Wednesday, 28 September 2011

John Platt: art & the engineer

You are a first year engineering student at the university of Manchester. One day a lecturer suggests you become an architect because you draw so well. But you drop architecture and decide on the life of an artist instead. Look at this wonderful photograph of IK Brunel and J Scott Russell taken at the launch of the SS Great Eastern at Millwall in 1858 and you will see the heroic image of the Victorian engineer. Was John Platt (1886 - 1967) just an imaginative young man who someone recognised would never be one of them?

He trained from 1903 to 1909, eventually graduating from the Royal College of Art. He had also become a fellow of the national society of art masters and we have to assume he had always intended to become a teacher. Even more interesting is this: he made no colour woodcuts untill his time in the army (1914 - 1918).  In Derbyshire, near Matlock (1917) was only his third. It isn't any easier to try and work out how an officer in the British army began to make exceptional prints as it is to identify exactly where he found this view. But it is recognisably Platt in its love of detail and the distance.


By the time he came to cut The Giant Stride in 1918, he was taking one of the biggest steps in modern British printmaking. Here, at only his fourth attempt, he made one of the most memorable and dramatic images of all. Almost everything went into it: his own children, his tremendous draughtsmanship, his fascination for dynamics, his love of the sea and boats. (The image is poor but that's a sailing ship and a steam ship in the distance.) It's one of those seminal works that artist's create from time to time: an image of the creative act itself.


It took him another two years to come up with Snow in springtime (1920). There was a print called Dawn in 1918 but with few proofs printed. His prints were a success but he was hardly prolific. He is very far from the modern artist knocking off bold, experimental images. All his printmaking life he remained true to the ideals of craftsmanship. But he also had to make a living as a teacher, moving from one art college to another: Harrogate, Derby then to Edinburgh in 1920.

This was a bold enough move in itself because Frank Morley Fletcher appointed him to the part-time post of head of applied arts, partly on the strength of  two very good prints. His training was wide but his experience actually strikes me as limited. No matter, he was there in Edinburgh alongside two of the best contemporary printmakers - Mabel Royds and Fletcher himself. It's this woodcut, The Scrum (1921) that convinces me that it was the heroic that captivated his imagination. There is already a strong feel for it in the exhuberance of children's play. But here we have the ancient Greek hero, controposto and all, turned out in a Scotland team jersey. The image comes from the time he spent in Edinburgh and this must show a game there, against either England or Wales, I assume - there is always more to Platt than meets the eye. He thought about his images with care. It's also highly original. Try and imagine Siegfried Berndt sketching at Murrayfield while he was studying in Scotland. But at least Berndt made three woodcuts of Scotland. What Platt gives us, though, isn't the Scottish landscape; it's the Scottish people (and their neighbours).

With Staithes, Yorkshire (1927) we are on woodcut number sixteen only. Six of those, including this one, take boats and harbours as their subject. The first was The jetty, Sennen Cove from December, 1921, the same year as The scrum. Most are humble fishing boats and trawlers, though there are also more exotic craft at St Tropez. What we never get is the sheer obvious love of it all so apparent in the work of Ethel Kirkpatrick and Siccard Redl. This image is a module, a set of interrelationships between form, colour and perspective. I chose this image, which is well-known, because heroism is still implied in the life of the people who live and work at Staithes. With Platt we are captivated by his sheer skill but should not forget there is also a teacher at work.


Teacher, and also father, because I wonder if the young woman shown here in The fruit harvest adopting a truly classical and heroic pose, is his daughter, Anthea. She would have been seventeen when he produced this copper engraving in November, 1929. Few artists, as I've said before, master both relief and intalgio methods. Platt did, but I think the engravings give away some of the weaknesses less apparent in his colour woodcuts. And I mean something of a well-made but sterile feel you find so often in the work of artists who are also teachers. The young woman stares away from us much like the young rugby player but is more impersonal than him. She is as absorbed in herself as the children were. Platt, like the smaller children, looks on - and makes us look, too.

I must acknowledge a considerable debt to Hilary Chapman's The colour woodcuts of John Edgar Platt (1999) and also credit Annex Galleries for In Derbyshire, near Matlock.


  1. I saw The Giant Stride at a printmaking exhibition in California last year, it's striking. I'm drawn to Snow in Springtime too, thanks for introducing me to that print.

  2. Nice prints! Great blog, Gratulation! : )
    You can check for more etching.

  3. Another chapter in the history of Modern British Printmaking, great reading Charles.

  4. the top one is new to me, and so lovely; i think you and i share a taste for translucency. what's amazing about platt is his ability to create bucolic peace and dynamic movement equally well.

  5. Yes, the British liked to use watercolour-based inks that gave them that translucent quality. Even the linocutters like Isabel de B Lockyer and Sylvan Boxsius used them. We used to start using watercolours from a very early age.