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.


  1. that last one is such a favorite of mine, though i would love to see her water lily in something bigger than a thumbnail.

  2. I agree. It has an Indian feel to it, it's like chintz. Plus I love the version of the tulips Bill Carl had.

  3. Lovely tribute to an underrated artist. Thanks.

  4. I notice there six a Mabel Royds prints (all in one lot) coming up for sale at Dominic Winter's sale on 2 feb.

  5. Thanks, David, I shall look.

    I also like the look of your new blog. It complements Modern Printmakers nicely.

    (Just click on David's name to see).