Sunday, 25 September 2011

Meryl Watts, John Platt & Blackheath School of Art

John Platt (1886 - 1967) arrived at his last teaching job in 1929 when he was forty-three. Before he came to Blackheath, he had held senior positions at Edinburgh College of Art as head of applied arts (1920 - 1923) and at Leicester College of Art as principal (1923 - 1929). It was the part-time position at Blackheath that attracted him, probably as it had done at Edinburgh. He had begun to make colour woodcuts in 1916 but had produced only seventeen by the time he settled into his top-floor studio, smock and all, in south London.

He wasn't prolific; he was meticulous instead. He had started out training as an engineer at Manchester University but was persuaded to go for the art option on the strength of his drawing - and please bear in mind that this was technical drawing, he wasn't at the Slade or anywhere.  I say all this so you can get a feel for the kind of regime that Meryl Watts (1910 - 1992) found herself in when she enrolled. When this was, I don't know for sure - about 1930. She was good enough by 1933 to be accepted as a member of the Society of Graver-Printers in Colour.

My hunch is that the fuzzy snow-scene you can see above was her first version of the school building. It has something rather strict in common with this kitchen interior, below, and another woodcut she made of a flower seller. Both of these prints rely heavily on the keylock for definition. The interesting thing about her view of the school is that the keyblock is only used to frame the print. This must be the influence of Platt himself. Also interesting is the way she simplifies the facade, removing the brick arches above the first and second floor windows but then adding pediments on the top floor windows. (The image is reversed). Nor does she differentiate between the two types of brick.


Platt had gradually begun to abandon the use of the keyblock between 1927 and 1932 and in the top image you can see the effect on his student in her use of planes of flat colour and recession to build up the picture. I also think that the collage, below, was work produced by her as a student under Platt's instruction. Though I have no proof of this it is her work.


A number of these tissue collages her by exist, all using the muted greens and brows that became so prevalent in the 1930s. (This one is remarkably similar to his woodcut Sails, 1933). We might see a more subtle sign of his influence in the way she made three versions of her woodcut of the school building. This was very much in line with Platt's own method. It took him so long to produce prints, it's no wonder he then made alternative versions. But her own print is so simple by comparision, in some ways it hardly merits that kind of attention.

I don't want to disparage Watts too much by drawing attention to this parental figure. All the same, it's striking that 1930 was quite late in the day to start learning colour woodcut. (And I don't know of anyone else who was taught the technique by Platt at this time). Having said that, I like the blue image, which ignores alot of the architectural detail, the best. You have to work out for yourself if it is the third one she made.


But was the influence all one way? Platt's approach had begun to change before he arrived at Blackheath and I've already suggested that it was Charles Paine's use of animal imagery that had a decisive influence on Platt. We have no way of knowing really what he learned from his student's work. But by the time Watt's came to make her Chestnut Seller she could make an image just as striking as Platt's - and, let's face it, he did make some of the most memorable images in British printmaking. It's hardly any wonder she stayed so long in his shadow. Her own father owned a printing works nearby. She wasn't one to stray too far from home. As I said, I would think all these images are local to her.


Even her pelican was nearby. She only had to go to St James Park in London to find them on the lake. Platt or no Platt, this is a fine image, with a lovely use of the grain of the wood at the bottom. Subtle, modern, modulated, beautifully modelled, she has got into her stride. I think it is just a shame that as she moved on to north Wales, the oddness of her images starts to prevail. Flounder I like less.


It is less modern that it looks. It's a pretty picture rather than analysis. To me, her later work shows she never really understood the modernist outlook - or that she just abandoned it, the way one abandons the keyblock. The print is also the work of a modeller. (She studied under the sculptor, James Woodford).

In some ways she was the permanent student and once  away from the institution, she loses direction. These two later prints of the Welsh landscape, for all their skill, are a touch stilted and fussy. I wonder also whether Flounder shows the influence of yet another of her teachers, the designer of stained glass, Charles Paine? Who knows? It is a refractory work nonetheless; everything shines through.





  1. You have managed to capture the true intent and artistic strength of Platt. It makes Prague look even more as it really is, dull, lifeless and flat. Platt is truly recognised as a master, and I love his works (I even own some) and this selection of words and images encapsulates why. It is also the visual sugar to the Prague visual medicine.

  2. On looking again you may have been a tad harsh on Meryl, I think those works are stunning. If you had not mentioned her teacher was Platt, I would have guessed it in an instant. The pelican is similar to Platt's monkey print in cubism and watered down colours. The collage as you rightly point out is spookily similar to Sails and The last one (Tenby?) is a sincere work of homage, almost appearing as a watercolour, but very much inspired by her teacher. It would have been tricky to eclipse Platt, but it was clear the homage to her teacher is ever present. Personally I like them and her works speak to me.

  3. You are right, there is some very good work here and I was a little unfair to poor old Meryl. I suppose I was prejudiced by some of the other work I've seen, especially the paintings.