Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ethel Kirkpatrick Society: Colour woodcut tour of Cornwall

Here's a nice irony. Even the colour woodcutters went down to the west of Cornwall and made prints even though the idea behind the colonies of artists at Newlyn and St Ives was to work outdoors in front of the subject. What had attracted artists was the opportunity to paint marine landscape, not something taught in the academic schools. Unfortunately, the artists didn't prove as tough as the  fisherman they liked to paint and it wasn't untill the completion of the railway line between London Paddington and Penzance in 1859 that they were able to undertake the remarkable journey between Exeter and Cornwall. In the 1880s that they began to up easels in Pont Aven and Concarneau in Brittainy and move to West Penwith where they found wonderful light, cheap lodgings and incomprehensible subjects.

Above HM Brock's woodcut-looking poster for 'The Pirates of Penzance'  (first performed in New York in 1879), there is a real woodcut by the British artist Sidney Lee (1866 - 1949). I will say now that I have bought prints by Lee in the past and the only work by him that I would now buy are his few-and-far-between colour woodcuts. This one must be earlyish so far as printmakers go in Cornwall and, even better, is one I'd never come across before. It may not be the first wave; it's nice but is it plein air? I don't believe Lee was a painter ( I don't think he could draw very well) and I have no idea how he went about making The bay, St Ives. It may have been something he worked up in the studio some time after a trip to Cornwall. But he was there and obviously made visual notes in front of the subject.

Much the same could be said for Cornwall coast by Elizabeth Colwell (1881 - 1954). The main thing here is that Colwell was from the US so this isn't just some parochial British thing we're dealing with. Although British artists had drifted from Brittainy to Cornwall, they had continued to exhibit in the Paris salons, gaining an international reputation for a remote Cornish port. There is also more of an attempt in Colwell to capture some effect of the light though frankly not that much. It's also more Japanese and nuanced than anything the hapless Lee could manage. It took an artist who we know had worked in France to actually put together the idiom of colour woodcut and the ethos of plein air and make a success of it. This artist was the redoubtable Ethel Kirkpatrick (1870 - 1941).

Now, readers will know that I have banged on about Kirkpatrick more than once before and I will tell them frankly that I have by no means finished with her. But with Summer we have a new and scintillating woodcut. And one that shows exactly what kind of artist I think she was. I cannot say hand on heart that this is a Cornish view but I believe these are Cornish luggers. This isn't a mere decorative work. Just like her view of Mousehole (see The definitive Ethel Kirkpatrick, December 2010) this is a descriptive work capturing the intense and shadowless light of summer as if she were actually there making the woodcut in front of the subject. This would depend on two things: good sketches and a good memory.

Less of a success but no less interesting is this woodcut of the jetty at Lamorna Cove. Lamorna is some miles west of Mousehole (and was a well-known hang-out of the painter Samuel Lamorna Birch). Now this we can date to 1916 because it was the print Frank Morley Fletcher (1866 - 1950) used as an exemplar in the first edition of Woodblock Printing. A contemporary of Lee and Kirkpatrick, we know Fletcher took the lead in his interpretation of Japanese woodblock and that both the other two artists must have followed his example - Lee, as I've said, occasionally, Kirkpatrick with a passion. But it's the Cornish connection that is so striking and unexpected. I don't think he ever did any other work down there and so far as I know there is no documentation of an FMF trip to Cornwall. By 1916 he was working in Edinburgh, a very long was from Lamorna in those days. But I assume this small print does reflect his own brush with plein air.

We are always on firmer ground with the artists of the 1920s and John Platt is no exception. By 1921, when he made The jetty, Sennen Cove, he was head of applied art at Edinburgh College of Art while Morley Fletcher was principal. I think this firms up the Cornish connection and, as it happens, Sennen is another few miles along the coast from Lamorna. He also produced 'The Irish Lady', Land's End (below) in 1922 and Mullion Cove on the Lizard peninsula. He also made a print Brixham Town, in Devon as it happens but it looks more like St Tropez, and was still painting in Cornwall during the second war though plein air was definitely out the window by then. Platt moved from job to job as principal of colleges of art, often part time so he could print and paint. Meticulous and with great craftsmanship, I think I'd still rather have something a bit smudged.


With this 1927 linocut Mousehole in Cornwall by Ernest Watson (1889 - 1964) we are quite some way from the Colwell approach and utterly remote from Kirkpatrick. Like Colwell, he was an American but came to Cornwall in the 1920s when the impetus had gone out landscape painting. Lee and Kirkpatrick had also moved on from Cornwall and began to make visits to the artists colony at Walberswick in Suffolk (alot handier for London) and where Lee also made one of his rare colour woodcuts. The dullness of Watson's surface only goes to show how the earliest printmakers working in Cornwall really were using their imaginations and expressing something of what they saw. (And if anyone is at all skeptical about the Kirkpatrick/Cornwall connection, please compare the luggers in Ronald Lampitt's 1936 poster for the Great Western and in Platt's view of Sennen Cove with the fishing boats in Summer!)


  1. You did it again writing this erudite standard on Cornwall and Modern Printmakers.

  2. I don't know about erudite, Gerrie. I mugged it up! It helped that I know Cornwall, of course.

    Haji B

  3. Charles,
    what a lovely selection of prints! I was in Cornwall four years ago, and I loved every day of my stay: nice people, beautiful scenery! We swapped houses with a Cornish family. However this year it is going to be Scotland, then a week in swinging London (by the way: could you tell me some print dealers worth contacting in London? I'd be grateful to have some addresses...).
    Let me tell you how much I enjoy visiting your blog again. I check it nearly every day, and I learn a lot!

    greetings from the Thiemann-country,


  4. Always nice to hear from you, Klaus, and glad you liked the Cornwall prints. I didn't want you to think the Ethel Kirkpatrick Society was defunct. Unfortunately, I haven't been to Cornwall for years and years.

    As to print dealers in London,there are far fewer specialists around than there used to be and many people deal online.

    Abbot & Holder in Museum St just by the British Museum always have a small selection of C20th British prints though the main stock is British paintings. Just ring the bell and ask. I think they still have some Ethel Kirkpatricks.

    Camden Passage off Upper St in Islington (near the Angel tube) has lots of antiques shops, including the Japanese Gallery at 23, Camden Passage. (They also have a shop at 66, Kensington Church St).

    Alfie's Antiques Market off Lisson Grove/Church St in Marylebone used to be a place where you could pick up prints - and probably still can.

    Of course, there is also Portobello Rd on a Saturday. Fun but I've not found anything I wanted for years.

    You should also look online at Hillary Chapman (I think she's in Richmond) and Bellagraphica who are in Falmouth as it happens.

    Happy hunting and happy holidays!


  5. By the way, you should also consider the Toulouse-Lautrec at the Courthauld in the Strand while you're in London. The ticket gains entrance to the entire collection, which is strong on French Impressionism and German modernist (not that your grandma would like them).


  6. Charles,

    thanks a million! While the rest of the family can watch musicals or go to Mme Tussaud's, I'll go print-hunting. Especially the Japanese Gallery sounds very promising. We're off tomorrow, I'll let you know if I found something when we're back.

    all he best,


  7. a surfeit of beauty!

    kirkpatrick's sea with gulls makes me feel very far away. the color of platt's sea! not familiar with the term 'mouse hole,' but kirkpatrick's is stunning. the colors on the far shore!

  8. OK, that's enough adulation to get you into the Ethel Kirkpatrick Society. Your membership is number 5.

    Mousehole is a fishing village near Penzance. I think you can see her view of the harbour in the first post on her (probably November, 2010).


  9. number '5'???!!!!

    i thought i joined a long time ago!

  10. Lee was indeed a regular visitor to St Ives from 1892. The Bay, St Ives was executed in his St Ives studio. He and his wife Edith stayed at 5, Barnoon Terrace for much of 1896 and he was a guest at the Arts Club in October that year. They also stayed at 8, Tregenna Terrace for several months in 1898. He appears on the St Ives Society of Artists Visitors’ List in July 1907. He was a member of STISA even through the 1930s. Other St Ives prints include:

    The Sloop Inn
    The Bay, St Ives
    Lighthouse Mevagissey
    In the Harbour, St Ives
    Drying Sails, St Ives
    Boatbuilding, St Ives

    He also made colour prints of Staithes and Walberswick. There were generally 100 prints in each edition. (Each edition of 100 was printed in 5 different colour ways – 20 of each – morning, dusk, night, etc.)

    He and his friend Frank Morley Fletcher were pioneers of the Japenese technique of woodcutting and printmaking applied to British subjects. Lee took over FMF teaching at Central School of Arts and Crafts 1905-1910. Lee’s colour woodcut prints demonstrate a western adaptation of the Japanese nineteenth-century Ukiyo-e prints. Printmakers investigated and adapted the methods and philosophies of Japanese art and crafts in their own work.

    Oils such as Cathedral Entrance (Hull Art Gallery), The Red Tower (Royal Academy Collection), Theatre Marcellus (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), The Roman Wall and Morning in Rome (Private Collections) attest to Lee’s consummate draughtsmanship, sense of design, colour, tone and surface. Likewise, his burnished aquatints like A Dark Entry, Mountain Fortress, Gothic Arches, Rievaulx, Sleeping Square and large wood engraving like The Limestone Rock, Venetian Merchant and Ponte Paradiso demonstrate his sure understanding and versatility working in a range of print media – they have no equal at that time.

    P.S. While The Bay St Ives was not cut 'au plein air', some of his monumental wood engravings like The Spanish Square were. Quite an achievement.

  11. Robert, many thanks for all the fascinating information about Lee and his visits to St Ives. I have seen the Walberswick print (The Bridge?) but possibly not Staithes. Were these the only three colour woodcuts he made? (See below).

    I assume you are the person who is writing a book about Lee and I would be pleased and grateful if you would contact me privately: I am also researching this important period but not Lee specifically.