Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Isabel de B Lockyer

I used to know someone who would say 'Isabel de B Lockyer' so grandly I got it into my head that, of all the forgotten artists, she must be the most glamorous, the most desirable. So when I eventually found a linocut of hers in a shop in Camden Passage, Islington, I was inevitably confused. It was called The striped sail; it was quite small; it was rather abstract. It had none of the bravura I liked to associate with colour woodcut or linocut and I left it there in the shop. I have never seen another one since.

But, if I was wrong to leave The striped sail down in Islington, my other instincts were proved correct. There is chic and glamour in these early landscapes - the little temple screened by trees in Near Vevey (1924), the Italian coast, above, in Rapallo (1926) and the stylish The lagoon, Corfu (1928). They all make me think of house-parties in the country and holidays abroad. And indeed I think she chose as mentor an artist with the most glamorous light of them all. I mean William Giles (see WG: modern printmaker, March, 2011). There is no record that he actively taught her anything but we only have to look at Near Vevey to see that she knew his work very well. But this is Giles without any pretence at realistic lighting. He went to extremes to get that kind of pink; I don't think Switzerland is quite so northern lights as that.

As I said  'Ada Collier, ancient and modern' (March, 2011), we do know that Giles taught Collier and this does suggest to me that other artists may have gone to him for tuition. We not only find the same improbable colours in her linocuts, she also goes in for his precision. She is not only exact about titles, at times she goes in for describing the light the way he does. But in almost all other respects, there the tutorship ends. Although they may look like colour woodcuts because of the water-based inks she uses, all these prints were made from linoblocks. The works from the twenties are also landscapes, very much in line with many British colour woodcutters of that period, including Ian Cheyne and Helen Stevenson. By 1930, though, there is a change.
The shop window from 1930 is typical - schematic and with more of an interest in the human figure. Inevitably, again, it hard to really know what these changes mean without knowing more about her or seeing more of her work. I've deliberately placed these prints in chronological order (she always dated her work) but we only have a run of eleven years here, which isn't very much to go on. What I do think we can see is the influence of the Grosvenor School, especially when she chooses social or popular activities like shopping or picnics as her subjects. Bear in mind that both Giles and Claude Flight were the kind of men who very much wanted to show what could be done with their chosen mediums. So far as Isabel de Bohun Lockyer went, it seems that work had its effect.

Which brings us to Wembury Church (1933). The Lockyers came from Plymouth and one of them bought Wembury House in the early C19th. He later moved to Australia with the British Army but the family connection clearly took Lockyer to south Devon to produce this rather unsual offshore print. (It's been pointed out that you could have only see the church this way from a boat). The de Bohun bit of her name is something of a mystery. So far as I can see, the de Bohuns only had a residual Devon connection and my own feeling is that this rather grand addition to her name was made by Lockyer herself. It makes her name as complex as one of Giles' titles.

I like the name, as I said; and what I do like very much about her work is the variety. She uses a wide range of colours but usually doesn't let her interest in them predominate  - one of Giles' failings. If she has no interest in natural light (even at its Giles' weirdest) she does have a strong sense of the social world around her. I suspect her early voguish landscapes suggest a social milieu as much as the portrait etchings of Emil Orlik do. These are very specific types of places she is recording. It a view of them as pleasurable with their isolated old buildings. The fur coats, the cloche hats, the Japanese sun shade only add to the general feeling of fashionable exclusivity. [It would also be wrong of me not to credit in Sydney for five of these prints.]


  1. charles! -- these are so charming. the colors are worth rolling around in! is this the pink post you promised a while back?

    the colors in that first one! the shop window and this last are too funny. who knew that they had invented cell phones in those early days!

  2. I have to admit the first one is probably my favourite.

    And, yes, she's a scream. You can't help but feel there's some great private joke going off. I mean, just what are those dustbins doing in the background?


  3. As you know Charles, I rate rather highly. When she got things right, she really got them right. Which is also why probably Claude Flight liked her works and included them in his curated exhibitions prior to WWII. The thing that strikes me about her works is that she sort of veers from striking deco images with a strong sense of visual repetition. This reminds me of the Grosvenor School and the Vorticist movement. Unlikely that this was an accident, but I tend to think it was more to do with the aesthetics of the time, than any mimicry on her behalf. Then she did those rather watery and whimsical pieces which are, in some ways, ahead of their time, although not always to my taste.
    The Wembury Church was one of the pieces included in the Flight curated exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, and I think it is easy to see why. I am also pretty sure that the de Bohun part of her name wasn't a later affectation. I seem to recall something about it in information from the V&A, but it was a few years ago, and I am turning into an amnesiac.
    You are right about the lighting aspect, she has no interest in the natural light at all, it's all about the line and the impact therein. I cannot help but love her works though, and I know you do too.

  4. I have 2 of her prints which I think are rather charming - I bought them, at different times, from Leigh Underhill's in Camden Passage years ago - perhaps one of them was the one that you saw.

  5. Fascinating to hear from you mrswoo. It was indeed Leigh Underhill but by the time I got there, most of the colour prints had been framed up and sold. There was only The Striped Sail and a Rigden Read left. Yours was a wise buy. Lockyers are now hard to come by. But you must have added to your collection since then.