Thursday 22 March 2012

News from ebay: Eric Hesketh Hubbard's 'St Anne's Gateway from the east'

Here we have up for sale on ebay a curious print by the British artist Eric Hesketh Hubbard. A very respectable little monochrome aquatint of a gipsy encampment of his went for about £45 on Sunday; this colour woodcut finds him in antiquarian mood. And a rather odd and individual thing it is. As the seller says, the 'folio' edition comes with the addition of green. In fact, it is a bizarre eau-de-nil, which makes the print look even odder. What the seller didn't say was that the coloured print also comes on japan. I assume this one is on a cheaper paper; I think there were other even cheaper ones on card. This makes a difference. The finish of the print is very unusual and makes it worth having, even if this twenties antiquarianism leaves even me scratching my head - because I like stuff like that. But I paid £27 less than two years ago for a print on japan; this one, which is not on japan is considerably more. You could always offer less than £150 but bear in mind you can find the set of four for sale at about £500. But would it divert you sufficiently to make you forget you had just paid £150? Somehow, I don't think it would.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Walter Phillips in Wiltshire

In 1913 a young art master threw over his job at the Bishop's School in Salisbury and he and his wife moved to Winnipeg in Canada where he eventually found a job at the Technical School. Nothing unusual about that. Many young people from Scotland and England left for Canada at around the same time and also became printmakers. Walter Phillips first took the conventional option and began to make etchings. He was successfull but didn't enjoy the process and took up colour woodcut in 1916 and almost straightaway began to make some pretty good prints. Now comes the curious bit.


He made it obvious that he could not develop any further in Canada by coming back to England in 1924. This may help to explain the rather defensive remarks made by some Canadian writers - for instance Patricia Ainslie from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary saying that  Phillips was 'more imaginative' than his British contemporaries.(She couldn't have been including either Jessie Garrow or Ian Cheyne). He was certainly imaginative enough to claim later on that he had begun to make colour woodcuts without any instruction. And not only that, he also claimed that he had not seen any Japanese prints when he first began. But back to the story.


The boat docked at Southampton and presumably the family travelled on to south Wiltshire because some of the prints you see here show the Wylye Valley near Salisbury. For some years he had been in correspondence with William Giles who was regarded as the leader of the colour print movement in Britain and the two me met that year and Giles was certainly impressed by Phillips actual printmaking. He may have seen him printing either of the two prints above because both date from his stay in the country. The Mill Bridge probably shows Fisherton and The field barn is another print from 1925. It was around this time that he began to study with the Japanese printmaker Yoshijiro Urushibara who showed him how to improve his technique, particularly when it came to sizing paper. in this way, Phillips gained the ability to emulate the finish of the classic Japanese woodblocks.


This says a great deal about Phillips: about his perfectionism and the way that surface treatment was very important to him and that when it came to the treatment of subject, really the impression given was what mattered most to him. I think you only have to compare Eckington Bridge at the top (the village is in south Worcestershire) which he made in 1929 after his return home to Canada, with the other two prints. The colour scheme really has slipped free of reality. The actual sandstone bridge is pinkish but all the colours are enhanced to the point of prettiness. But his sure grasp of form saves it from being cheap and it is of course a fine print, no doubt of that. But is it really more imaginative than his British contemporaries, does he really have more 'breadth'? A Gloucester village (above) dates from 1926, when he was back in Canada, and  the same enhancement is there. Surely this isn't so much a display of imagination as a lack of it? The only other colour woodcutter to approach the British countryside in this rather trite way was the Australian John Hall Thorpe. But at least Phillips is able to say something about the dual nature of being both British and Canadian. The reflections below Eckingtom Bridge are just as real and perhaps more interesting than the bridge itself. The Mill Bridge, though, is an image of greater complexity, depicting double walls that lie between him and his past.

Saturday 17 March 2012


Earlier this week I received an e mail from Srdjan Milic who is a local historian at Vlasenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He had been interested to learn that the British artist Bernard Rice had lived in the town (it was then a village of 2,000 inhabitants) asnd wanted to know more. I would have very much liked to have found more information about this period of Rice's life but all I know is this: he was in Bosnia between 1922 and 1926 and again in 1927 - 1928. Looking at the dates of his prints, the village you see here must show Vlasenica during his first stay in the country.  But it isn't certain they all show the village although I think they probably do.


So far as technique goes, Rice was the least conventional of British wood-engravers, often rejecting the traditional hard woods like boxwood for softer woods like lime, laurel and cherry. He liked to exploit the differences between the summer and winter growth of the wood, sometimes lowering the softer wood to achieve an effect that is similar to mezzotint.

The prints sometimes look like they have printed unevenly but I think this was beside the point to Rice. He made his own blocks and on occasions utilised the fine gaps between the planks and let them suggest the structure of the print, most famously in his print of Travnik. At the back of all this apparent casualness, there is a considerable craftsman who began by selecting his wood with care before working the image around the marks already present on the block.


The approach has alot in common with some of the very earliest forms of print - Chinese prints from stone being one. Whilst Morley Fletcher and his followers were absorbed in the subtleties of Japanese printmaking, Rice was considering something more archaic, and no one gets more a genuine feel for a place than Rice. This was what he lived and I think the empathy he felt for life in Bosnia shows.

One of his most disarming traits was to take sections of one print and make them into another. It always seemed to me fairly arbitrary in one way but if you didn't know he had done this, you would never have guessed. The rather poor image shows the largest of three that he made; the one above shows part of the right hand section. In this print he was less interested in the wood than in the paper. A monitor image cannot possibly get over the quality of this print. He works completely with the type of paper he is using, an approach that is more genuinely oriental than any taken by the colour woodcutters working in the Japanese manner.

It is quite hard to say how Rice developped these sympathies. But they were there and interestingly enough, he failed to settle in England and only came for good when the second war broke out. He initially trained with his father in stained glass and everything follows on from that. The snowy rooftops of Vlasenica become panes of glass, the trees and hedges the intervening lead. He was an intuitive, in many ways; the map was already  in his mind. At Vlasenica, he found the place.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

John Hall Thorpe: early colour woodcuts

It was 1976. I had just come back from Italy and needed to do up a new room. I went down the road from the house I was living in, turned into Exeter Road and went into Mrs Treasure's junk shop. There, propped up just inside the door, in its generous twenties mount, was a picture of marigolds in a spotted green bowl. I bought it; I took it back; it looked wonderful on the chimney-breast of that small Edwardian room.

I say all this because Hall Thorpe's now well-known and much-loved print Marigolds proved the point  Frank Morley Fletcher had made only a couple of years before Thorpe began to make colour woodcuts, namely that such prints had telling value when well-placed in a simply furnished room. I don't think there is any coincidence about this. I would have thought he had read Fletcher's book and not only that he also knew personally people who were making colour woodcuts.

The leading contenders are EA Verpilleux and Robert Gibbings. Lots of artists borrow but by the time of his first solo exhibition in 1918,  Hall Thorpe was not the young artist finding a style of his own; he was just over forty and with a fairly long and uneventful career already to the back of him. He had served a four-year apprenticeship on the Sydney Morning Herald as a wood-engraver then moved to the Sketch and then eventually left Sydney altogether to seek his fortune in Britain. He married, he painted, he took a studio in Chelsea. Then he hit pay-dirt. I mean, I'm sorry to use such a hackneyed, metaphor but I do think it suits the case. He had found a formula in the way a prospector finds a vein of silver. The prints we have here are I believe the first he made. (They are generally difficult to date). The three wise men at the top was certainly produced by 1918 as was Gibbings glamorous Evening at Gaza .


Formulas eventually become dumb and both Gibbings and Hall Thorpe were smart enough to see this and both of them moved on. Gibbings stopped making colour woodcuts altogether and Thorpe turned to the flower formula, which made him a well-known and successful artist. I can even forgive him the kind of stuff he churned out to promote both his own image as decorative artist and the images he was making. 'On colour in the cottage' from The Studio Year-book of 1919 is both ill-informed and misjudged. But his Marigolds looked great above two fireplaces and was widely admired before I moved on to Ireland and left it in safe-keeping with friends - never to be seen again.


Tuesday 13 March 2012

More news from ebay: Edgar Holloway self-portrait

As Clive said a few hours ago, there are some good things up for sale on ebay and this is something special that has come up only today: what appears to be a 1932 proof of Edgar Hollway's self-portrait. or, at least, one of them, because he did a few self-portraits, in various guises. (I am not doubting this isn't from 1932 but I think there was also a later edition. But you have to satisfy yourself about this.) And again, this isn't the one that is up for sale. This is just a sharper image. Holloway started etching (and selling) at a very early age and was pursued rather hilariously for some while by the Scots etcher Willie Wilson. He also knew some of the other Scots printmakers that we favour: Ian Cheyne and Ian Fleming. Cheyne exchanged the very beautiful West Highland Loch for one of Holloways' etchings at a Society of Artist Printmakers exhibition. He was one of the English artists who exhibited with them, along with Ethel Kirkpatrick. So, an interesting artist all round. And, by the way, it starts at £675. (Yes, you got that right the first time.)

Monday 5 March 2012

The Slade School life-class

At the weekend I turned up a photograph of SG Boxsius taking a drawing class in the cast-room at the Bolt Court School in London. None of the boys (who were all between about fourteen and eighteen) were fine art students; they were there to learn photo-engraving and lithography. And this brought home to me just how much knowing how to draw was seen as essential to any activity that would involve aesthetic judgement.

Less than a mile away a similar class would have been in progress at the Slade School of Fine Art. All students (unless they were as persuasive as Robert Gibbings) spent their first year drawing from casts before proceeding to the famous life-class in their second. Other Slade students (apart from Gibbings) who went on to make colour woodcuts were Mabel Royds, Edward Wadsworth and Marion Gill, but John Dickson Batten, who made The Centaur, was the first.

Batten began at the Slade about 1885 when  the draughtsman and etcher Alphone Legros was professor. The etching you see here is a portrait by Legros of his predecessor at the Slade, Sir EJ Poynter. Now I have owned a proof of this for many years but it was only when I put the work of teacher and student together, as I planned this post, that I saw just how much Batten had acquired from Legros. I don't think I would have ever made the connection if I hadn't; but the treatment of the background, and of the sea, have so much in common with Legros, it really is astonishing. Batten wasn't imitating him; the image has more in common with Edward Burne Jones, the most influential painter of his day, but Batten has absorbed a way of going about things that was graphic. And this is why the print succeeds.

Batten is one of the most shamefully neglected of all British printmakers. He worked with great diligence to master the art of colour woodcut but is usually mentioned only as Frank Morley Fletcher's collaborator on Eve and the Serpent. The print you see here is better, even if pictures of centaurs have less obvious appeal today than Fletcher's landscapes, or Seaby's birds. Batten also worked with foresight, quite certain by the mid-1890s that there was a future for editions of colour woodcuts. But he avoided the use of the style of Japanese prints from the very start and it is only this, and not a lack of skill as a printmaker, that has left the poor man marooned at the far end of the nineteenth century.


The life-story of Mabel Royds is full of tit-bits. One of them goes like this: 'At the age of fifteen Mabel Royds won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in London but she kept the news from her parents as she wanted to go to the Slade School instead'. Which is odd because at the age of seventeen, so far as I can make out, she was still at school in Cheshire.

But she did go to the Slade, possibly as early as 1894, though this is guesswork. In 1893 the painter Frederick Brown was appointed as Legros' successor and he persuaded Henry Tonks, who had been a student of his at Westminster, to take command of the life-class. Now Tonks was a professional anatomist at the time and only a student of fine art, but clearly the oppotunity was too good to miss and it was in this way he came to teach many of the best British artists of the early C20th. He was ferocious in his search for good drawing and revered by his students. The effect of his teaching though is emphasised by this colour woodcut produced by Royds at least twenty years after she left that famous life-class of his. The darwing of the girl below is of course by Tonks.

Going back to last weekend, I was struck on Saturday by the way that the writer and critic Malcolm Salaman in 1920 described Royds new Indian prints as works of synthesis when she had only produced two of them so far ie Sword Grinders and The Prickly Pear. It is probably just as well I don't have Salaman's essay to hand but I think one aspect of the synthesis were the lessons learned from Tonks. Why this should be is hard to say; Salaman believed it was the effects of the culture of India that made the prints so much better than what she had already produced. But one thing that Tonks asked of his students was to train their memories, to draw without the object in front of them. I suspect as she drew on of her memories of India during the 1920s, Royds also drew on her memories of that life-class at the Slade.