Sunday, 21 August 2011

Ian Fleming, Ian Cheyne & Laboureur

I have to admit that for a long time I looked on the Scottish artist Ian Fleming (1906 - 1994) as an also-ran. I first came across his colour woodcuts at an exhibition way back in 1986 and I should think I was too shocked by the prices being asked to take in anything else about the show. In my defence, I've only had monochrome catalogue illustrations between then and now. But that really is no excuse and, to be fair to him, colour woodcut wasn't Fleming's stock-in-trade, anyway. I know of only five colour woodcuts - the two I have posted here and three others, called Aspidistra, Road to the valley and Mist in the valley. OK, he wasn't good on titles, but I am going to assume all his woodcuts date from early on in his career. He produced the lyrical Parkscape, with its subtle modernity, in 1928 while still a student at Glasgow School of Art.

Or, to be more exact, he appears to have produced a very humble edition of three to begin with. Parkscape. Sunshine & rain was less snappy than the abruptly modernist Parkscape but that was its first title. As you see the second edition ran into a modest twenty-five. Glasgow tenement window (I am sorry to say only in monochrome) is equally subtle, framing the three yards and adopting the high viewpoint that became such a strong feature of his work. This print adopts a restricted view, later work does not, and perhaps behind it are the limitations placed upon student work. His teacher of woodcut at Glasgow was the influential Chica MacNab. To my intense frustration, I've been unable to turn up even one image by MacNab to show just how her work might have affected printmakers like Fleming and Winifred MacKenzie (another of her students). What these two have in common in their early work is the modern manner and I shall assume they learned that from MacNab.

But, in the end, it was his teacher of engraving, Charles Murray (1994 - 1954) who was to have the more enduring effect. Murray had himself been a student at Glasgow and is credited with reviving the art of copper engraving before even innovators like Robert Austin who taught at the RCA in London. Murray was something of a renegade who first fought with the White Army, then won the Prix de Rome before travelling, settling down again at his old art school and eventually hitting the bottle. Fleming wisely exchanged Murray's fine but mannered style for the urbane and voguish approach of the Breton engraver Jean-Emile Laboureur (1877 - 1943). Like Murray, Laboureur also got around but there was less of Iceland and Russia and more of Paris, London and New York. And in some ways this neatly sums up the appeal of Fleming's own work: there are the lyrical incidents of gardens and the Galloway and Dumfries countryside (as you will see below in Laboureur) but he never forgets his home town. Glasgow was his convincing subject, and no more so than in his wonderful engraving of 1930, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.

The same is true of the incisive Modern suburbia from 1929. This was the year he left art school (he first attended in 1924) and the youthful wish to take a modern view of things is evident in the title. But for everything he seems to have learned from Laboureur - the strong contrast of light and shadow, the linear, descriptive approach - he is already his own man. I also have to admit that I prefer these early works. There's a freshness of vision here and  a strong desire to show aspects of the world he lived in. Ironically, he is a realist in a way that the man from Nantes never is. He has taken the lessons of Laboureur about the complexities of modern lives to heart but he never sinks to pastiche.

Nor does Ian Cheyne (1895 - 1955). I am unashamedly re-posting my own Summer Picnic and his masterly Campers just to show how brave Ian Fleming was. Fleming never achieved work with this panache. By comparison, he looks almost antiquarian. But he was an engraver first and foremost and I always have the greatest admiration for printmakers who can make both convincing woodcuts and intalgio prints. Laboureur tried both but his woodcuts tend to look like pattern-making. Cheyne started off as a painter. He was eleven years older than Fleming but didn't attend Glasgow School of Art untill 1921 - 1923. He may have trained first at another school, or the war may have interrupted his studies. I don't know. Whatever the case, somewhere along the way, he meshed the contemporary impact of Laboureur with the mastery of Hokusai to come up with something utterly unique and deeply desirable.

He was brought up in the seaside town of  Broughty Ferry, on the east coast of Scotland, near Dundee, but all we really know about him are the colour woodcuts that have set a standard for all those productions of the 1920s and 1930s. I have already posted as many as I can (well, there are one or two more). As for Laboureur himself, I leave you with two copper engravings from 1916 and the early twenties, and two woodcuts from a similar period. Just compare, if you will, the shapes of the trees on the hill in Le Printemps with the trees on the left in Fleming's Botanic Gardens, Glasgow or the meshes of the fishermens' nets with the meshing of the rain and light in Parkscape. Cheyne's frothy trees and cubist tents are more obvious loans but we take them as they were intended, with great good humour. And although there is no record of Fleming and Cheyne meeting, it's pretty certain that they did know one another through exhibiting with fellow Scots (and Englishmen) at the Society of Artist-Printmakers (Cheyne was treasurer). The 1930s market for prints held up better in Scotland than in England and this attracted English printmakers like Edgar Holloway to show with them. He knew both Cheyne and Fleming and exchanged Cheyne's West Highland Loch for one of his own etchings. Which shows just how much they learned from one another.


  1. Just to complicate matters: I was visiting Edinburgh yesterday and was surprised, having read your piece from Sunday, to come across an Ian Fleming print at the In Japan show at the Royal Scottish Academy. It was Parkscape, but titled Landscape, Rain and Sunshine. It was dated 1929 and numbered 3/25. Yet another edition, maybe?
    Thanks for all your work on Modern Printmakers; I always enjoy finding new artists here.


  2. I think the answer must be, Cliff, Fleming wasn't quite sure what it was called. But it will be the same.

    I think he just extended the edition from three to twenty-five as it sold. But who knows what he was thinking? More official sites than mine have strange dates for his prints. Because no one would go to the trouble of printing a whole edition of colour woodcuts and carefully numbering them for posterity's sake! They just signed and numbered as they printed each one. Anyway, the shows sounds interesting.

    And thank you for the appreciation. Feedback counts. I often wonder if I have readers in Scotland. Now I think I know.


  3. This is fascinating. I'm fortunate to own Parkscape, Rain & Sunshine numbered 3/3 which was acquired direct from Ian after his retrospective at Aberdeen Art gallery in the early eighties.
    I can also add to his catalogue of early woodcuts with "Bridge of Isla" which is un-numbered but came from the same exhibition. It is signed but also carries the moniker "Sabre" in vertical type in the top right hand corner of the print.
    My parents were friends of the Flemings in Aberdeen and they have Aspidistra and Through the Tenement Window as well as a good collection of his later etchings.
    Interestingly the Hunterian Museum's copy is entitled simply "Parkscape" and is numbered 10/25 so I think you may be right that he didn't know what it was called!
    I did think mine at 3/3 was rarer than it perhaps is!

  4. Very pleased you find the post of so much interest, Mathew.

    It looks as if he produced two editions of 'Parkscape', one of 25 and one of 3. I now think I was wrong when I said the earlier edition was the smaller one. The one for sale from Garton & Cooke in 1986 was described as 'from the edition of 3 only'. It does suggest rarity, of course, but I know they went to Glasgow to buy work from Mrs Cheyne and quite possibly they bought work from Fleming at the same time because they had five of his woodcuts for sale. I wonder if he made this smaller edition for the exhibition you mention at Aberdeen. Do you rememeber the year? Whatever the answer, it was a wise buy on your part and you are fortunate to have his colour woodcuts in the family.

    Incidentally, the image I have here is the one you mention from the Hunterian collection. Unfortunately, online records for exhibitions at Aberdeen only go back to 1997. I am bemused they have no woodcuts in their collection.

    Anyway, many thanks for the information. The result of this reader interest needs to be a post devoted to Fleming's colour woodcuts. I intend to post everything I have, monochrome or otherwise, including a woodcut by Chica MacNab I have discovered since publishing this post. If there is any material at all you would like included - images, catalogues, reminiscences - you could always send scans, photos etc to me at I would be very grateful indeed.


  5. Thanks for the reply.
    There's something nagging at the back of my mind that the run of three was done in the 1920s. I may be totally wrong but I've got a vague recollection that someone told me Ian had a fire in his studio before the war and lost his blocks. I may however be talking out of my hat!
    I will see if I can take a half decent picture of my two woodcuts and sendthem to you for interest.

  6. I was entranced by The Glasgow Triptych print and in particular the railway panel at the Open Eye in Edinburgh in October1984 and contacted Ian. Due to a misunderstanding I first got a copy of Glasgow Landscape but then got the Triptych- 19 of 20. Some years later I bought from a dealer the pen and wash drawing of A bombed out Glasgow tenement. Recently in Aberdeen there was only 1 painting on display.

  7. Because I tend to deal with colour prints, I am a bit hazy about Fleming's work in black and white, but am always very impressed when I look at it again. I'm not sure what you mean by the Glasgow triptych but assume you are referring to work made during the second war. I know his early prints best and have been writing up the Glasgow printmakers of the 1920s for my book recently.