Thursday 31 May 2012

Ethel Mars: a child's garden of colour woodcuts

I am sorry to admit that this is my first post ever about a printmaker from the United States but I hope to make amends with my take on Ethel Mars. It's unfortunate that I also have to add that Mars was to some extent an adoptive European. But I have to start somewhere.


She trained as an artist in her home-town of Cincinnati. While at art school she also met her life-long partner, Maud Hunt Squire, and once their studies were done with, the couple moved to New York where they first worked together as illustrators, often of children's books, including Robert Louis Stevenson's 'A child's garden of verses' (hence the title).


I think you can see from the illustrations, they had already acquired the necessary repertoire of styles, which included art nouveau. Number one, the two of them were aware. This is the first thing that interests me about their work. Before learning to make colour woodcuts, Mars had already begun to simply. The great areas of the girl's dress or the bedclothes are advance warning of the abstractions to follow.


Presumably, it was around the time they lived in New York that Mars studied colour woodcut with Arthur Wesley Dow. I've not come across any details about this, but as Dow was the only person in the US with the skills to hand on the technique at the time, it follows. Her work is sometimes like his, more perhaps when she approaches American subjects, and I've no doubt the Ipswich influence is there. Simplified prints of boats and harbours exist but as soon as the two women left for Europe, and eventually settled in Paris, her work takes on a whole range of meaning.

By all accounts, she was a great exhibition-goer, and Paris was certainly the place to see all kinds of modern art. On one other blog at least, there has been an attempt to show the effect Kandinsky had on her work. But this is superficial. The fact they both made prints of women in elaborate clothes says very little. Kandinsky was working through his rich combination of folk motifs and art nouveau; Mars was taking clothes out of the dressing-up box.


To me, these women look rather like children playing at being adults. Observation of social patterns is everywhere in her work. If it isn't fashionable women, it is ducks and flamingoes. Even with the idyllic houses and gardens, social life is implied. And this is miles from the formality of Kandinsky. The ageing man appraising the attractively-dressed young woman in the street , above, would be caricature if less deftly handled. She draws far more from Edouard Vuillard, but she goes in for street-scenes, not interiors like him where the inhabitants wilt from ennui. The streets and the little dogs are more in line with Pierre Bonnard. She was adept at picking what was of use to her. She looked at alot of more-or-less contemporary French art and translated it, like someone trying to learn a language.

It is a view of things from outside, decorative, charming but the analysis that is second-nature to the French, is lacking. For all the elaborate costume, these are direct and unpretentious prints. Mars set a convention of her own, and she followed it. Back in the States, the couple settled in Massachusetts, at Cape Cod, not that far from Dow's backyard at Ipswich. But they eventually returned to France, this time heading south to Provence. It was other conventions that captivated them.


Monday 28 May 2012

John Hall Thorpe & the Redcliffe Road Secession


Some artists are at their most interesting when they are least like themselves. Or, at least, they look least like the artist we easily recognise. In John Hall Thorpe's case this would be the primrose and marigolds man of the 1920's. But there are more Hall Thorpes than just that one.


That was the man who became famous at forty. Up untill that point, I think it would be fair to say that his career had been uneventful. He had tried various options but they were limited because he followed rather disastrously in the wake of convention. This in itself is rather odd.

He grew up in the suburb of Parramatta and trained at a Sydney newspaper as a reproductive wood-engraver, largely working under pressure to create adequate images to a dead-line. He said they had always tried to use American or European models where they could. I suppose he thought this said something positive about the way they all worked. I'm not so sure it does. He did the obvious thing for the time and exhibited etchings and oil paintings but apparently believed he could achieve more by moving to London. This he did in 1902. We are still some way from pay dirt.


Once in London he apparently continued to work for newspapers but also trained at Heatherley's School of Art and then at St Martins. All this suggests his ambition was to paint although no one seems to have turned up any paintings so far. If he wasn't successful he did the next best thing and took a studio in Chelsea and by his own admission lived the bohemian life and followed every craze (his own term) as it came along. To make a move from reproductive newspaper engraving to English bohemia sounds to me unusual, but let's take him at his word, because in the end, it worked. He eventually turned out some appealing images and made some money. It worked because in the end, having learned to follow crazes, he started one of his own.

So far as I can see the crazes were to some extent old hat. The first image depends almost exclusively on the Vienna Secession designs that were becoming current when he arrived in London. But this one dates from about 1918. And if the parrots and cockatoo above were not a loan from LH Jungnickel (who I have already written about in as much details as I dare) I would be very surprised. Contrary probably to your expectations, these two images are not colour woodcuts at all but are stencils. Jungnickel was not the only person to use stencilling, of course; it was popular in France but the images are not in the least bit French but alot like the Austrian. From him, in part, he had learned a modern discipline, possibly via the Studio Magazine which had given Jungnickel's spray stencils alot of space.
And, of course, it is fascinating to see Hall Thorpe gradually hit his stride as he turned his stencilled flowers into his colour woodcut flowers (the second image). This comes from 1926. But what provides an even larger amount of interest are the engravings he made at much the same time. Unfortunately, I can only offer this one rather poor campaigning image but I am sure you can see that Hall Thorpe knew how to handle a graver. What Josef Hoffman would have made of  'the scented lanes of Sussex', I shudder to think, but it hardly matters. As you can see, he had put secession, Bohemia, Parramatta even, well and truly behind him

Sunday 20 May 2012

William Nicholson: A Square Book of Influences


One day in the very early 1890s, William Nicholson was looking round Ridge's bookshop in Newark in Nottinghamshire, when he came across a collection of old woodblocks. He must have examined them with interest and care because he went back to the studio he had set up at his parents' house on London Road, planed down a surface of a piece of wood, and set about altering the course of European printmaking with a penknife and a nail.


Remember, what he had seen were only the blocks; he had never seen the image they produced. Nor are of any of us likely to see those first blocks of his own nor the proofs he took from them. We have no idea about the ink or the paper he used, or whether or not he used a press. His first surviving print comes from 1893 and shows Primrose Hill Farm at Ruislip in Surrey. Quite simply the woodcut memorialises the house he rented that spring. For he had to live there to establish residence for the banns to be read at the local church so that he could marry. (Mabel Pryde and himself were about to elope.)


But Primrose Hill Farm, Ruislip does gives us a clue about what kind of blocks he had seen in the bookshop. It is in the emphatic,  faux-naif chapbook style made use of by Joseph Crawhall, an approach Nicholson went on to look at from all angles. There was nothing in the least chapbook about Nicholson. True to the nineties, Nicholson was a dandy, sophisticated and debonaire. The profiles he used in the first and third images are not exactly half. Nor are the ones used by Mabel Royds in Girl with a goat nor by Emil Orlik in his Portrait of Bernard Pankok. Nicholson adapted the chapbook style with inventiveness and panache. Both Royds and Orlik took the lesson to heart.

This gives the lie to the old belief that artists are influenced by elders and betters. The influences that come an artists way are just as much by chance as by design. All three of them happened to be in London during 1898. By then, the New Review had published Nicolson's images of Queen Victoria and Rudyard Kipling, and Heinemann had brought out An Alphabet in time for Christmas,1897.

This says a fair deal about Nicholson's approach. These were prints intended for both children and for adults, some more, some less. What they all had in common was appeal. It is sometimes said that Orlik was in London to visit Nicholson. (I can't say I have ever come across any reference in English but this information may have filtered through from German sources. I don't know.) But Orlik certainly made friends at some point with Frank Morley Fletcher and by that time also Royds had been taught colour woodcut by Fletcher.

Friend and teacher he may have been, but neither Royds not Orlik were any more attracted to the art that Fletcher made than many readers of this blog have been. (I have to say, it took a long time for me to get round to doing Fletcher and once I did, some readers were, let's say, unenthusiastic. Fletcher was entranced by colour. He was also a picturemaker, the very thing John Dixon Batten had warned artists against when they came to make prints. Nicholson, Orlik and Royds, all of them in their differing ways, were graphic artists to the core.
But Royds and Orlik were also something else. They were modern in a way that Nicholson never really was. When the woodcut of Kipling was commissioned, Nicholson went down to Rottingdean near Brighton where Kipling was staying at the Burne Jones' house to make drawings of him. The print itself, though, still remains a type, recognisable but impersonal. When Orlik came to make his short series of woodcuts of his friends after his visit to Japan, they draw on Nicholson's formality and spare line but are never anything less than personal, never more so than is his moving portrait of Ferdinand Hodler (see 'O was for Orlik, October, 2010).


The same was true for Royds. Both paid due attention to Nicholson's innovation and although his graphic work is usually described as woodcut, he almost always worked on the endgrain of boxwood. He may have mimicked the broader cutting of work on the plank to gain his famous bold use of black and white areas and his selective line but his prints are engravings. Even more, he only made one true colour woodcut (The fisher, 1897) where he employed separate blocks for colour. Where they were not reproduced as lithographs, all his other prints were hand-coloured (by the artist himself). His followers were true to the ethos of the arts and crafts movement: it was all integrated. Nicholson, in the end, just wanted to paint.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Claude Flight & the Anglo-Japanese

We are by now used to modern curators on both sides of the Atlantic talking about the linocuts of Claude Flight with such seriousness, I was amused to come across Flight himself in his book 'Lino-Cuts' even bothering to mention printmakers he referred to as 'the Anglo-Japanese'. By that he would mean the followers of Frank Morley Fletcher who used a method of printmaking based on Japanese practice. As it happens the term had first been used by the critic Malcolm Salaman some years before. It is part of the job of critics to come up with these terms and catch-phrases to summarise a trend so it is interesting to see how far Flight saw himself as involved in a to-and-fro of discussion and insult about colour print  that had been going on more or less ever since Morley Fletcher and John Dixon Batten had first place mulberry paper on cherry block.

Salaman was both urbane and mischievous. He was after all a journalist. And the Anglo-Japanese could be relied on to respond. And so could Flight. From being a coterie of printmakers without a proper home, the Anglo-Japanese had suddenly found themselves not only with a Colour Woodcut Society in 1920, but a rapidly growing number of students and established artists taking up the barren. For the first time they were also in the majority at the Society of Graver Printers in Colour. Not only that, they had Bromhead Cutts to publish their work just like the etchers. And from this position of growing strength, they took on the humble piece of lino.

One way or another, various people had a go at what they seemed to see as lesser arts. William Giles called colour print 'a true cause'; first Allen Seaby counteracted Salaman's praise of Robert Gibbings, when he used lithographic ink and an Albion Press for his colour woodcuts, with a summary of the Japanese method, then he carefully explained why linocut was suitable for children; even Morley Fletcher descried lino for its inability to produce a 'beautiful surface'. Not only that, The Studio Magazine never, so far as I know, published a Grosvenor School linocut. They quite clearly said they considered such prints 'design' and emphasised the point by showing only the joint designs for rugs and furniture of Flight and his partner Edith Lawrence, meaning it was nothing personal.


Flight took it personally. 'Lino-Cuts' (1927) was partly a response to Fletcher's 'Woodblock Printing' of 1916 and Seaby's 'Colour Printing with linoleum and woodblocks' of 1925. On all sides there was a sense of crusading zeal that had its roots back in the days of John Ruskin. Unfortunately, the enemy Flight had identified was the wrong one. The real enemy was not the harmless Anglo-Japanese; it was something much more formidable. It was the Royal College of Art. Or, to be exact, it was the confident individualists the college had begun to produce, none less so than William Giles. The real enemy was other linocutters.


My unqualified enthusiasm for the work of Sylvan Boxsius is well-known. It is based partly on this very simple fact: in a short printmaking career beginning probably a year or two after the publication of Flight's book, he gave both Fletcher and Seaby a significant run for their money. By using a water-based medium and painstaking cutting of lino, he was able to produce a surface that holds its own against the famous translucence of colour woodcut. He ignored the rhetoric and got on with the job. But like Flight and Fletcher's, the minor achievements of an artist-craftsman such as Boxsius were swept away by the major advance of modernism. But Edward Bawden was sufficiently modern and talented to hang on in there. Now I am equivocal about some of Bawden's linocuts but this isn't what I want to say. For better or for worse, modern British linocut owes far more to the craftsmanship of Bawden and his awareness of tradition and the styles of the past than it does to Flight. Curators can say what they like about Flight's jazz-age modernity, once the jazz-age was over, Flight was all over, too.


Sunday 13 May 2012

Allen Seaby's 'Burghfield Bridge'


Speaking of Reading, what should now come our way on British e bay but an early work by one of Frank Morley Fletcher's students. For all its faults, will make a fascinating addition to any serious collection of work by Seaby. It is Seaby as we have never quite seen him before. The lack of gradations of colour on the bridge and the banks are very much like his very early print of mallards. It is just as awkward as that one and he is very much Morley Fletcher's student here, especially in the large expanse of water, the delicately drawn trees and the flat areas of colour.

I must say it is exciting to see Seaby respond to Fletcher's work after looking at Ethel Kirkpatrick's The full moon on the last post: get his use of purple. It is exactly like Fletcher's on the woman's dress. Seaby was more ambitious here but Kirkpatrick was more successful. She was the more experienced and better-trained artist at this point; Seaby had had to fit in training with earning a living at first so it's not surprising if these early works don't quite come off. I would think that this was a student piece - I am being vague about dates and etc, I know, but you must all wait for the full story.

To fill you in on this rather enthralling find, Burghfield Bridge crosses the Kennet just south of Reading and will be near the area that William Giles also worked in when he produced his first colour woodcut September Moon which shows Shinfield Woods. It couldn't be better!

As it happens, I have now heard from Tara Heinemann, the seller. It was quite late when I posted this and I didn't realise who the seller was when I wrote this. So my comments are quite unprejudiced. But this I will add: it is good to see a dealer operating a true auction system by starting at 99p. So many don't. The link to Tara's lot is:

Good luck to all concerned.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Frank Morley Fletcher, artist


When the enumerator came round to Eastern Avenue to collect Frank Morley Fletcher's census form in 1901, he would have seen that he had described his occupation as artist. Interesting, convincing, but not entirely true. At the time he was employed as Head of the Department of Art at the extension college at Reading and also took a well-paid class in colour woodcut at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Artist as a term does not account for his growing role as educator, a role that may have eventually left  him old and poor in the sunshine state of California. (This fact from Michael Redmon of the Santa Barbara Historical Society. To his credit, he has done more research on Fletcher's life in the US than anyone has done in Britain). But this post is about the printmaker whose prints were well-made but few in number.


The Flood-gates you see at the top was only the second independant print Fletcher ever made and was published in 1898, and must also help account for Ethel Kirkpatrick's enduring passion for the colour mauve. Kirkpatrick was certainly a student at the Central School during the 1898/1899 year and Fletcher's print and her own print, The full moon, of a lone woman artist with her back to the viewer, does show what an inspiration Fletcher was to his students.

But the comparison with Kirkpatrick isn't all necessarily in Fletcher's favour. At first sight, her print looks simple, crude even, but her undisguised brushwork shows her to be just as aware of the lessons of Paris as Fletcher was himself. (She was only three years younger). Moreover, she selects and thereby suggests more; Fletcher's compostion is sophisticated but fussy. But what strikes me most about this woodcut is how good Fletcher had become at printing them. Only four years before, he and John Dixon Batten had struggled to get a good proof  from Batten's woodblock of Eve and the serpent. The pair had then gone on to Batten's theatrical woodcut The harpies. Fletcher's first print Meadowsweet is straightforward landscape compared to The flood-gates. This second print is not only virtuouso and an exhibtion item, it also looks to me like Frank's CV. The same year the print was published, the painter and woodcut illustrator Walter Crane left the art department at Reading where he had been head for only a year, to take up the post of principal at the Royal College (he wasn't there for very long either). Morley Fletcher got the job.


So far as I can see, Morley Fletcher produced prints slowly and Brotherswater dates from 1900. There is another print called The mountain from about the same date and then things begin to slow down even more. Given how few details we have about his life, it is very hard to know why this was. There is a cool discretion about them all, an undertow of feeling, to be sure, but their execution looks impeccable, as far as I can make out. But then how often does anyone actually see one of Fletcher's prints in front of them?

In fact, quite alot can be learned about Morley Fletcher from the way his students of colour woodcut work. From the earliest ones like Kirkpatrick and Mabel Royds to the last of his British students like Marion Gill at Edinburgh, all print with skill and care. The first thing I always notice about any of these three artists is the quality of the surface. This is what they learned from him. He was adamant about the inability of linocut to produce this beautiful surface and, looking at the work of his students, I often think he had a point. Monitor images like these are poor substitutes. I saw the large Kirkpatrick print in London the other week of Thames sailing barges. The way she worked with the materials of pigment and paper really was quite wonderful. Seaby can be even more so. But the master remains aloof and enigmatic.

To some extent, this says quite alot about his background. Unlike Allen Seaby, whose father was an artisan, Fletcher came from the intelligentsia. Science provided the livelihood for both his father (who was a government inspector at an alkili works as FMF grew up) and his brother, Walter. Frank perhaps should have written another occupation on that census form. I think alchemist might have summed him up better.


Tuesday 1 May 2012

Yoshijiro Urushibara: 2 more images from 'Ten Woodcuts'

I have had to add these two further images because I was unable to upload anymore on the last post. So, please just scroll back to the first part.

It's a good opportunity to say a bit more about the nature of the prints. The first one on the previous post is called 'The resting place' and I believe it shows people picnicing by the grave of a family member. I have visited these old Ottoman cemeteries above the Bosphorus - that is Istanbul you can see on the other bank - and it may have reminded Urushibara of Shinto practices at home in Japan. People still pay gardeners to tend the graves like gardens at modern Uskudar.

Another woodcut shows the court of the mosque of memory. I assume this is Cairo as the other one you see here shows the mausoleum at the wonderful mosque of Ibn Tulun., but I have tried in vain to identify the building. But you will now see that there is a drift of meaning, that the prints act in part as commemoration.


This second woodcut is simply called 'Trees' but the title page also indicates that it is Montreuil in the Pas-de-Calais in France. In the distant past, Montreuil was the westernmost town in Flanders, the country of Brangwen's birth. You will also note the way Urushibara depicts different trees - the poplars of Picardy and the cypresses of the shores of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. If you look back at 'Moonlight, Bournemouth', you will also see his depiction of pine trees on the heaths of Dorset. Recurrent images are as much a feature of Japanese art as recurrent artists are with Modern Printmakers.

Yoshijiro Urushibara: ten woodcuts & two rabbits

On Saturday I was lucky enough to see a copy of Urushibara's book 'Ten Woodcuts'. It was published in London in 1924 and represents a unique production for the era in Britain. There were 275 copies printed for sale. All the designs were provided by the British artist Frank Brangwen who had alread worked with Urushibara on his portfolio 'Bruges' from 1919, but all the images were cut and printed by Urushibara and the main credit goes to him. If you include the extra copies he had to make for libraries like the Bodelian and the British Museum he would have had to make more than 2750. It was a huge undertaking.

One curious feature of the book (and there are a few) is the lack of text. There is only an introduction bu the writer and poet Laurence Binyon. Between the title page and this introduction, there is another intriguing feature, a small pair of rabbits. These aren't the rabbits you see here; that image is smaller but shows also a black rabbit partly superimposed over a white one. Now my first impression, being a literal-minded westerner was that the rabbits represented the two artist who had collaborated on the book simply because Brangwen took hardly any credit for his work. Hradly surprising.


But Urushibara was not a literal-minded westerner. He had only lived in Europe since 1910. He had got to know our ways but had not forgotten those of his own culture where image and word are close. So, if we look at the rabbits as words, what do they say? Is it a private joke, for instance, because, as you can see, he went on to make a larger image of rabbits (or it may have preceded the book). Allen Seaby who knew Urushibara also made a woodcut of two rabbits (see Allen Seaby, the later years).
Urushibara was not the only artist involved in the book to be away from his home. In a sense, so was Brangwen. He had been brought up in Bruges and had lived there untill he was nine and four of the images in the book are of places in the old area of Flanders, right the way from Montreuil in the west to the Scheld estuary (the fishing boats) in the north east. Another five of the images depict various palces in the Near East: Istanbul, Cairo and Palestine.

But I suspect there may be another pair of eminences grises at the back of all this, namely Campbell Dodgson, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and his assistant Keeper, Laurence Binyon. Since being recruited by Dodgson in 1895, when he was only an assistant Keeper himself, Binyon had developped a special interest in oriental art and was well aware of the Japanese print publishers like Shinbi Shoin well before Urushibara arrived in London for the Japan-Britain exhibition. Urushibara, of course, worked for Shinbi Shoin and was soon recruited to, yes, the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Two more rabbits for you there.

I believe there is more to this oriental tale of intrigue but I shall save that for another day. And please note that if I get the opportunity to upload further images from 'Ten Woodcuts', I will, but right now the new system is driving me mad.