Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Katharine Jowett: forbidden city

Your visual education has to start somewhere but with the British printmaker Katharine Jowett (1890 - 1965)  we do not know where that was. Most readers are probably not familar with the west front of Exeter Cathedral but looking at her prints, they make me think its great carved screen and ornate towers. But then I know that her father was a minister in the town. Even so, almost all her prints are architectural and they have a similar articulate flamboyance.

I can't offhand think of any British artist who achieved such depth of colour in their linocuts. By comparision, some Grosvenor artists look almost insipid. And, of course, this is exactly what she is noted for. How she achieved this is another matter. Because she appears to have left Exeter or Devon in the 1920s when British linocut was was only getting started and went to China where she stayed untill the end of the second war. In that time she made a minimum of about twenty five prints,with variations, and as she was interned by the Japanese during the war, she probably worked for no more than about fifteen years. And for those fifteen years she had one subject only and that was old Pekin.

It was a ready-made subject because she lived there. But it obviously interested her a great deal. She moves from one view to another, almost to the point of monotony. Many of the subjects are similar but some prints are more expressive than others, the viewpoints less conventional, the vigourous use of colour as fauve as any English artist. But she isn't Bloomsbury; she is remarkably free of affectation for a thirties printmaker.


Ironically, this is what I like about her. She apprehends the physical world and renders it with tremendous purity. I have to assume this came about becase she had talent but wasn't trained and stood outside the trends at home. Somewhere she learned to make linocut - quite possibly from one of Claude Flight's books and through another printmaker. (The person she has most in common with is Isabel de B Lockyer who also had Devon connections as it happens and occasionally their architectural views are similar). I am not trying to present her as a naive artist in some way; I just think she was independant. In this she is clearly different from travellers like Elizabeth Keith and Charles Bartlett who both turned their watercolours into prints. Funnily enough, the work you see here by Jowett is more intense and painterly than theirs but basically is conceived in terms of linocut and nothing else. For this, if nothing else, she deserves credit.

One facet of her work that I don't think has been commented on are her cloudscapes. They hark back to the British watercolour tradition but have an emphasis that lets you know she was well-aware of what was happening in the visual arts in 1920s Britain. Equally, the bold shapes, merging colours and pattern-making are just as typical of the period but they never intrude too much on her subject. She isn't a show-off; she loves what she sees and this makes her detachment and control all the more impressive.



  1. I can't recall having seen other then her chinese prints nor examples with such saturated (beautiful) colors as yours. She has a lovely hand of drawing. Combined with always(?)using the same format, just a few are of a horizontal design, and the great balance in colors contributes very much to a kind of familiar perception of constant high quality, don't you agree ?

  2. The only prints we know show Pekin and I've been more careful recently to find the best photos that I can. So, I'm glad you appreciated the colours.

    It's interesting that you mention her drawing skills because I'd never really thought about it. But some of her sketchiness (for instance the trees in the foreground of the last print) is very modern-looking indeed.

  3. I have some of her linocuts, and I have always loved her works. You are right to make the comparison with Isabel de Bohun Lockyer. They are quite similar although of course IdBL was the more proficient and skilled artist, and of course the one that was trained. Jowett was not trained, but it doesn't diminish her works. I love the saturated colour and the almost chalky character they have in person. She used to send her works back to London where they were snapped up and sold out. I think the downfall of her works is that she printed them on what I consider to be inferior printing paper and what appears to be fairly acidic paper so even when they are not laid down, the paper seems to suck much of the life out of them. As many as you come across that are stunning, there are twice as many that are just damaged beyond repair.

    IdBL also created works that were and are larger than many of the linocuts of the time. This is not the case with the Grosvenor grads or Jowett. I know whose works I love more.


  4. The only Jowett I have ever come across was in such poor condition, it just wasn't worth buying (much to my frustration) so I was very interested to hear what you say about the paper she used. It seems strange that she couldn't buy handmade paper from Japan.

    Also interested to hear about her selling out in London. Do you know who her dealer was?

  5. In fact, looking for suitable for this post, I noticed how variable they werem and that should give any buyer pause for thought. The clarity and vigour of the ones you see here are testimony to what a fine printmaker she actually was.

  6. Hi Charles, I believe initially she exhibited at the China Society in London, and then her works were introduced to Redfern Gallery which is where they were hugely popular and were written about. One reason for the very thick paper, is that Jowett used oils instead of watercolours. The luminosity comes from the fact that she applied the colours over and over giving the works a depth but also an other-worldly feeling. This technique allowed her to create astonishing works with depth and then in other images, an almost unfocused imagery as though looking at a landscape with a vaseline covered lens, or looking through humidity at sundown. The downside is of course that the paper often breaks down very quickly and unless it was framed properly it disintegrates and is damaged. The oils often soaked through anyway and over time, as you can imagine they papers were damaged. She retired to Okehampton in her later years.

  7. Clive, I really appreciate the time you've taken over this. As you know, it'sd always been my opionion that you have to see the prints themselves to really know what is going off so the fact that you own three is invaluable.

    I assume she exhibited at the annual Lino-cut exhibition though no one actually seems to say so. She must have done some experimentation before she got the whole thing to work. The interesting thing about the prints os that none of themn appear 'early or 'late'. Alot of the British linocutters were becoming more representational and more subdued in colour by about 1932.

    I decided against repeating the bio. you had already posted.

  8. Thank you for the kind words Charles. The paper is, I think, printing paper which I think was standard at the time, but quite acidic. No doubt she chose it because it held the ink but the oil over time soaks through and seems to darken the prints. I have seen 5 of them and I have three, but only two are framed. The other sits in storage but I took it out to check my recollections. What I have seen previously, and in my third print is that the oil seems to do something to the paper.

    It's entirely possible she didn't always use the same variety of paper and that would explain the vast difference between the good; the bad and the damaged beyond belief. The other thing that is interesting about her works is that the locally sourced oils and the paper sometimes give an almost chalky flat look. I love them, and I always find her eye is quite wonderful.

    She is all about the angles, the lines and the shapes and quite cubist in some ways. I feel she is terribly under-rated and perhaps it's because the works one comes across are so tremendously varied. I also checked my notes and it seems she exhibited with Colnaghi not Redfern. She didn't seem to be particularly moved or motivated by sales. It was more like pocket money, and a hobby that paid. It's like the old saying, love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life.

    I am also drawn to her life story. She sounds like a very interesting woman who was tremendously adventurous, but her later years were not necessarily happy and I recall there some familial estrangement in the later years. No doubt she suffered whilst a POW of the Japanese, and I imagine she was haunted by the experience. My bio of her I think is a little crispy and dry. Yours is not.

  9. I sometimes wonder if the tale was simplified in the telling. Who knows? But what you say certainly explains why the one I saw for sale was in such poor condition. The colours had seeped into each other as though it had got damp. I assumed that was what had happened but all those lustrous colours had gone dismal.

    I know she had a couple of pieces as illustrations in the Christian Science Monitor. It strikes me as interesting that Jowett, Keith and the Bartletts were all Christian Scientists. Keith had some bizarre things to say about people of other religions - that they were all Christian folk at heart. What can she have meant?

  10. I have several of her prints, and a few of them are still in the original mats. I believe she matted them herself, as the titles on the mats appear to be in her hand. The mats are far from acid-free and probably contribute to the discoloration of the paper, along with oil seepage. The paper also seems to be highly prone to foxing, as several of mine and others I've seen online appear heavily foxed.


  11. I must not forget to add, though, that her compositions and coloration are really terrific, especially as an untrained (allegedly) artist. So little appears to be known about her and her working techniques that I would not be surprised if she did have printmaking or painting teachers at some point. Her sense of geometry and especially her ability to decode a scene into layers for carving into the blocks is quite advanced. I don't believe anyone has published a complete list of her prints. I still occasionally see new pictures I was not aware of.


  12. I have sorted out more of her basic biography since I posted this but I still don't believe she had much in the way of formal art training. She was a missionary not an artist.

    The paper she used was quite crude and as you suggest her standards weren't all that professional. Like you, I have seen prints that have deteriorated badly. I also think her range of subjects was limited in a way that a professional artist wouldn't be.

    Yes, I also agree with what you say about the number of prints she made. Someone online has a list with images but it certainly isn't definitive because, like you, I see prints which aren't on.

    You can always contact me at and I can look up my notes. Did you buy your prints in the USA?

  13. I have 2 K Jowetts one is of Coal Hill Peking and the other is of Corner of Forbidden City Peking.
    Both are in very good condition even though the colours are not as strong as on the images on this blog page even though both prints are featured.
    The frames look to be original
    One is marked BCN 197 and the other is BCN 194
    I would love to know if they have any value
    Best regards
    07710 390952

    1. Having a print in a frame, original or not, is not the best start. It means it's been on the wall and colour prints by Jowett can deteriorate easily. I don't think the method she used was very stable and it sounds as if yours have faded. As I said in the post, her colours were bright.

      People can still pay silly money for faded prints simply because they don't know how they should look. Jowetts might fetch a few hundred pounds in good nick. Colour prints are becoming more scarce, so who knows what someone will stump up? It continues to amaze me that an artist as simple as Jowett is could still fetch good money.

  14. Hello, I have 7 Jowett prints. They were bought by a relative when he was attached to the British Embassy in Peking in the 1930s. We are downsizing our house and in the future will have no place for them. They are in frames, but have always been hung in corridors, in the dry and in subdued ie never direct light. The colours, to an untrained eye are still quite vivid. I live in France and will, over the next few months, be going back to the UK. I would like to sell the prints and would appreciate any information on a dealer or auction house contact where these prints might achieve their potential, whatever that may be.

    My thanks to one and all in advance

  15. Online dealers like Campbell Fine Art or Hilary would be interested, but you would have to have a good idea of what you want. Abbott and Holder on Museum St I would be another. People like Bonhams or Phillips who would have taken prints like that in the past, have gone upmarket. I'd e mail their print departments. There is also an American collector who knows a lot about her. I can ask him.

  16. Hilary Chapman, I should have said.