Sunday, 30 October 2011

The other Allen Seaby

It may seem paradoxical (I might even go say far as to say perverse) to devote a post to monochrome, or more-or-less monochrome, prints by an artist was was one of the most unashamed colourists of them all. Allen Seaby (1867 - 1953) was a great apostle of the colour print. Like both William Giles and St Paul, he was considerably more brazen than the master. He took to colour with conviction. It is rarely subordinate to draughtsmanship as it became in the hands of John Platt. Bright or subtle, it often washes across the paper in large and unrestricted areas, accompanied by his signature brushwork. From the beginning he had given this treatment, by and large, to wild birds but some time around the first war, he turned his attention to a small number of domestic animals that he portrayed with both restraint and sympathy. And, really, this provide the reason behind the post.

Nor are there many of them. He gives us a pair of foxhounds in a yard, two pigs rooting, rabbits in a hutch and ponies with a foal. They are the kind of animals he saw around him while at work in his hut in the New Forest. Three of them are so similar in style, they form a group. He is considering other possibilities. Plainly, this line of work was not something he could continue with but even so they look forward to the many drawings he made as illustrations for his own books for children. (The rabbits, ponies and pigs were all made by 1922). So they do provide a link forward to later work.

Call me a sentimentalist but I like this prints and also find them interesting. They hint at what Seaby may have recognised as the limitations to his work so far, in all its rainbow glory.


The pair of hounds with a bowl stand in fair contrast to the same subject I posted recently by Walther Klemm. (See 'The studio at Liboc' October, 2011). So much so, I can't help but feel Seaby knew Klemm's work. But while Klemm typically goes for psychology, with his dogs half-cowering, half-creeping towards their bowl of food, Seaby places them on the ground, ignoring the contents of the earthernware dish. He also sees them totally from outside; there is no inwardness here. There is breeding, yes, an understated nobility, perhaps, but that is all. It is all as English as the shires.

And this is one point I want to make. Seaby the naturalist offers us habitat. On one occasion there are swans in a classical park but the actual environments he depicts are academic ones: Eton College; Magdalen College, Oxford; St Andrews in Scotland. (All this was important to Seaby who had become Professor of Fine Art at University College, Reading, in 1920 at the age of fifty three). Even Porlock suggests the poet Coleridge. But the contexts he gives us in these prints are decidedly downbeat  - the farmyard, the common. Beyond that, the concern is more subtle. It is England.

It is also the world of confinement. The ring against the wall and the dish on the ground define the space for the pair of hounds. And because of them, we immediately understand the purpose of these dogs. Before dawn the next day, they will be responding to the huntsman's horn, just as much as the pigs will be in the pan, the rabbits in the stew. It is the ordinary human world they inhabit, not the natural one. The ponies are native breeds, their survival threatened by lack of use, and Seaby was to go to plead their cause for many years through his pony stories for children. But it is the native British element that is crucial for him.

In removing colour from the equation, he was able to look harder at the subject. Beyond what I have said so far, is the dappled play of light. He selects his animals with care. The markings of both the rabbits and the pigs allow for a subtle change in reflected light. (The glint in the eye of both rabbits is nicely done). In this way he builds up shape. These animals, especially the rabbits, are palpable; they breathe, they digest. The colourful codes of aestheticism are some way behind him.

It is one of the problems with trying to understand Seaby that he never dated his work. There are various ways his prints can be put into order but I would say he was responding to circumstances in this group of woodcuts. Where he uses colour, with the pair of hounds, the patterning of their markings and the way they link up to each other in the composition, is carefully done. There is none of the striving for effect of a Bresslern Roth when she approached the same subject (by way of Walther Klemm). One thing I will say about Seaby, he is never trite. It is almost as if he had suddenly become ashamed of his peacock ways. He has become literal instead, propagandist even - not rabidly - but even so, the Englishman is there.



  1. i've been thinking a lot lately about that dating thing; it will never happen again. there's a sense now that everything can be preserved so it should be. the back side of that is that one's self is never engaged with the present, as there is always a capturing celphone between the veiwer and the view.

    but anyway... these are indeed lovely, charles. not only visually, but emotionally -- one can sense the actual consciousness of each different animal.

    i think that maybe there is no thought in animals-- just tremendous intuition, sensitivity, and emotion; very present in each moment: each bunny a zen master.

  2. These are indeed very nice prints Charles, he reminds me of the art Theo van Hoytema (1863-1917) in many ways but most of all in delicacy.

  3. There is no denying the influence and importance of Seaby, but by comparison to many German and Austrians his works are static and not always vivid. I would say, Bresslern Roth is far the better master of the animal in the print, but mostly because her works are imbued with life, and not just reliant on colour. Seaby's place in British printmaking is solidified however so it doesn't matter much I guess. I always preferred the works of William Giles, Platt, precisely because they are such wonderful exercises in movement and colour.

  4. Well, yes, I am underwhelmed by Seaby, too, but his printing technique was very good and on occasions he produced some crackers - his bittern and heron are pretty good. But I don't go for his flying birds; they don't usually convince me. But it's the problem with being naturalist, conservationist, educationalist and artist. So many other concerns get in there. The only Seaby I ever had, I sold. Some ponies plonked on a hillside.

    The reason his reputation is solidified is because people havent't seen enough of the good stuff! Including the Germanics, as you call them.