Helen Stevenson has always presented me with a dilemna for as long as I can remember, and no more so than today, with the shocking news from Art and the Aesthete. For here is a post about an artist that Clive researched with such persistence, it now feels less like a celebration and more like a wake. I'm only relieved I was able to nab an image of Clive's own print The hen wife before it went forever. I am also pleased to be able to say the first time he came across her work was when he saw my own print of Gylen Castle, Kerrera so it provides some consolation, at least. Where I came across the print was in Ayres old shop on Museum Street in London. I went in asking after colour woodcuts and, to my astonishment, the assistant went into the basement and brought up two - both by Stevenson,with the lot numbers still stuck to the glass. She was completely forgotten by then and I took so long over the decison, Christina began to lose patience with me (not for the last time) but I opted for the landscape in the end. But the most surprising twist to the story is this: I never went back and bought the other one.
To console you all I have a new image of Loch Shiel that displays the purity of colour that is so typical of Stevenson. She was an Edinburgh artist (and trained at the College of Art in the days when Morley Fletcher was principal and John Platt head of applied arts) but I have yet to come across any urban subjects let alone woodcuts of her home city. Many of the woodcuts here are of places in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland, or very near. Mallaig, which used to be in the county of Inverness, is only a few miles north of Loch Shiel, and the Appin peninsula only a few miles to the south. Kerrera is a small island just off the coast. I think we can safely assume that both Campers and The hen wife also both show Argyll. Possibly she used to stay in the area or had family there, but the places I mention are all relatively close one to the other.
You will notice how well she makes use of the limitations of modern colour woodcut byher use of subtle colour and expressive brushwork. Clive told me how remarkable the ultramarine is in The hen wife. I know from my own print just what depth of colour she achieves not just describing the sea but the grass along the cliff top. I always thought this was the most remarkable aspect to the print. The designs are fairly conventional but she is quietly original - no more so than when she is using the convention of the keyblock. Whereas other colour woodcut artists went on to lessen their reliance on the keyblock, Stevenson made a virtue of it. The ruins of Gylen Castle and the rocks around them are almost virtuose in their use of the keyblock. And this print has been dated 1937, pretty late by British colour woodcut standards.
This is what makes me think Clive's own print might belong to this rather later period. There is the same vigour and boldness in the description of the thatch, trees and hens. You can also see the emphatic use of outline around the print with the attractive use of uneven line and rounded corners. Some of these prints like Evening, Mallaig (above) and Rain over Appin (at the bottom) have a Celtic Twilight delicacy about both their colouring and conception. I once saw another one for sale - a view of heather-clad hillsides from across a loch and again there was the same intensity of colour combined with bold design. I won't go into the reasons why I failed to buy that one but they are almost always unedifying. That said, I think the price tag of £250 may have had something to do with it - and it was quite a few years ago.
She became art teacher at St Andrew's Cottage School in Edinburgh as soon as she finished her course in 1924. If the dates we have are right, she was still exhibiting colour woodcuts as late as 1937. It was only the true diehards like Platt and Ian Cheyne who went on that long (and to some extent after the war). But it's not just this fact that suggests to me a true love both of her chosen medium, and of Argyll - it's the work itself. There is nothing inessential about it. It has the sure touch that gives lasting value, as I have found out.