Saturday, 16 July 2011

Adrian Feint: ten guineas worth of style

In the 1930s the Australian artist Adrian Feint (1894 - 1971) would have made you a bookplate as witty and stylish as the ones you see here for ten guineas. For that he would have produced a design for your approval, a woodblock and thirty signed images (more if you wanted). Then you would have been in the swim. No need to be a bibliophile. No matter if the Library of Congress in Washington, DC had held an exhibition of his work in 1930 or the first book of the Australian Ex Libris Society was devoted to his work in 1934, you would be chic.

And I think this was the real source of his success. All the bookplates here use standard popular images of the 1920s and 1930s. The ship in full sail, the ploughman, the elegant classical bust in the manner of Laboureur, the busy bunch of flowers, nymphs and satyrs, even the Scottish terrier - all come from the pool of inter-war hackneyed ideas. It took an artist with Feint's panache and skill to make them live again. He knows they are all faintly absurd in the way of all good archetypes but they work well. Even so, his real ambitions lay elsewhere.

He was born in New South Wales, initially trained in Sydney, did a stint of study leave at the Academie Julien in Paris in 1919 then returned to Sydney to work as a graphic artist, both in advertising and producing cover designs for magazines like Home and Art in Australia. He began working with etched plates but as a result of studying design with Thea Proctor in 1927, he turned to wood-engraving as a method and had made 221 bookplates by 1945. Yet as the thirties progressed, he turned more and more to oil painting untill he found a patron and was able to put graphic design behind him.

The irony is that it is these humble works of fashion that he still remains best known for. There was the necessity of coming up with bold, effective designs and he did this very well. If you compare his bookplates to work by the younger European artists I've covered here on Modern Printmakers, Feint lacks the seriousness of Tranquillo Marangoni and the sheer bravura skill of Wim Zwiers but he has other hallmarks of the thirties, especially the theatricality - and the fun. Look at the way his Scottie sits in a spotlight, or the ship appears through curtains of rain. His nymph and satyr are no more than play-acting; the temple belongs in Chiswick and not Arcadia. I particularly like his frivolous shrubbery. It's deco, even modernist, without being overworked.

It could all have turned out trite but instead his work stands out from the crowd. To be honest, I'd not come across Feint untill the other day but these little bookplates stood their ground amongst dozens and dozens of others that were fiddly and forgettable. I am sure that it was this originality that took him as far as the hallowed premises of the Library of Congress. It would only be fitting if the archivists wore ivy in their curls and the boilerman ran naked across the lawn.


  1. Very witty and well researched post Charles. And: yet another ploughing team: a miniature jewel, my favorite.

  2. Yes, the ploughman was just to much to resist.