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 http://haji-b.blogspot.com/2011/12/robert-gibbings-early-colour-woodcuts.html .
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.