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.