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.


  1. Your shared research leaves a lot to digest and think about. If I read correctly you are stating that eventually all good art is bred in the bone and basically (re)traceable to teachers, education and memories.

  2. I would love to see that picture of Boxsius that you mention at the start of the article and its source
    Thanks for a great blog

  3. Glad you enjoy the blog, Norman.

    The images of Boxsius are small but telling enough. They are in Rupert Cannon's The Bolt Court Connection (1985).

  4. Batten was also a fine book illustrator, particularly in his drawings for English Folk Tales and More English Folk Tales by Joseph Jacobs.

  5. The drawings are interesting partly because they sometimes adopt a woodcut style. Noel Rooke eventually learned wood-engraving because he was dissatisfied with the reproduction of his drawings. I'm never quite sure what was happening in Batten's illustrated books and I wonder what his own view of the published result was.