to know what was of interest to him. There are few buildings, not many roads and the print below is the only one I have come across to have a person. As he never uses a keyblock, figures would always prove a touch awkward to model. The figure here does tend to look like it is stuck on even though he makes every attempt to relate it to the slope and the view beyond. And in terms of biography, it is very interesting to see the lone skier. But the snow-patterned pines are both three dimensional and more rewarding. As someone said to many years ago about his trees 'they're quite abstract'. He is both more modern and more realistic than he at first appears to be.
Regular visitors to this blog (if they have put up with me thus far) will by now have recognised the tone of adulation. This appraisal is in fact a re-post. I don't think I really did Leschhorn that much justice in the earlier posts (now deleted). Also I have recently turned up other work by him that was new to me and this gave me a much better idea of what he was doing. And you do have to see how consistent he was to appreciate what that was. As with Kenneth Broad, his subject was important to him, and he varied his approach with subtlety. I also finally tackled the google translation of the website dedicated to the artist by his descedants. proved invaluable to understanding his life a little and will also provide an easier view of things if you read German. If you don't, there are lots of pictures. (If the link doesn't work, google it). It's easy enough to say that an artist is underated if you're a fan but the proof of this lies in the ebay price for the lone skier only last October, I think - a really rather desultory 120€. Times surely can't be that hard in Germany.
Nor did I intend this post to be an antidote to Kenneth Broad but I did want to look at someone who was equally absorbed by his subject matter but went about things in a very different way. Broad is also good on light but Leschhorn works with a scrutiny and control. The range of colour is remarkably restricted - almost as much as his subject matter. He hardly ever distracts you; he only asks that you do one thing: look, and also concentrate: the message of a master, however small.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Town & country: Kenneth Broad (1889 - 1959)

The more colour woodcuts I see by Kenneth Broad, the more I like what he was doing. Here are five prints, including two or three readers may not have seen. Three of them are currently for sale (the site details you'll find below) but I'm starting off with 'The circus, Southwold' kindly sent in by David. This really sums up what interested Broad - the temporary nature of the circus and the fairground, popular pastimes, vacant skies and a patchwork of gentle tones. A piece like this is far more telling and realistic than Hesketh Hubbard who deals in very similar imagery. Ironically, Broad's images themselves look rather static but he often paints with a more dynamic brush for sky and ground. This print was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1922 and may mark the start of his woodcut career.
Following on is 'A Breton Fair',one of his best fairground scenes. Apart from the fact that the people in the crowd are too small for the people in the foreground, this is strikes me as accomplished . The range of tones - the ochres and shades of pink and especially the lemons are wonderfully done. And again we have the delicate blues setting them off. 'A Sussex Farm' dates from around 1925 and he went on producing colour woodcuts untill the mid thirties when he became president of the society.
He was born at Stamford Brook in the west of London and went on to train at the Westminster School of Art. A number of the prints I have seen are London subjects and I don't think any other of his colour woodcut contemporaries was quite so meticulous about crowds. These scenes of his are as subtle as the colours he uses; they hint at both the countryside, with their fairs set up on commonland or even his street market (not shown here) and also at something seasonal. There is always a tree somewhere, often recognisable. In 'A Sussex Farm' there are elms; the tree in a 'The New Fair, Mitcham' below looks like a poplar. He may be a Londoner, with a Londoner's liking for crowds, but he can also tell one tree from another. He also uses them to let us know what time of year it is.
Once he had trained, he became articled to a firm of architects and eventually set up in a practice in Bloomsbury. St Martin's in the Fields, which was only ten or fifteen minutes walk from his office, is the most architectural piece I have come across, but all the prints have a great deal of less obvious architecture. His imagination not only works round C18th churches, it also includes tents, cottages, caravans, even hoardings. His prints are very strong on structures and I very much suspect he spent time in the National Gallery, which you can see above to the left, looking at Paolo Uccello's 'Battle of San Romano'. There is nothing insignificant about Broad's details; the painted posts in the fairground below are reminiscent of Uccello's lances. (The range of colours in the first print and Uccello's painting are also remarkably similar). It also a great crowd scene (as battles tend to be) and for all the downbeat 1920s urbanism in Broad, there is still something of the student who was sent in to study the artists of the past. Broad is often busy but he also has depth.
As with Ethel Kirkpatrick, I think he comes to colour woodcut with the British topographical tradition behind him. Like her, he also used watercolour. Unlike her, he went in for stripes, struts, columns, lamposts, telegraph poles - he carefully divides his pictures up. I suppose what I really like about him is that he is specific. You can work out the time of year and even the time of day he is describing. He quietly observes the whole environment. He may not be modernist but he is thorough - he enjoys the details. It beats me that anyone as interesting as he is, could have been forgotten the way he was. Perhaps the real problem is that you need to see a number of his prints together, for him to begin to make real sense. It's because he is specific that you need to see them all. And, of course, Uccello. [ Fittingly, all the three prints are for sale in London or nearby. The first fairground print is at ; Grosvenor Prints in London have St Martin in the Fields, complete with water damage but fairly priced ; finally and also in London, with the New Fair, Mitcham I am grateful to all of them.]

Friday 21 January 2011

The how & why of Mabel Royds (1874 - 1941)

It is sometimes said that Mabel Royds 'studied under Tonks at the Slade'. This may well be true, or it may be a factoid. But what it roughly means is this: Henry Tonks (1862 - 1937) a surgeon turned artist took charge of the reknowned life-class at the Slade School of Art in London in 1893, and it was this life-class that was to have a lasting effect on the work of Royds.

At the Slade she learned to draw; their new emphasis was on rapidity, the training of memory, study of the old masters and drawing from life and Royds kept up the habits she had acquired at art school, making studies in oils, like this one of Benares, and carrying her sketchpad everywhere from Tangier to Tibet. And I think this helps to explain why her prints were so accomplished - she may not have been a brilliant draughtswoman but she could draw.

At the Slade she had learned how to construct a drawing and build up its tones but as with so many of her talented contemporaries, she then went to Paris. There is the influence of Toulouse Lautrec in this early colour woodcut of the circus but very few people applied the experience of the life-class so directly to their prints. The image of extension, of her subjects making their way across the whole picture plane, is also one that is dominant in alot of her work.

After teaching in Canada, in 1911 she went to work at Edinburgh College of Art where Frank Morley Fletcher was director. She worked alongside the painters SJ Peploe and JD Fergurson and in 1913 married another teacher, the etcher ES Lumsden. On their honeymoon they travelled to Paris, Florence, Rome and Bombay via Port Said. Her Indian colour woodcuts date from a later stay.

Following the outbreak of war, Lumsden was rejected by the British Army and the couple left Edinburgh and returned to India where he was accepted by the Indian Army. The colour woodcuts she later produced depend on the copious drawings and sketches she made as they travelled in India and Tibet. But behind it all, we still see the effects of that life-class, whether it was Alphonse Legros or Henry Tonks that taught her. (Legros, a thorough-going draughtsman, would have been professor there if she had attended in her mid teens, around 1880).

Childhood is an underlying and often subtle theme - the circus, for instance. Sometimes there are direct studies of her daughter Marjorie, born just before they left India, or we have episodes from the life of Christ. Her urgent 'Flight into Egypt' is one, the ominous carpenter's workshop is another.

Wherever you look, it is the muscularity of things and the underlying structures that move her. Her sense of colour and the glamorous application of paint, particularly in her the later flower prints (1933 - 1938), would be nowhere near as effective without them.

The Indian series date from 1920 to 1930 but probably most people's preference is for that final glorious series. No reproduction does them justice. Attractive as the jug of flowers is below, the sheer freshness and vitality of her foxgloves and waning tulips, once she has applied the paint, is quite unlike anything else in British printmaking.

There are not many artists or writers to find a convincing lyricism later in life and the prints are all the more exceptional for that.

Henry Tonks once advised a student to spend less time looking at Aubrey Beardsley's 'Yellow Book' and more time in the National Gallery. I'm not sure which book Mabel Royds had been looking at when she made this print of magnolias but it breathed life and colour, that's for sure.

I need to credit William P Carl Fine Prints in the US for the print of tulips (it is sold) and the Goldmark Gallery at Uppingham in the UK for the three paintings.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

The two Kirkpatrick sisters

I need to point out an error in 'The definitive Ethel Kirkpatrick' post - an over-confident title as it turns out. A niece of Kirkpatrick wrote to me while I was away pointing out that Lily Kirkpatrick was not a sister of Ida and Ethel and I shall be amending the post. I also want to thank the family for contacting me so promptly and offer them my apologies.