Thursday, 6 October 2011

A tour of Scotland


It's not very often that Modern Printmakers features artists from north America but Norma Bassett Hall's 'A Highland croft' was impossible to resist. Quite simply, it is one of the finest woodcut images of Scotland from between the wars and even though the mountains have an American sense of grandeur (that blue is just too talkative for Scotland) she does do the country justice. She went there specifically to train with Mabel Royds who had returned to Edinburgh College of Art in 1919. I believe, though, the tuition was private. I don't think Hall enrolled as a student.


I have to say I am disappointed by the general failure of the English staff at the college to come up with more images of Scotland. Royd's own Edinburgh Castle is a fine piece of work but hardly original as a subject. Better is John Platt's The scrum (see the recent post on Platt) which I think must show a match at Murrayfield in Edinburgh, with the Scotland team in blue-striped jerseys. Different again is Royd's work for the chancel ceiling at St Mary the Virgin in Hamilton in South Lanarkshire.

It is sometimes unnerving to see other work by an artist when you have praised their printmaking. In this case, though, Royd's bringing the conventions of church imagery up-to-date is fascinating. Bold and twenties and even art deco in feel and no worse than similar work produced down in Sussex by Vanessa Bell, but Eric Gill it isn't.


I also had no option when it came to including the work of another of her students. Helen Stevenson's Loch Shiel (on the coast of Argyll) will be the least well-known of her colour woodcuts that appears online. Less well-known (and not so good) is Arabella Rankin. But Afterglow on Mull, with its very William Giles title, gives a feel for the other prints being produced in Scotland at the time. All that I know about her is she was born in 1871 and also worked at Porthleven in Cornwall.

And I have to say the same about Ann Alexander. This is her Road to Taynuilt by Connel and I already have to excuse myself for posting so many lochs-and-heather images. But that is what there is. You can look elsewhere on the blog for Ian Fleming's Glasgow but work showing urban Scotland - or not the popular Highlands and Islands - is uncommon. It's a shame but this does say alot about the market for colour prints at the time. I'm also uncertain whether Anna Findlay's linocut The paper mill (1934) is an image of Scotland.


Which brings me to a far more sophisticated work - Ian Cheyne's Loch Duich from 1934. It shows a sea-loch on the west coast, very much part of the area that attracted Stevenson. I don't think the reproduction gets across the subtlety of Cheyne's work but you only have to look at the dramatic viewpoint and the dancing lines to see what kind of an artist we are dealing with. He was in his prime when doing this kind of work in the thirties and although he trades in the same kind of imagery as Rankin and Alexander, his view of things is so original and fresh, he takes you with him. Like Emma Bormann, he takes you into the subject; he doesn't stand back from it.

Probably less well-known to readers will be Robert Scott Irvine (1906 - 1988). Essentially a painter, here we have a linocut from 1923. He was a student at Edinburgh College of Art between 1922 and 1927 but even so didn't appear to succumb to Mabel Royds or the colour woodcut, surprising because both the prints I came across are strong, and his paintings are modern, graphic and lyrical. This linocut, with its drama and attenuated figures and deer could easily be Emma Schlangenhausen.


And to round out the picture, a wood-engraving by one of Irvine's teachers of painting, Adam Bruce Thomson (1885 - 1976).


By comparison, Allen Seaby's woodcut Shetland ponies begins to look dated in the way it carries on the pre-war, painterly tradition of colour printmaking. I used to own this print and the effect of the orangey-brown spots of lichen combined with bits of foxing was very disconcerting. It just shows that even Seaby didn't always get it right; the twigs of heather and the lichen didn't quite seem to belong to the print. Even so, I now regret selling it (to a friend). It was laid down. This I never like.

Seaby may well have stopped off for nine holes on his way up to Shetland - I am assuming that he did go that far. As I've said elsewhere on the blog, Seaby was a great fan of British ponies and no doubt he would have taken the long trip to Shetland to see the ponies for himself. But this second print, St Andrews, shows the home of golf, in Fife. In many ways, I think Steven Hutchins actually improved on this nice but rather stolid image.

Preferable is this second image by Ian Cheyne, Helmsdale, 1933. The town is on the east coast of Sutherland, as I've said before. I include this colour woodcut again for two reasons: I thought this was an especially good photo and also because you can buy the thing. You will need $1,300 but Ian Cheyne colour woodcuts are just plain rare, this looks like a good proof and - hey! you only live once. Just look at those greens and pinks. You will also note that it is signed, something very important for any Cheyne print. Nor am I working on commission here! But if you are interested is the place you want.  Rare, and just plain bloody brilliant, if you ask me.



  1. Charles, let's rob a bank! Thanks for the tour, the Ian Cheynes are both very spectacular prints. I've never seen them before. I'll settle for the Alexander.

  2. just leave it to us yanks! ;^) (actually, nobody here actually calls us that, nor have they since 1945.)

    but it's true, i do love that top one (while i continue to marvel at your top choice always mirroring mine); the colours at work in those mountains....

    i couldn't figure out whose was the one with the golden clouds and the lake, but i love that one too.

  3. The choice of Bassett Hall for the top spot was your own, Lily, because I'd checked out the comments on Art and the Aesthete so no mystery there this time!

    Gold clouds is Arabella Rankin.

    And, by the way, nobody here says Yanks either - well, apart from my dad (who is 91).

  4. oh my god, charles -- you truly are wonderfully sneaky!!

  5. That Ian Cheyne is pretty modernist for a hardcore conservative like me, but I must admit that I like these prints a lot- especially Loch Duich. I happened to spend my holidays in this area some 30 years ago, and seeing the image brings back sweet memories. Unfortunately this is not the one for sale (and even if it was, I doubt that "Hey, you only live once." would sound very convincing to my wife!)


  6. The point about Ian Cheyne, Klaus, is similar to the point to Modern Printmakers: his art is a subtle combination of modernist, art deco and C19th Japanese styles. He may be modernist but he is never less than chic. This is what makes him accessible to even the most undiluted Bavarian conservative.

    As an artist he is as persuasive as I am. Once seen, never forgotten.


  7. But not conservative.

  8. Charles,

    one good thing about following your blog is that I keep learning new English words. Is "undiluted" the same as "hardcore"? You are right about the art deco feeling of the Cheyne! And by the way: I wasn't born in Bavaria.


  9. When you drink Scotch neat, it means you don't dilute it with ice and water. So it means (if anything) full-strength.

    Hardcore, as a usage, is rather racy. The Oxford Concise gives 'blatant, uncompromising'.