Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art


The Grosvenor School is the sort of place where you would like to walk to Warwick Square, wander in and speak to Miss Andrews in the office, to enquire whether you could look in on Mr Flight's class so you find out just what they were all up to. I suspect it was the kind of place that had as much in common with the community of artist-converts at Ditchling in Sussex as it did with the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Claude Flight (1881 - 1955) was a linocut evangelist and everyone, including the staff, attended his classes. It's no wonder they all made so many.


It was set up in this rambling old house in 1925 by three men who had all come to art and print later rather than sooner. Flight had tried out various things, including bee-keeping, untill he hit on modernism and, in particular linocut, as the answer. As you see from his Swiss Mountains from c1934, he was an enthusiast. He had begun making linocuts in 1919 and taught students to use separate blocks for each colour. In 1929 he organised 'The first exhibition of British linocuts' and even if his name is almost synonymous with linocut today, his enthusiasm for the Grosvenor School was short-lived. He taught there for only four years, from 1926 untill 1930, when he transferred his already informal classes to a cave above the river Seine.


Flight had studied at Heatherley's School of Fine Art in London both before the war and then after. Cyril Power (1872 - 1951) didn't enrol at Heatherley's untill 1925 when he was already 53. He had been a successful architect but turned his mind to art. He had met Sybil Andrews in 1921 and she duly became school secretary. (See Sybil Andrews: the rural year, February, 2011). It's not hard to see his interest in both architectural design and form in general in The Tube staircase, 1929. It shows the stairs at Russell Square underground station in London, an exact location for a dynamic print. If their modernism is at times far-fetched, this linocut does put me in mind of  Marcel Duchamp.


Power gaves classes on architecture and ornament (he had already published a three-volume book) but the only one of the trio with any prior experience of teaching at all was Iain MacNab (1890 - 1967) - and that wasn't much. If I also tell you he spent a year at Glasgow School of Art in 1917 before also moving to Heatherley's in 1918, you will begin to see the pattern. The brave idea of a school dedicated to modern art may well have begun with their joint experience of a London private art school. (I'm not suggesting the experience was bad because MacNab became joint-principal of Heatherley's in 1919 and didn't relenquish his post of director of art studies untill as late as 1953.) But in 1925, even with his limited experience, MacNab took on the job of principal at the Grosvenor and certainly stuck at it longer than Flight.


MacNab was also one of the finest British wood-engravers of C20th. The effect of prints like Corsican Landscape on his students of wood-engraving is clear; it may be less obvious with the students that practised other forms of printmaking but it there nevetheless.  As for the students themeselves, I started the post off with French Porters by the most talented one them all, the Swiss printmaker, Lill Tschudi (1911 - 2004). She came across the linocuts of that albatross-around-my-neck, Norbertine von Bresslern Roth, while still at school in Switzerland. She saw the school adverts in The Studio and attended between 1929 and 1930 when Flight was still teaching there. Like some of the other students she also trained with the French cubist Andre Lhote. It wasn't a matter of this being their only brush with modernism; some the students could obviously afford to pick and choose.



The Australian artist, Ethel Spowers (1890 - 1947) was one. She had studied art in Melbourne then moved to Europe in 1921 and, just to let you know what their first prints could be like, I include Spowers woodcut Eglise de Grace, Paris made during her first year in Europe. As you see, it isn't up to very much at all. Tug of War she produced in 1933, after her return to Australia, and is a fine piece of work without having the modernist thoroughness of Tschudi. Spowers only spent part of 1929 at the Grosvenor but it had a great effect. Linocuts she produced before that time were stronger than her early woodcut effort but conventional untill Claude Flight showed her how.



Eveline Syme had been at school with Spowers in Melbourne but went on to study classics at Cambridge. She turned her mind to painting and France in the early twenties but it was the discovery of Flight's book Lino-Cut that led Syme and her friend Ethel Spowers to enrol at Pimlico in 1929. I like the way they all went back home and turned the technique on Australia. It has of course helped to make their name. But that process only began in the 1970s, with the vogue for all things Deco. Nowadays a dealer on ebay only has to add the illustrious words 'Grosvenor School' to some linocut or other to prove that linocuts will never be affordable or democratic again. The idea had been to show the modern age they lived in - what everyone else was doing when they were making linocuts - in a modern way.


Wattle tree is by Dorrit Black (1891 - 1951). I think she is the weakest of the three Australian artists but this does show what they were about. She studied in Melbourne before heading for London in 1927 when she spent a mere three months at the Grosvenor School. It wasn't long but it was clearly enough. The British artist Gwenda Morgan (1908 - 1991) studied there far longer - between 1930 and 1936. This almost certainly couldn't have been a full-time arrangement. She had already spoent the years 1926 to 1929 across the river Thames at Goldsmith's, after all. But the example MacNab gave shines through much of her fine body of work. These wood-engravings may not be as thrilling as those linocuts but her work stays in the mind a long time after excitements have washed over it.


Ronald Grierson (1901 - 1992) was another student of MacNab's. Mainly known as a designer of textiles, he had also first studied elsewhere (at Hammersmith School of Art) before spending time at the Grosvenor. Alison MacKenzie (1907 - 1982) didn't arrive untill the 1930s (with her sister Winifred, see July, 2011). Both had studied woodcut with MacNab's sister, Chica, at Glasgow School of Art. It was a small, quite short-lived world for many of them, I imagine, far from the formal disciplines of many art schools and more in line with the progressive independent schools that were being opened up - but far more dependent than they were on the trends.


14 comments:

  1. Excellent information, it took me some time to take it all in but things are falling into place and pattern along the time line of British printmaking and printmakers. A Who is Who in blockprinting.

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  2. Not quite. Anna Findlay is missing. For any readers who have got this far, please look at her post, March 2011. She learned the lessons without copying the style.

    Charles

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  3. Very nice summary of this fascinating epoch in British (and Australian) printmaking. I hadn't linked Gwenda Morgan with the Grosvenor School, and find that an interesting connection. There does seem to have been a bit of a divide between the wood engravers and the linocut artists in terms of incorporating the modern world into their aesthetic. I believe that Claude Flight's interest in the linocut was first sparked by the work of Franz Cisek at the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule.

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  4. Interesting post. I love the Grosvenor School linocuts but the prices they are fetching recently are staggering. There's a Cyril Power up for auction next month and it's on at £15-25,000.

    The thing that really strikes me is the disparity in prices between the linocut artists and the wood engravers. MacNab's engravings seem to top out at around £500. Other top inter-war engravers are the same. You can get major Hughes-Stanton wood engravings for £4-500, minor works for a couple of hundred. Gertrude Hermes too. Even though the editions are generally tiny. Prominent linocut people, you can stick one or two noughts on the end. I can understand it up to a point. But only up to a point.

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  5. Neil, the difference you note between the wood-engravers and the linocut makers may help explain why Claude Flight left. What we don't tend to see are the linocuts made by the wood-engravers! Equally, I have been unable to find any engravings made by Anna Findlay. I think MacNab was more of a modernist than his younger followers were. As you know, British wood-engravers have always had a tendency to fall back on rural imagery or the natural world. In my post about Sybil Andrews, I wanted to show the way she approached the rural world in a modern way.

    I'm not surprised to hear about the Vienna connection but it is interesting all the same. I must follow up. The Werkstaette students were also being encouraged to make linocut designs quite early on.

    Charles

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  6. Anthony, I'm glad you brought up the subject of prices for Grosvenor linocuts here. My own thoughts are very much in line with yours. Unfortunately, in one way, wood-engravings have a more limited appeal, hence the lower prices. But it wasn't always like that. A tag like 'Grosvenor School' and 'modernist' makes a considerable difference, as you say, but no one is going to sell Gwenda Morgan as Grosvenor School. It would also be easy to make snide remarks about the trade but no one is forcing people to pay. It is just so much simpler to go into a smart Bond St gallery than spend Saturday morning riffling through boxes in Museum St or wherever. Not that you can do that now! I also think famous and wealthy collectors have driven the prices up. I believe Jack Nicholson was one.

    Charles

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  7. Yup. It's worth noting that the British Prints of the Machine Age exhibition was drawn from a private collection in the USA. There's absolutely no point railing against the market. The bottom line is that the main gallery outlets now are the sorts of places in central London where they don't show the price and if you have to ask, you can't afford it. In terms of the auction market, prints come up infrequently enough that it's worth bidding high if you have the money because you don't know when another will be on the market. All it takes is a couple of millionaires and a few institutional collections taking an interest and you can see how the prices get where they are. I'd pay that sort of money if I was very rich.

    You're right about wood engravings generally (though I think it's largely a British thing). That said, I think both Hughes-Stanton and Hermes (we're not talking Grosvenor School here, obviously) broke from that to a substantial degree, as did Buckland Wright to an extent. Of course much of their work (as with a great many engravers) was produced for book illustration purposes, which tends to hold it back in the eyes of some.

    In fact, as a Hughes-Stanton collector, I've noticed that his 1950s linocuts tend to make more money than his 1930s wood engravings. In a way this is understandable (big, colourful). However, it's also ironic given that he only took to linocuts because he was shot in the face during the war and could no longer handle the fine detail work wood engraving required. I think most connoisseurs would also generally rate his engravings as the more original output. I have to say that, as somebody who owns several of his engravings and a couple of linocuts, I suspect that if any of his work is going to "take off" and prove to be a serious medium to long term investment, it'll be the linocuts, not the engravings. I think most people who know his work and background would find this perverse.

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  8. Risk veering off topic here a bit, but worth noting another area that seems curiously undervalued is early American screenprints of the 1940s and 1950s. Distinctive, dynamic, an original medium, small editions, vigorously modernist, good representation in permanent collections and exhibitions. Who cares? Apparently nobody! I keep thinking they'll take off but as yet they haven't, in spite of everything else 1950s enjoying a massive resurgence of popularity.

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  9. You obviously maintain a wide range of interests in the field which is the way people keep on finding new things they can afford to buy. And so much depends on fashion.

    And it's a wise strategy to bid up at auction on something good. You just rely on the fact that not everyone does - and that the trade have profit margins.

    So far as Hughes Stanton and Hermes go, I think they are more thoroughly modernist than many people associated with the Grosvenor School and certainly closer to Ben Nicholson than Claude Flight. For quite a few British printmakers, modernism was more a style than a radical visual reappraisal. Certainly three months spent at the Grosvenor School wouldn't make you much of a modernist.

    As for wood-engraving etc, it is a literate area and will attract the literate as I suggested in the recent post on Engelbert Lap. The literary aspect to printmaking has become less important with the growth of the large modern lithograph and screenprint. It's one reason why all those small prints from the twenties and thirties languished in the bargain basement for so long and why we now scratch our heads over extrarodinary prices. £600 for a School Print on cheap paper? Come on!

    Having said that, I bought a woodcut from someone in Nottingham who had used a door for a block, so that was pretty large.

    Charles

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  10. Yes, there's a slightly academic aspect to it. Small prints in black and white, often demanding contextual explanation. It's easy to snipe, but in fairness I can understand why, say, some of my Lynd Ward pieces are not what everyone would want hanging in their homes.

    I will confess to owning a School Print - the Topolski. It appeals to my sense of history. I'd also buy the Tunnard if it was available cheaper than it is because I love his work but can't afford originals. The problem is that it's actually an awkwardly large thing to hang. I live in quite a large house by contemporary standards and I've yet to find anywhere to put it where it doesn't dominate completely.

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  11. Alan Powers has a nice phrase for that trend typified by artists like Ravilious and Bawden: academic/narrative.

    Nothing at all wrong with the School Prints. It was the price I objected to - for John Nash's harvest scene. I deeply regret not buying it when it was £25!

    When I have seen lithograph posters I really do want, then I pay up (though not £600). For example Raymond Coxon's 'October Tree Felling' for CEMA. It was on the short list.

    I think a small stash of Lynd Ward would go nicely in one of my portfolios.

    I'm in a small modern flat but I prefer a few larger pictures on the wall. The Coxon would be up but (1) the glass is now broken and (2) it's in an ugly oak frame. I have Glynn Boyd Harte's 'Mr Dodd's Auricula' immediately above the pc. Completely academic/narrative.

    Charles

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  12. I'd encourage you not to go down the Lynd Ward route. Largely because I plan to have the best Ward collection in the United Kingdom and I can do without competition...

    Although I collect Hughes-Stanton and lust after several other British printmakers work (Hermes, Buckland Wright, Andrews, Flight, Cheyne etc), my first love is American prints. I'm collecting Ward in a modestly systematic fashion, but that's just scraping the surface. I'd love to be able to systematically collect, say Paul Landacre, Rockwell Kent, Benton Spruance or Louis Lozowick. Fantastic.

    Framing is a pain these days. Extremely expensive unless you are using ready-made. Several times I've had to spend £60 getting a £250 print framed properly.

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  13. I'm looking for more information on the techniques used to great the Grovenor school prints. For instance I know that they used unbleached mulberry paper. But the ink was probably cut with a lot of transparent mix, the registration with so many colors in such tight space, like a single thin line to inhance a form is remarkable. Does anyone know of a detailed explanation of their methods?

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  14. There are at least two books that go into some detail about the methods used although these almost certainly changed as artist went along.

    I will look for the titles tomorrow. Claude Flight also wrote two books which describe his technique.

    Charles

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