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.



  1. What a wonderful and brutal posting Charles. Of course it is exactly spot on, and the thread that runs through all of those artists who were working in printmaking from the 1900's to the 1950's share a great deal in common. The Germans and Russians used the linocut in a much more simplistic and linear style and it WAS often used in design but perhaps there was less delineation between art and design amongst Europeans.

    Looking at the Claude Flight prints, I am immediately reminded of the Omega Workshops and many of their designs. I also had the strangest sensation that I was looking at rug designs. I can understand why The Studio passed on the Grosvenor School. I think also Flight's idea of thinking images laterally, as a series of lines with motion and use shading and colour to create this motion was more akin to simple design.

    The Anglo-Japanese term as I recall was not said flatteringly. Am I wrong? I think that People like Fletcher, Seaby and Giles tended towards a very painterly approach to printmaking. Flight broke down the images into a series of lines.

    I think the key difference with Flight and other printmakers was that to Flight, the design was as important as the process. This was certainly not the case for most of the printmakers of the period, where the process was key. I am not sure about the obsession that the world has taken with the Grosvenor School, it is especially ironic since Flight was far less talented than many of his students, but like Hall Thorpe the prints were adopted by the Clarice Cliff set, who were more interested in art matching the china. Too harsh?

    Anyway I agree with everything you have written, but as you know I rate Isabel de Bohun Lockyer as one of the best linocut artists from Britain in the 20's. Ironically, so did Flight himself.


  2. Very interesting post, thank you - and what you say about Bawden and Flight in the last couple of lines is spot-on....

  3. Coming from a printmaker, I take that as a tremendous compliment, Gail.

  4. Clive, I think you are right to bring up the subject of the Europeans and design. The irony is that both Seaby and Flight were influenced by Franz Cizek in Vienna - Flight stylistically, and Seaby as a someone interested in child art education. I was also saying that students at the Wiener Werkstaette were asked to make their fashion plates from colour linocuts. Again, ironically, the Austrians and Germans took their lead from the Central School of Arts and Crafts where WR Lethaby emphasised not design but craft. It was in many ways just a change of terminology because, yes, it later became the Central School of Art and Design!

    I like your analysis of Flight because it is fair. So many of the Anglo-Japanese had started out a painters and it shows. But as we have said before (and as both Lethaby and Fletcher knew) so far as fine art went, many were called but few were chosen. The Anglo-Japanese were often better craftsmen than they were painters.

    Basically, though, Flight followed on from these precepts. He took a group of not-very-good Australian painters and colour woodcutters, for instance, and made them into quite respectable printmakers. His skills and teaching were more important than his ability as an artist. We agree on that.

    As for that term goes, Salaman's exact phrase was 'what we may call the Anglo-Japanese group'. He was being very positive about John Platt at the time, but the phrase is nevertheless knowing. It's use by Flight, though, is less than appreciative. Unlike Salaman, the professional critic, Flight was too pre-occupied with what he was doing at the time to be objective.

    And as your mother was a curator in Vienna, I also take your comments as my reward.

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