Sydney Lee (1866 - 1949) is the kind of artist who often interests me because they don't seem to quite fit in with the general pattern of things. And I always find there's something almost maladroit about his work, which seems to go with the individualist trend. He was brought up in Prestwich in Manchester and went to the school of art there (where I think Walter Crane was principal) and then made the move that was almost inevitable for people of his generation: he went to Paris. He trained at Colarossi's and once back in England, he became a habitue of art colonies in true European style: Walberswick, Staithes and, as you can see here, St Ives, in Cornwall.
The Sloop Inn shows a public house that was popular with artists. How much time he spent there, I do not know but he dud spend alot of time in St Ives in the mid/late 1890s. This print dates from 1904, a very early date for a British colour woodcut of this kind. Teaching of the Japanese method had only begun seven years before he made this print, so this places Lee at the start of the colour woodcut movement, along with Royds, Seaby and Giles. He was certainly no slouch.
Boatbuilding, St Ives certainly lets us know he knew the work of Henri Riviere. There is a similar naive draughtsmanship which comes across as more sophisticated in the Frenchman than it does here. All the same there is a lovely balance of tone and colours and no sign of his favourite colour - blue. This was also a subject that another artist also tackled.(See The definitive Ethel Kirkpatrick). She would certainly have known Lee through their mutual visits to St Ives and also as habitues of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Kirkpatrick took part in the first student exhibition after the founding of the school in 1897 and I strongly suspect that both Kirkpatrick and Lee attended Frank Morley Fletcher's trailblazing classes there. Fletcher moved on to Edinburgh in 1907, fatefully handing the class over to Lee. He continued to teach colour woodcut in the Japanese manner but by the time Noel Rooke took over from Lee a few years later, the class was set to become the crucible for modern British wood-engraving and Lee himself is primarily known as wood-engraver today. Like Emil Orlik and LH Jungnickel, Lee gave up making colour woodcuts after only a few years and by the time the Society of Graver Printers in Colour came into being in 1909, Lee was not amongst the founding members.
The image above also looks to me like one of his earliest. If it's by far the most French of the prints and not the kind of image many colour woodcutters would go on to make, it also suggests he knew the pictures of young men that Henry Scott Tuke was painting in Falmouth . It doesn't quite work as image for the medium in much the same way that John Dixon Batten's choice of subject may strike us now asn inappropriate. But this onlt shows that both artists were not prepared to simply follow Japanese conventions. Interestingly, both went on to other things soon afterwards. The use of blue here also reminiscent of early Batten and I wonder whether the figure of the half-submerged boy had found its way into the woodcut from Seurat's Bathers, Asnieres in the National Gallery. Needless to say I am deeply grateful to Robert Meyrick who sent me this fascinating print. (All three belong to him and anyone who missed the two St Ives images at auction in Germany earlier this year will probably never get the chance again). Mabel Royds was the only colour woodcut artist who went on to tackle male figure subjects with any seriousness and this woodcut of Lee's is as rare as any of them get.