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.


  1. Hi Charles,

    if you ask me, Eckington Bridge is a wonderful print, and not only for Phillip's grasp of form, but especially for his bold choice of colours! In my view, it is far from any "prettiness".


  2. I was interested in what happened once he returned to Canada. Phillips would make watercolour sketches in front of the subject (as I think Ethel Kirkpatrick did) and the prints he made in England have realistic colouring whereas the ones he made of English subjects after he returned do not. I wonder why. You are not the only person to diasgree with this point; someone else did so privately. Ethel Kirkpatrick was also picked up at the time for her unrealistic palette (particularly her famous and outrageous use of mauve) but like Phillips she was also quite capable of imitating nature.

    1. by methods i have forgotten, phillips was among the first of these printmakers i "discovered" and yet still you manage to dazzle me. i have either never seen these before, or am seeing them anew due to your presentation.

      thank you.

  3. Well, they are not the ones usually seen. They were new to me and so possibly new even to you! Nice to hear from you. Will be back posting once I get my new ISP provider.