Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A day on the Thames with Ethel Kirkpatrick & Sylvan Boxsius

I wouldn't blame you for thinking these two artists have very little in common. The one adapted the plein air marine tradition to woodcut in the Japanese manner, the other was a teacher and master of faux-naif linocut of considerable sophistication. But they have an unexpected subject in common simply because they were probably born less than a mile from one another. The Cornwall artists index have Kirkpatrick born at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell (although the only record I have seen says she was born in Holborn). Either way, the Boxsius family lived nearby in the City and I assume that Sylvan Boxsius that he was born there too. This helps to explain why we have this strange-looking boat that looks marooned.

It's a Thames sailing barge, something both artists must have been familar with. Boxsius spent much of his life in London and for a number of years worked at Bolt Court in Fleet St only a few hundred yards from the river. Although Kirkpatrick left London when she was young, she returned from St Ives in 1906 to live at the family house at Harrow-on-the-Hill - not exactly London but near enough. And I use this photograph partly to show you just how well Boxsius picked up both the colours of the boats and those of the riverbank.

Kirkpatrick made this image of the river Thames in 1911, at a time when it was a busy port and the red-sailed barges were still familar. I suspect that the approach that Boxsius took was a little more complex. He is very much an artist of distance and memory. His barge looks landlocked. They were at use on canals as well as along the coast but this one looks like a museum piece. This isn't a lively image of the river he knows so much as the one that he remembers.

This is the William and Ann taken about 1884. Boxsius would have been very familar with what you see here. He was eight years old the day this barge sailed up the Thames (Kirkpatrick was fourteen) but his linocut of the barge must certainly date from the mid 1920s, over forty years later.

Even so, there are very few identifiable views of the river by Boxsius. Here is Kew Bridge. I never noticed untill I prepared for this post that there is a barge moored beside the bridge. It is classic Boxsius, with its rather reticent use of colour and recession. You only have to compare a print like this with the contemporary work of Claude Flight to see there were credible alternatives to the Grosvenor School.

I assume that these sharper images belong to the 1930s. Evening on the water may well show the Thames estuary. The woodcut below has been described as showing both the Thames and the Clyde but as these are sailing barges, I now tend to think we are looking across the Thames but I just don't know that area well enough to really say.

Either way, you can compare this photo with Kirkpatrick's woodcut. For all her stylisation, both in form and colour, she remains true to the boats. She merely adapts them, the way she adapts the trees in the foreground, to her own style. But then that is what I like about both of them as artists - the balance between style and observation. I would like to say definitely that that is the Greenwich Observatory you can see on the hill but I can't commit myself quite so far, not just yet.


  1. Charles - this mixture of artwork and photographs is very rewarding to the reader, though quite taxing in terms of research for you. Lovely post.

  2. Thank you, Neil. I was intrigued when Gerrie sent me a Boxsius barge that was big enough to use. After Siccard Redl, and then the boats of Venice, I was tuned into vessels, so it was pretty easy.

    I only want to illustrate that there is more to the colour printmakers than we have tended to think.