Friday, 27 April 2012

Thirty-six views of Allen Seaby


A number of colour woodcut artists have attempted to use the same block to suggest either a different time of day or a fresh view of the subject. In the early days of woodcut in Britain, Sidney Lee commonly used the same woodcut using different colours to express day, night etc. It hardly ever works partly because the differences just aren't obvious enough. Ethel Kirkpatrick was less of an offender but took the opposite approach to Lee and tried to bring up stark and frankly unconvincing contrasts.


Seaby liked birds in the way Kirkpatrick liked boats. He also had his favourites - kingfishers, for instance. These owl prints are fairly similar and probably both belong to early in his career. But the atmosphere of the prints is quite different. The second uses representational colours more than the first and both adopt the standard Seaby approach of precise images against an impressionistic background.


We are so used to this by now, we probably fail to see how innovative Seaby was. So many early C20th British painters went in for these impressions but Seaby had the sense of the naturalist to describe the bird and suggest its habitat. This remained a standard approach in birds books for many years.


But what is most apparent to me that given a choice betwen either owl or either kingfisher, I am not at all sure which one I would buy. This tells me how successful he was. The block of the kingfisher is the same one but the images are tellingly different. His sense of colour shifts the atmosphere cosiderably but there is an element we will never be able to see for ourselves: Seaby applying those colours with his brush. It is the subtle effects he achieved by the methpod that make the difference.


  1. Haha, I like the 富嶽三十六景 link to Seaby's prints. And wouldn't it be a luxury actually being permitted to choose between one of these prints. Have you noticed it's the subtle reflection of the bare (winter) tree's branches in the water?

  2. Seaby was the most prolific of the British colour by far woodcutters and he was always trying new angles, one way or another.

  3. When Seaby went Japanese with his nocturnal blues and his moodier colours, he was always far more successful. I think ultimately his works were not nearly as vivid and stunning as lesser known masters of the medium. On the topic of owls, my Elizabeth York Brunton is truly graphically stunning. It's hard not to detect that it isn't Japanese except for something that is distinctly Anglo. I think Ethel Kirkpatrick was more experimental but I think that many of the artists of the period who used the technique did exactly what you are describing. Of course it makes sense also that Urushibara, who taught Seaby, Phillips and Giles used to do it also, and I always got the feeling the mode was more of an idea of experimenting with light and colour. It appeals to me. Urushibara was successful, in a way that Seaby was not. I always feel Seaby's works are static, and that is their downfall...the change in colour isn't always successful but as I said, when it is evening, it works. My ten cents worth.

  4. I agree that Seaby's compostion is often unexciting but I think he is a good colourist. Being a naturalist, he wanted to get the detail right. That helps to make him static. Another thing that is also missed about him is this: he is always Seaby and not arty nor pretentious. Nor does he ever go got easy effects. He was dedicated to the craft and that comes across.