Thursday, 3 March 2011

The itinerants of Arthur Rigden Read

No one seems to know very much about the British printmaker and watercolour painter Arthur Rigden Read (1879 - 1955). He was born in Bermondsey and presumably grew up there. It's a working class area on the south bank of the Thames in London but unlike his fellow Londoners, SG Boxsius and Kenneth Broad, there are no signs of prints of anywhere in the city and at some point he moved to the small old town of Winchelsea very near the Sussex coast. It was an area that was popular with artists. Eric Slater worked along the coast towards Beachy Head and Cuckmere Haven, Read's friend, the etcher Bertram Buchanan, lived not far away at Iden and Sylvan Boxsius produced two linocuts of the Winchelsea area. I assume Read and Boxsius also were friends.

There are very few people at all in the work of Boxsius, Broad was especially fond of crowd scenes but along with Mabel Royds, Read was about the only other British colour woodcutter to concentrate on figure subjects. Basically, he used the Vienna Secession manner, close-up and with minimal background. The only landscape I know by him is short on detail but the countryside is implicit in all these images. Not only are they figure subjects, they show us a very specific type of person. Here are men and women who made a livelihood by travelling through the sort of country Oliver Rackham memorably described as social countryside. Woods, heaths, commons and beaches are all implied in these images, all connected up by an intricate network of lanes and footpaths. It may seem a far cry from Bermondsey but I would suggest the London riverside predisposed Rigden Read to recognise and adopt the itinerants of Sussex. The list of them is surprisingly long: chimney sweeps, donkey men, poachers, tinkers, labourers, bodgers or chair makers, Romanies.

People like this woman selling pegs, and who is possibly an Irish tinker, were commonplace in the mid 1920s when Read produced many of his woodcuts. He was fairly prolific because the prints weren't complex. It is far more the person that interests him here rather than the use of colour or the subtleties of printing. In some ways he is like Eric Hesketh Hubbard. Hubbard was also a Londoner who moved to the same type of ancient countryside (in his case the purlieus of the New Forest in Hampshire). But Read shows greater understanding of the lives of his subjects (though I have to admit that I now regret not bidding for Hubbard's image of travelling cider-makers).

The travelling life of the countryside wasn't unique as a theme to Rigden Read. The poet Edward Thomas in particular also recognised a very special sort of person who moved from one remote farmstead or hamlet to another across that same network of lanes and paths but Read was almost documentary in the way he picked out individual types. With their brown faces and their scarves and hats, they are people who are out in all weathers. The sacks they have thrown over their shoulders are their means to earning a living. They are picturesque to some extent but also prosaic, specially if compared to his finer work. If readers have any other examples showing these resilient and resourceful people who were obviously the object of admiration for Read, please send them in. And the rest of us can admire them, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment