This was not the impecunious young artist. By the time he had married Kate, he was close to forty and already successful as a watercolourist but in 1913, with financial support from her father, the couple undertook a momentous trip planned to take five years to the East. Travelling across much of British India and then China, they eventually arrived in Japan in 1915. The timing could not have been better for him. He could not have known before he arrived that the canny Tokyo publisher, Shozaburo Wantanabe, had just decided to package his latest commercial enterprise as shin hanga, or new prints. First working with the contemporary Japanese artist Goyo Hashiguchi and then the Austrian watercolourist Fritz Capelari, he had begun to combine good old-fashioned ukiyo-e workshop practice with enough elements of Western art to make them palatable to the US and European markets. It is pretty certain that Bartlett had heard about his work with Capelari because one fine day, portfolio of watercolours in hand, he walked into the print shop in Kyobashi and showed them to Wantanabe.
The publiser's first move was to to give Bartlett a set of Japanese brushes and urge him to practice underpainting. The blocks would be cut and printed by specialist craftsman; it would be Bartlett's job to produce designs showing aspects of his travels in both India and Japan. He had certainly travelled quite some distance from contemporary developments in colour woodcut back home in London where the idea of original colour woodcuts was taking hold in much the same way as it was amongst Japanese artists. But the attractions of ukiyo-e were obvious: he would not have to learn the craft and he could get on with his career. Just like the surfers in Surf riders, Honolulu, he had learned to take opportunities as they came along. This wave was probably one of the biggest of his life. By the following year a set of no less than 22 prints had been published. The first India series of six were almost immediately exhibited in New York.
Khyber Pass belongs to this first set but I think he went on to do more accomplished work and other Indian subjects were published about 1919 and the two great shaded panoramas Silk merchants, India and Peshawar that you see here combine magic and indolence, turbans and camels, in a way that is as unreal as it is irresistable. He combines cliches with sensitivity in a quite breath-taking manner and manages to avoid both the topographical niceties and occasional awkwaradness of the earlier India prints. To my mind the Japanese set are of less interest. Having a Japanese print manner ready to hand, he made use of it. This may well have been Wantanabe's idea but at first glance they could be anyone.
They left Japan in 1917, heading for Honolulu, to open a one-man show of his work. My reading of the situation is that their host proved very persuasive and the Bartlett's put off their departure for the US and eventually England, more than once. They never left. In all a total of 39 woodblocks were produced by Wantanabe from Bartlett's designs up untill 1926. I'm not exactly sure about any later printed works but in 1933, he helped set up Honolulu Printmakers. If some of his watercolour portraits are anything to go by, he became a fairly conventional artist in Hawaii and ended up becoming a hermit even by his own account.
It's a story that isn't unique in British printmaking but it is as striking and original as the prints that were produced. Another, perhaps more forceful British artist was to come along soon and give the wily Wantanabe a better run for his money and also prove to be one of his most loyal artists, particularly after the disastrous earthquake of 1923 when all his blocks were destroyed. I am of course talking about the inimitable Elizabeth Keith.