Friday, 18 November 2011
Jean Armitage: tangled up in blue
There is still not alot known about the British printmaker Jean Armitage (1895 - 1988). I even hesitate to give these dates for her but they do look about right if you consider her training and her surprisingly long career. I think she must have been a Londoner as she lived in Camberley in the twenties and thirties. She trained at the Byam Shaw School, a private London art school for drawing and painting, which had been set up in 1910, but is best known today for colour woodcuts.
She may also be almost unique for having learned to make colour woodcuts from John Dickson Batten (1860 - 1932) a pioneer of the use of the Japanese method of printmaking back in the 1890s. From being a revivalist of the colour print, he went on to being a revivalist of the use of tempera, and this may have been how Armitage came to know him. Ironically, I think she may have been more influenced by Mary Batten (b 1873).
A gilder and woodcarver, I think it's safe to assume she learned the Japanese method of woodblock printing from her husband. Unlike him, she also adopted subject and style from the Japanese. Her Fritillaries owe a great deal to Hokusai's Large Flowers portfolio of the 1830s and I think the same can be said for many of Armitages flower prints. Unlike Batten, she interprets Hokusai with tremendous delicacy. That her style veers towards 1930s whimsy at times, is a part of the deal, I'm afraid. She had to sell prints.
She is certainly far less well-known for her landscapes but Loch Linnhe shows the same subtle use of blues and greys as the meconopsis at the top. This looks more Japanese to us partly because of the positioning of a single plant against a neutral background. But, as you can see by comparing the two prints, her sensibilty follows through. And this is what I like about her work. It doesn't matter really very much if the third image of long-tailed tits looks twee. A subtle use of colour and fine detailing are common to all three woodcuts. And the same craftsmanship is there.
And I would not be at all surprised to learn that it was Armitage's prints that Claude Flight complained about when he made his criticism that colour woodcut mimicked watercolour. It may have mimicked watercolour but I can tell Claude Flight this: these artists' prints were almost always better than their watercolours. Artists like Armitage had found a successful medium for themselves and fortunately her work is still something we can all afford, unlike Flight's contraptions.
I should add that I am grateful to Hilary Chapman for Loch Linnhe and William P Carl for Blue Poppies. Neither print is now for sale. I'm not in the least surprised.