Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Kathleen Hale's colour woodcuts


The British artist Kathleen Hale is now remembered for the series of illustrated books she first published in 1938 that took Orlando the marmalade cat and his activities as their subject. Many of these contain fine lithographs that Hale drew herself. What is far less well known are the origins of her skill as a graphic artist. Quite possibly Hale herself had really forgotten how it all began.

She had first trained at Manchester, followed by the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London where she became one of Augustus John's bohemian circle of friends and hangers on and led a life that was described by one person as 'rackety'. Then during the first war, she won a scholarship to Reading School of Art and because it was still part of an extension college of Oxford University in 1915, she duly went off expecting a version of Merton or Balliol. She was severely disappointed but never quite admitted that her powers of imagination were far greater than the extent of her knowledge.


Disappointed or not, head of the school was none other than our own Allen Seaby who Hale described as 'dedicated to traditional woodcut'. But she said that many years later. And although she also recalls that Seaby insisted on her making these traditional colour woodcuts, as she put it, she still worked hard and was often in the studio when the caretaker came in to close. It strikes me that behind her was the firm but kindly presence of the head of art. I think you can also see by the two prints shown here that her hard work paid off well. She complained about the intricacy and described the process as 'laborious' but the sheer fluent vivacity of 'The faun' alone contradicts all those critics and artists who damned colour woodcut for its lack of originality and expressiveness. More than that, none of Noel Rooke's colour woodcut students at the Central School ever approached the work of Seaby's students for skill or stylishness. For all Mr Seaby's insistence, he obviously let them get on with it. I wish, I must admit, there were more colour woodcuts like this around. And, in fact, there is one more print by her but I'm afraid I don't have a copy.


She left Reading in 1917, but Reading and its laborious printmaking methods was reluctant to leave her. These prints were not only included in a portfolio of staff and student colour woodcuts in 1924, the same year saw William Giles publishing 'The faun' in the first volume of his Original Colour Print Magazine. This was recognition of a pretty high order at the time. It's only a shame that she herself didn't realise just what a fine printmaker she could have been. Robert Gibbings (just as it happens) made a waggish circular Japanese method print of bunny rabbits about 1922. It got nowhere near her.



  1. i love the chickens -- and it looks so familiar to me, but i haven't been able to figure out why. in fact, i think there are two -- both a japanese print, and then another western one.

    some day i'll find them! meanwhile, i really like it!!

  2. Well-spotted! It is familar because Helen Ogilvie did something uncannily similar in Australia. It is called 'Chooks in the straw'. You saw it here.

    1. hiya charles -- I finally came across again the image I was referring to; you can see it here. It's by Shibata Zeshin. But I can't remember if I ever looked up that one you mentioned, so I'll go check it out now.

      Browsing through you posts looking for this, I feel like there are a lot of things I missed. I wonder if it's just my memory, or if I forgot to check "Subscribe by email," which I can see I did here!

  3. I don't whether they used to show their students Japanese prints. They certainly had them out on the wall at the first Central School.