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

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