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.


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