It takes imagination nowadays to recall just how completely forgotten many British printmakers of the early C20th really were. The effects of the collapse of the over-heated printmarket in the late 1920s and the second war were bad enough for them. But worse were the doctrinaire attitudes that wafted round the twin gods of abstraction and experimentation from the 1950s onwards. Of all those artists, no one lapsed more thoroughly than the hapless Claughton Pellew (1890 - 1962).
I first came across him in The Studio about 1983 or 1984. I remember being astonished and captivated by The Squirell, astonished not just because I'd never heard of him but because no one knew anything about him. Even Albert Garret, with his infuriating but invaluable History of Wood Engraving, didn't mention him once. I could hardly have known, as I conscientiously made note of this intensely individual artist, that down in Oxfordshire Anne Stevens was assiduously building a collection of his wood-engravings. As a volunteer in the print room at the Ashmolean Museum, it became part of her role to organise yearly exhibitions and Pellew finally began to receive his due in 1987. For me it was perhaps one of the most telling events of the revivalist flood that was so much a feature of that decade.
Born in Redruth in Cornwall, he spent the earlier part of his childhood in Canada (his father was a mining engineer). Nevertheless reviewing a second exhibition in Brighton in 1990, John Russell Taylor had this to say: ' Pellew touches on a number of interesting and unexpected aspects of English art between the wars'. Generally, the Cornish don't strike me as particularly English, specially when they have spent their childhood in Canada. But there you are, this artist of almost unique sensibility and sensitivity did train under Henry Tonks and Wilson Steer at the Slade and the thoroughness of that training is evident in all the prints here. I think one faculty they did value was memory. It wasn't just that they considered draughtsmanship to be important but they taught students both to look and to remember what they had seen.
What Claughton Pellew saw were subjects underpinned by lyricism and faith. Like a number of British artists before the first war, he had become a Roman Catholic and this had led him to register as a conscientious objector after general conscription in 1916 and this in turn led him to prison, the final one almost unbelievably being the notorious Dartmoor. John Nash believed that Pellew never recovered from his experiences and left him with a permanent sense of isolation. Be that as it may, Pellew and his wife, the artist Emma Tennant, went to live on the north-east coast of Norfolk and never left there. As for me, I think his conscientiousness was played out beautifully in his wood-engravings. He also painted and only began engraving in 1923 but as you see here, he approached almost every print with a subtle originality that makes many of his contemporaries look basically complacent. Unlike Bernard Rice, whose experiments didn't always come off, Pellew took on a range of subjects and designs that belie the visionary Romantic manner.
Look at how different these prints are, how varied the cutting is, see how well he handles a tremendous range of blacks, white and greys and take it from me that the impression of his cutting when you see it in front of you, is considerable. In exactly the same way that it is easy to compare engravings like these to the ink and sepia drawings Samuel Palmer made in the 1820s, it is equally true that, like Palmer's drawings, these prints by Pellew are highly skilled. The images are so appealling, we tend to forget just how well-made they are. He approached everything he did with seriousness. And, as so often, with truly serious people, he was shy and self-effacing. He might have designed the cover for the 1930 Christmas number of the Radio Times (it was carol singers) but these beautifully considered images are about as far from our television times as you can get.