Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Return of the native: EA Verpilleux

Much as I love the Via Maqueda in Palermo, a seedy internet joint at the end towards the station wasn't the best place for me to do justice to Gerrie Casper's series of posts about Emile Antoine Verpilleux and related topics on The Linosaurus recently gerrie-thefriendlyghost.blogspot.com/. So now, I try to make amends.

Not very suprisingly, Gerrie promoted Verpilleux as Belgian, backing this up with his views on the Antwerp school of printmaking that centred around the two wood-engravers Edward Vermorcken and Edward Pellens. Verpilleux was of course born in London (as many Belgians are) and from there he was sent for part of his education to France and eventually to the Flemish city of Antwerp to study at the School of Fine Art there. (We have no dates but I think it's likely Vermorcken was in charge at the time.) And to underline his cosmopolitan background, he then married Caroline Putnam, an artist from Haden, Connecticut. I say all this to assert my own view, namely, that like Palermo, Verpilleux was a hybrid and like Palermo that is exactly what makes him interesting. He may not have been great but he was different.

Basically, Vermorcken and Pellens belonged to a school of monochrome wood-engraving whereas Verpilleux was essentially a painter who used both engraving and woodcut techniques on large blocks to gain his well-known atmospheric effects. So far as I know there are no monchrome prints by Verpilleux extant and this probably means he never made any. He wasn't the small-scale kind of artist. Some of his blocks were engraved, others were cut. The tonal effect for his skies were achieved by using both. Unlike almost all his British contemporaries, he uses a heavy paper and printing ink that he must have learned to use in Antwerp and he could not afford to be purist. In fact, he needed all the flexibility he could muster and his wide variety of cuts, soaring perspectivist buildings and raw black crowds all helped make his prints distinctive. They had none of the deliciousness of Allen Seaby's surfaces, they were not intended to be pored over by connoiosseurs, they are not the kinds of print you want to look at very closely The very subjects remain the favourites of tourists to this day: St Paul's Cathedral (top) Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum. We can now add the long forgotten St Pancras Station to the list (above).


But look at his crowds, with their furs and large hats and shopping. They are much the same as the people LH Jungnickel showed in the Schonbrunner Park in Vienna at the same time. And this is what is most remarkable about Verpilleux: he had cast his net quite widely and around 1912 seemed to spring fully formed on the London art world. There is nothing hesitant or experimental about these early prints. They change; they become less painterly, but they are already well-judged composites. It even makes you wonder whether he met Jungnickel while he was at work in Brussels on the murals for the palais Stoclet (1905 - 1911), and whether they learned one from the other. But his crowds are gentrified Londoners, busy and blase, paying no attention to their aloof surrounding monuments, preoccupied with culture, travel, getting home, the shops. Occasionally, an umbrella is used to indicate some point of interest but the people rarely engage with their surroundings but in general they are too insouciant and elegant to bother.

This may be partly because Verpilleux was in the habit of superimposing a heavy keyblock, with its contingent crowds, vans, brollies and parcels, directly on top of the main subject, and unlike Jungnickel in his Schonbrunner print (if you image search LH Jungnickel on Google, you will find his design for the print, from this blog) avoiding any depth and development of space. Paradoxically, this makes him look more modern. It's only after you take a closer look that you pick out the Edwardian details. Which is a shame. He is too well-known for his effects and not well-known enough for his observation. And observant he was. For these are real Londoners, as chic as anyone in Laboureur. And it's easy to deride this use of the keyblock as hammy and habitual but he does vary things as you can see in the British Museum print and he is less prone to dependency on the busy keyblock later on. But then in his 1920s prints like Winter Evening (below) he adopts another mannerism. And this time it is light and colour, and light and colour often of the most sensational kind.





  1. A lot of additional & useful information on Verpilleux. I think he is at his best in the city views. Thank you for mentioning my related postings in MP. I shall continue soon.

  2. There's not so much inherent interest in those post-wat rural prints. They seem hazily feel-good. But I think if you had the last two images together, the sunset and moonrise would complement one another. I think he was thinking about potential groups or sets of prints. That is why so many of the images have a common theme. He was quite astute in the way he thought about them.


  3. Ahh, another piece of wisdom and insight. You're right ofcourse, the warm & cold color combinations with subject and landscapes are very beautiful, seasonal and atmospheric. His "Sowing" and "Horseplowing" should be along these I think. Btw, I never claimed him to be other then British (but from Belgian descent). It would be interesting to know more about his social background. Sofar I couldn't make the connection to the French/Belgian wealthy industrial (iron) family. But I think the link to London could lie there. To be continued.

  4. Yes, I'm curious about the social background, too. I do have more - of course.

    You're right that sowing and ploughing could also go together. I will look at them again. I wonder if he produced colour combinations to order like William Giles.

  5. I think that EAV's weakness is that despite his skills he had a very traditional wood-engraving aesthetic that lacked the emphasis of colour, and thus an emotional element. Architecturally they were skillful, but they are very static. I have a few of his works and none of them framed, just sitting at the top of the closet in my study. They are just...a little dull. As far as his background, I understand his family were very well-to-do and I have read about his father's business but it escapes me now. I do think think there was certainly industrial age money there. They were not short of money, and EAV had a fairly comfortable life.

  6. Engraving in the wrong hands can have some pretty deadly results. The right hands were, for instance, Laboureur and Ian Fleming. So, I think what you say is right. His engraving comes across as mechanical and frankly the Antwerp school didn't do him any favours in that respect. He was aware, but he wasn't really on trend, even though his use of engraving and cutting together was unconventional. It isn't advisable to look at his work on paper too closely but as prints they are jolly effective.

  7. Hi
    I recently found a book containing these prints, which some of your readers may be intersted in. I've scanned them on my blog here: http://includemeout2.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/masters-of-colour-print-e-verpilleux.html

    All the best

  8. I am surprised that no mention is made of EAV's oil painting. Related to the family by marriage, I have seen a number of his oils. I am no art critic but they are, in my opinion very impressive - especially the portrait of his first wife. I can share with you that he had four daughters by his first wife Joan, Dianne, Prue and Zoe - all deceased as of this date. None followed in their father's artistic footsteps.

  9. The blog is mainly about printmaking but I sometimes include an artist's paintings. It just depends what is available. I have seen some of his portraits of military people etc and would like to see the portrait of his firast wife if you could send a photo to cgc@waitrose.com

    Many thanks for the information about his daughters. I don't know alot about his life in Belgium, London, the USA or Bermuda and would like to hear more if you do know anything else.

  10. Verpilleux was a pilot in WW1 in the early RFC (later RAF) in face he was a close friend of my grandfather who was developing early air to ground signalling equipment. They crashed and nearly died at least twice. After the war my grandfather appears to have bought up most of 'Verps' prints. Verpilleux got frustrated about lack of progression on London art scene and eventually moved to Bermuda where he spent his days doing conventional and rather uninspired portraits of the local rich folks. I have seen one exceptional classic oil painting he did of a landscape and it is quite outstanding. @apmscott twitter

  11. He wasn't commissioned until 1916, but later received an MBE, so thank you for the information. Now I know why.

    He remarried an American and that may be one reason why he went to Bermuda. I think she was one of the Putnum publishing family. He did do some military portraits etc during the second war. If you know anything else, you can always contact me cgc@waitrose.com. I'd be very grateful for anything, photos especially!

    I get the feeling he was often frustrated by the response to his prints, even after he had come back to London from Antwerp but he was successful for a while.

    Fascinating to hear from you. My own grandfather was finally accepted in 1916 (in a Highland regiment) and packed off to Dublin after the Rising.

  12. Hi I have an oil painting by Zoe Verpilleux. Maybe Emile Verpilleux's daughter.

  13. Yes, she was, but that's about all I know. She visited Bermuda in the thirties where her father eventually went to live. Her work has turned up at Christies.

    By the way, I missed your comment.