Sunday, 24 July 2011

Phillip Needell: northern patrol, Japanese manner

Phillip Needell (1886 - 1974) has the distinction of being a Londoner who avoided the subject of London. (I've only seen one painting of some barges on the Thames). His great love was rural France and the small, old towns he found there. They wouldn't have had much in common with the mixed neighbourhoods of Islington in north London where he grew up. An interest in art was already there but his father found him work in a bank. Undeterred, Needell attended classes at the Polytechnic School of Art in Regent St. This was probably the only formal training he had. Nor was it a school of fine art. The main course was vocational and students received bursaries to attend.

Even so, he was accomplished enough by the time he joined the Royal Navy Reserve in 1916 to have produced a poster for a fund-raising concert organised by the London, Country & Westminster Bank. It's a bold-looking affair in gouache, similar to the early work for the Underground by F Gregory Brown. Here was a young man who was aware of contemporary styles. He may not have been very interested in London as a subject but he clearly gained from growing up there. The two years he then spent at sea with the Northern Patrol on the Atlantic approaches to the North Sea were also to have their effect. The sea is important in a number of his colour woodcuts (though not on an Ethel Kirkpatrick scale) and his letters home to his wife Anne show him sensitive to light and atmosphere.

If that isn't Anne Needell at work on her embroidery, the woman in this small illustration (it's the best I could manage) is certainly her; if the woman embroidering is Mrs Needell, then it adds irony to the subject because the needle and thread poised above the artist's signature involve a pun on her married name. My first reactions to Needell's work are sometimes adverse. I find them a bit outlandish and Embroidering from 1923 was no exception. But it has grown on me, as they say, and I like both the personal touch of the needle and the bird that appears to come to life. And again, here is an artist aware of the fashions of the time. The vogue for chintzy C17th style fabrics had its roots in the manor house revival of pre-war days and was the house-style of the Collard pottery in Devon during the twenties. I think it also incorporates a subtle compliment to his wife.

How he came to start making colour woodcuts isn't known yet but he was clearly aware of printmakers like Hiroshige and Hokusai when he began because he used the same pinkish-brown that is almost commonplace in their work. He doesn't use it in a non-realistic fashion as Hokusai would in his pink Mt Fuji, for example (we have to wait for his first attempt at Corfe Castle to get ink-blue woodland) but his manner is as Japanese as any other artist making colour woodcuts in the twenties and I have him down as a follower of Frank Morley Fletcher. But I would say his other great love was the work of the French printmaker Henri Riviere (1864 - 1951). The first print I know of with a French subject is Le pont d'Avignon from 1925.

This print is from the same year as Corfe (as far as I can make out) but there is already a change in his approach. Gone are the fussy textile patternings of the English 1920s and in comes a new sense of structure, perspective and detailing, which is so much a part of Riviere's charm. He isn't as good or as chic as the Frenchman but then he isn't too much like him either. Nor would he have been the first Londoner to have gone over to France for inspiration but from the mid-twenties onwards he kept on going back. Untill 1964, in fact.

The following year he came up with his most well-known print, Northern Patrol. It is based, almost word for word, on one of his paintings and although the painting gives a greater idea of the sea's loneliness and power, the print on this occasion is the better work, I think. I like the reflections on the deck but when I first saw this woodcut many years ago, I was taken aback - firstly by the image itself and secondly by the price. (I was in the Japanese gallery on Kensington Church St, having spent a fruitless morning at the Portobello Road). I do think it is overworked and that it comes across less well when you see it. But this is equally true of Le pont d'Avignon, which I also failed to buy at some point. But then my life is littered with regrets.

There are more paintings and drawings of France (watercolour, oil, gouache - he tried them all) than anything else. I've included his lovely Vue du chateau, which finds him in full Riviere mode. So much so it reads like a woodcut and it strikes me that the madder pink and blue-green trees might date the picture to the mid 1920s. One very striking fact is that he went on making colour woodcuts untill the late 1940s, after even Ian Cheyne and John Platt had given up. So you have to assume that he did enjoy making them. Nor did his style remain constant. There are further changes and it's these shifts that make him less of an amateur than people sometimes think he is. There is a consistent tone throughout all his work but he learned to limit his palette to achieve the subtle and delicate effects that are so often remarked upon.

But this represents his mature style. In the doldrums (of the becalmed sailing ship) dates from 1928 and all the rest of his woodcuts from then on are more subdued and subtle. In the doldrums is the most impressionist print of his I've come across but View of Kynance Cove looks straight out from the beach at the breaking surf. The incoming waves are the subject and, basically, I think he's a painter first and his prints are often the tonal works of a painter, not always 100% successful but always of interest. In fact, his best paintings are surprisingly good without ever quite being modern.

Vue du chateau isn't typical but it is nice meeting of Japanese patterning with French delicacy of manner. There's an odd occurence in the left foreground again and I'm not exactly sure what's going off but I suspect you will all be used to this by now. (I need to credit Bellagraphica in Cornwall for Corfe and William P Carl Fine Prints for In the doldrums and Le pont d'Avignon. So far as I know, all the prints are still for sale).


  1. so much to see so much to say!

    i must admit, i am Utterly Charmed by the embroidery one. i love it. i think i shall return to it again and again. thanks for that, charles.

    but i also, as i said, love the small landscapes, the innovative use of japonistic composition, and his clouds.

  2. The last one is my favorite, do you know were it is ?

  3. Lily, I wouldn't have done the post if you hadn't picked out the Needell print in the last one.


  4. Gerrie, I don't know where it is, I'm afraid. He used to stay at Les Andeleys but Chateau Gaillard above the village is ruined. Anyway, I'm pleased I seemed to have made the right choice of painting.

  5. I am back again, just as I said I would be some years ago, and I still love the embroidery, but my appreciation for all the rest has increased as well.Charles, you have such a great eye.

  6. Are you saying you are blogging again, Lily?

  7. Not blogging, but always "studying." Touring around (the net), checking out new offerings, revisiting old favorites....

  8. Well, nice to hear from you. I did check. i