Sunday 29 July 2012

Arabella Rankin: Iona

It has become almost a matter of course for me to say that a woman artist doesn't have the reputation that she deserves, but when it comes to the Scottish printmaker, Arabella Rankin, the reasons for her neglect are almost beyond comprehension. She had moved from her home at Muthill in Perthshire and was living in London at the beginning of the great period of British colour woodcut activity in the twenties. She was secretrary of the newly-formed Colour Woodcut Society and would have been well-known to other printmakers at least. In 1924 her work was purchased for a major national collection and in 1926 it was given special notice by the short-lived Original Colour Print Magazine edited by William Giles. She exhibited regularly in London till her death in 1935. All of that, and I also have a list of around twenty-five colour woodcuts made by that time. So, no one should be able to say that her prints are few and far between.

And yet they are. I have been reluctant to post on her till today because the only images available were poor and seemed amateurish. So, in my own small way, I haven't helped. Nor was it wise for me to be mildly disparaging when I did comment on her work when I had seen so little by her. But I am here to make amends. These very prints have already been described as outstanding - and true to form, that opinion of the work you can see here was never published.

I will assume that it was William Giles who made what were for me those bewildering comments in the Colour Print Magazine. He was never anything but perceptive about the work of other artists and perhaps the roots of her negect are contained in what he had to say: her work was 'dominated by an atmospheric unity and geological vision which suggests a great knowledge held in reserve'. The fact that I can post five images showing just one very small island off the west coast of Scotland says something about the nature of that reserve and the depth of vision I think they display. Here is someone who has thought about what they were doing, who knew the locations she was depicting well and understood the subtle variations of experience. One remote Hebridean island comes to stand for many things. You need to visit them to know the full effect. All I can say is that I think Rankin got it right.

And if it was William Giles who made the remarks, that is interesting in itself because Giles is the artist she most brings to mind and particularly when he comes to depict the Hebrides in work like Break in the storm, Jura from about 1922. The comparison isn't perhaps altogether fair because that print finds Giles on the very top of his form. The printing is sensational, the meticulous organisation and sweep of the print superb. Nevertheless, Giles was a great helper of other artists. His encouragement of Ada Collier and Elizabeth Keith are documented (and the effect on his wife, Ada Shrimpton, goes without saying). Rankin moved from a slightly awkward naive style to something broader and more profound when she came to make this series of Iona woodcuts and I only wonder whether artists like Giles and Urushibara had helped her along the way.(I also want to add that the modern Christian community at Iona wasn't founded untill 1938). Whatever the case, I suspect there was mutual admiration between the two of them.

I will also say this. There were woodcuts by Walther Phillips in the same box as these and by comparision, Phillips is fussy and feeble. Rankin had learned how to select. Ths interest in tone and the massing of colout  which Giles also mentions was a commonplace of British printmaking by the 1970s but she never loses sight of the subject. She may have left Scotland but that country had not left her. I have not come across any title that suggests an English subject and only two that document visits to Portugal and Italy. I wish I knew more. I hope there is someone out there who will.

I also accept that the variations displayed by these prints may not seem that great to some readers. Normally, I would choose to show different aspects of a new artist's work (I mean new to the blog, of course) but I like these so much, I didn't want to detract from the intentions of the artist. It is always interesting to see which work an artist chooses to exhibit. For instance, Mabel Royds appears not to have exhibited her religious subjects very much, which may go some way towards explaining why they come up so often now. Why we see so little of any work by Rankin is another matter. When I look at Calva, Iona, above, the reasons for her neglect are simply beyond me.

Thursday 26 July 2012

News from ebay: von Bresslern Roth's 'Baboons'

For starters you can ignore the sales talk about Bresslern Roth being one of the most influential linocutters of the C20th. The fact is she is one of the least original but she was a pretty good designer, even though her groups-of-animals idea was taken wholesale from LH Jungnickel, and her printmaking skills are superb. This is why she is worth buying despite the hyperbole.

Unfortunately 'Baboons' finds her at her least convincing. For some unknown reason she decided to make two of the baboons almost exactly the same. Where Jungnickel introduces character and his own droll sense of humour, Bresslern Roth depends on repetition. Sometimes it comes off; here it is standard stuff. The print of wolves walking down through snowy woodland is exquisite; this one, for all its similarities, doesn't  compare. Admittedly, I have only seen what you see here. The print will look better once you see it. But I would guess it has been picked up relatively cheaply and it now finds itself on British ebay for the minimum starting price you might expect to pay - £600 to you, and probably more to someone else.


As Klaus mentions LH Jungnickel's Blue Parrots in the comments, I've added an image of the woodcut that's for sale on Austrian ebay at a starting price of  €600. His work is very different from Bresslern Roth's smooth productions, with all their muted tastefulness. Her prints are generally small, some of his surprisingly large and he is serious about pictorial space, decorative effect and the expressive qualities of woodcut. He never once makes any attempt at stylishness. In fact,  I was taken aback by how rough his Flamingoes was when I found it by chance a couple of weeks ago at the V&A in London. I wondered then what Klaus would have thought about it.


And if you don't believe me, this is what the market says about Jungnickel's Tigerkopf , shown here in the frame it was sold in at Dorotheum in Vienna in June of last year. It fetched €6,000.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Robert Gibbings del et imp

When the critic and writer Malcolm Salaman said, 'Mr Robert Gibbings is leaning experimentally towards the Japanese convention,' he was already inured to Gibbings' changeableness and had no doubt learned to approach his changes-of-heart with caution. (Gibbings had suffered from depression and a lack of concentration for some time after he had been wounded in action in 1915). Salaman might not have been thinking about this exact print  when he said what he did, but Play is the most Japanese of the very few colour woodcuts that Gibbings made. It is also the least serious.

For anyone that only knows Gibbings through his wood-engravings, this print is just as disconcerting as his first colour woodcut Retreat from Serbia (which I featured some while back). Both prints seem to come out of the blue. The key to this one at least may perhaps be found in the cheeky little seal.

At the top you see his own convoluted initials, RJG, below the initials SL in the shade of a stylised tree. This lower part of the seal is a straightforward parody of Frank Morley Fletcher's own seal (although Fletcher doesn't sit his own MF in the shade, more's the pity). Fair enough. But who is Serj Lapin?

When he made the woodcut, he was clear about the collaboration by saying it was between Serj and R Gibbings, and number 5 in the edition (of 75) was marked S Lapin del.: so there is no great consistency and when it comes to what has been described as a nursery print, you wouldn't probably expect that. But this is satire, a parody of the extravagent lengths that printmakers went to in order to achieve their Japanese look. I don't have an image of Yoshijiro Urushibara's own double rabbit logo used on his Ten Woodcuts (and it came out a few years after this, probably) but you will see the possibiltities with another print you may well have seen here on this blog, or elsewhere.


Urushibara's early prints are hard to date, but I can't help but feel the habit of Frank Brangwyn and George Clausen adding their signatures to work both cut and printed by the Japanese artist is partially the focus of his mockery. But of course, there was only one Robert Gibbings ever, and he was the sole author of this print. The clever geometry is Gibbings as only he knew how, and as Salaman went on to say, he was making these experiments 'with a view to a fuller colour range'. The colours of his earlier woodcuts were restricted and by the third one the whole idea was looking  jaded as the Irish would say themselves. But he was only semi-serious. It seems this print and its partner, which I have never seen, lie somewhere between Albert Bridge, Chelsea and Walthan St Lawrence in Berkshire where he moved to  run the Golden Cockeral Press in 1923. He never did anything else in colour after this and so perhaps he hadn't missed Urushibara's real lesson: how much you can do with  small amount of pink and alot of black and white.


Wednesday 11 July 2012

Studio sale

And now I come to the dilemma that faces every half-serious collector in the end: I mean the one that is posed by the unsigned proof. Does it represent a risk, or does it provide an opportunity? For some of the artists that have proved popular on Modern Printmakers, I can at least provide a low-down that might help readers make an informed choice. This is it. It's not infallible but here is what I have learned.

Top of the list has to be the marvellous Ian Cheyne. I must also add Mediterranean Bar from 1935 that you see here is clearly signed and in fact forms part of the collection at the Miami Art Museum. Very appropriate, of course, and I wonder how they came by it. Cheyne's work is rare but occasionally unsigned proofs have turned up. This, so far as I know, is what happened.

It was a classic case of an artist dying relatively young (he was 60) and leaving proofs in his studio. Some of these were signed but many were not. All remained unsold untill a friend of mine tracked down his wife, the artist Jessie Garrow, by the simple expedient of looking up all the Cheynes in the Glasgow telephone directory. She then gave Alan an impression of every individual prints she had left (yes, I said gave) and the residue were sold to a British dealer who had a studio stamp made and this was used to sign any unmarked prints. These are perfectly legitimate and their provenance is excellent. But it does not mean that they were necessarily regarded as perfect by the artist himself. And Ian Cheyne, if you can find one, will not come cheap.


More fun and considerably less expensive, was a case that came up on British ebay a year or so ago. One of the photos we saw was the one above, showing lots of tempting colour woodcuts attributed to the Scottish painter Thomas Austen Brown. All kind of surprising because Tom wasn't really much of a printmaker. I really did think I had to re-assess him untill I discovered they weren't by Tom at all, but by his wife.

Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown was the better printmaker by far. And I bought bottom right. It's called Autumn and it's in the British Museum. And the rest of them are almost certainly all by her. This was a simple case of a reasonble attribution where a dealer knows it is easier to sell with a name than without. It's like the labels you see at antiques centres that read 'Nice deco jug. AF'. It's better than nothing.

Was the Lizzie Brown worth buying? Yes, it was. I could see there were probably printing errors but there are also advantages, as there would be with buying an Ian Cheyne with the studio stamp. If prints like that have been cared for since, they will be in very good condition - bright, fresh, with no time-stains, as they call it, and no dead thunderflies. This was certainly the case with my Christie Brown.


More complex is the case of the well-regarded linocutter Sylvan Boxsius. He was 63 when he died but unlike Ian Cheyne I think he had had a much shorter printmaking career. Even so, he produced at least 34 0r 35 prints from about 1930 untill his death in 1941. Interestingly, one that has come up most frequently is Autumn  from his four seasons set and this is quite often unsigned. The one I own turned out to be obviously faulty. It has a printing crease right across the image and explains why it isn't signed. What makes things rather more complex is this: Boxsius also signed this set in the block. I wonder why.

Moving forward, I recently learned from Clive Christie that Daisy Boxsius sold off around 200 prints that were left in her husband's studio at the time of his death. According to a dealer in Texas,  Edinburgh Castle, above, came from that source. (I have given that title to the print).

But this print poses more of a problem. It is an attribution and is also a colour woodcut. And neither Clive nor myself have come across colour woodcuts by Boxsius before. I don't know what he paid but he did the right thing. It doesn't surprise me in the least that Boxsius might have made woodcuts and beyond that castles and ruins were typical subjects of his: Walberswick, Arundel, Corfe. This is a fine print and well-worth having, whoever it is by. But then compare it to the ones below:


These also show Edinburgh Castle and date to 1909 when Boxsius was studying at Islington School of Art. To be more exact, they are two versions of Castle Rock, Edinburgh by Mabel Royds. I think they are better conceived and more powerful, and even if the subject, and the details like the children, were on loan from Royds (Helen Stevenson also made use of Royds when she produced her lovely Gylen Castle, Kerrara, below) the style is the weaker one of Ethel Kirkpatrick.


If Boxsius trained in colour woodcut as Clive now believes, since the print arrived in Taiwan, (his scan only arrived today), I wonder who the teacher was. So far as I know, there were no colour woodcut classes in London at the time. The sum total of what I am saying is this: our knowledge is expanding, but remains partial. Even so, I'm going to stick my neck out. Boxsius and Kirkpatrick both worked at Walberswick in Essex and she may have passed her skills to him. The other possibility is this: Kirkpatrick made the Edinburgh print herself. Take a look at these crows:


As it happens, Kirkpatrick prints like Harrow-on-the-Hill are still coming out on the market. The source of these is fairly straightforward. Probably all come from the family. How it is that they have so many (and there are still more to come) I don't really know. Some of these are signed but some are not and they have been bought by the print trade in both this country and the US. I saw Waterway unsigned the other week with nothing at all wrong with it, so far as I could see, while I was a touch more dubious about the Thames sailing barges that was signed! A desirable print all the same. A shame they were asking so much!

Which brings me to Mabel Royds. The story of her proofs is fairly straightfroward. There were alot left at the time of her death, many were signed, and many of these were bought in the 1980s from her daughter. I  don't know whether this was by one person or whether the collection was broken up. Sheets from her sketch-books have turned up on ebay.

So, there we have it. Many thanks to Clive for providing such a faithful image of his new acquisition (using his brand-new printer). I hadn't intended to go into such detail about the Boxsius but Clive wanted to know what I thought so I have offered a few ideas. And whatever I have said here about individual artists or prints, there is no one here that I don't admire, Clive himself included.


Sunday 8 July 2012

Japon-Paris-Bretagne: colour woodcuts at Quimper


Of the three exhibitions this week I've thought really worth visiting, Japon-Paris-Bretagne at Quimper will be the most important by far. Unfortunately, it will also be the one that the fewest readers will be able to visit with any ease. But at least it provides me with the opportunity to make some amends. French printmaking, for all its importance, just hasn't featured on Modern Printmakers, so here is a selection of the artists working 1880 to 1930 who you might see at the Musee Departemental Breton. I understand their collection once belonged to the Bibliotheque Nationale.

It is to their credit that they place their prints in the bigger context. But then one look at their website makes it plain the Musee Departemental may be regional but it has class. I don't detect any of that lurking localism so beloved of British art institutions. What I think you might get are quite a few delicate French landscapes like the one below, with a good deal of subtle Impressionst-style expanses of water. Many of these artists, unlike Jules Chadel (above), also failed to see what John Dickson Batten understand from the very beginning, that the graphic arts were not necessarily reproductive and more than that prints shouldn't look like paintings.


I have tried to include only colour woodcuts here (and I'm not always sure where woodcut leaves off and engraving begins with French prints) and I believe that is what they will be showing at Quimper. Henri Riviere gamely started out on a book of colour woodcuts in 1888 called Thirty-six views of the Eiffel Tower, wittily based on Hokusai's Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, only to find that the cutting and printing of colour woodcuts for an edition of 500 was beyond him. At that point he opted for lithography, probably not as Hokusai as he would have liked.


The print-exponents of the Grosvenor School and their followers in Britain like Leonard Beaumont for some reason believed pattern made them modern. The artists here were alot more subtle than that and overall do achieve a nice balance between pattern and description. The idea of a motif that Riviere picked up from Hokusai and used in a modern way was beyond the basic craft approach taken by many British and American  printmakers of the period.


But what surprised me most (and this is something of an admission) as I looked through images for this post, was how much some British printmakers were influenced by the French. Charles Mackie had met Gaugin and les Nabis; others, like Frank Morley Fletcher and Ethel Kirkpatrick, had studied in Paris; Kirkpatrick had even found her way to Brittainy. But it was the effect of Riviere's work on someone like John Platt that I found striking. I don't want to start out on the comparisons game. You can play it endlessly, especially when it comes to Japonisme, but the way British printmakers learned from French art well into the 1920s is facinating all the same - as fascinating as it's unexpected. Amedee Joyau (below) is not a million miles from Allen Seaby's view of the Isle of Wight, for instance. And Platt's Brixham trawlers owe more to this wonderful Joyau (bottom) than they do to Kirkpatrick. (Platt, like Ian Cheyne, also worked in France).


I am ashamed of the lack of accents but have been unable to work out how I can add them using blogger.

The exhibition runs at Quimper from 30th November, 2012, untill 3rd March, 2013, so you do have plenty of advance warning. If you make the effort to visit, bear in mind that Ethel Kirkpatrick would have approved, I am sure. Vive la France!


Saturday 7 July 2012

Leonard Beaumont at the Graves Gallery

22nd December is another necessary date for your diary simply because that's the day an exhibition of prints and drawings by Leonard Beaumont opens at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield. What with the current show of Eric Slater, it does look as if curators at provincial British art galleries are at long last waking up to the boxes and boxes of modern prints they hold and at last letting people see them. Don't think these are just exceptions; I really should start to name and shame. At Sheffield, as with Eastbourne, it's much the same come-on, only this time it's 'unsung Sheffield hero'. It makes you want to slap them. (See December 2012 for a review of the exhibition).

There was nothing heroic about being an artist in Sheffield in the twenties and if you are underestimated your linocuts don't go into four figures. Anyone that knows prints of the period will know Beaumont as someone who was not a member of the Chorus (top) but displayed independance all along and stands out from the Grosvenor School students for his 'clarity and elegance' as the Sheffield Telegraph had it. (I also need to say that he never studied with Claude Flight at the school but obviously the influence is there - possibly too much so. I think it's one of the weaknesses of his prints).

These were the qualities that led hin into a career in design, first at the Royal Mail and then at Sainsbury's, in the fifties and sixties. He came up the hard but fairly common way for the times: evening classes at the local art school while he was working at the Telegraph. After serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the first war, he first taught himself etching before moving on to the linocuts, which he is best know for today. Eye-catching and modern as Sainsbury's packaging was during the sixties, they hardly compare with the kind of prints you see here.

That said, Beaumont brings out all the reservations I have about modern linocut. Their repetition leaves them looking very much like design only. To some extent, once you have done one, you have done them all. Fine as they are, the roadmenders (above) may just as well be in the chorus line or yodelling in the Tyrol. As he said himself, he never used a sketchbook or a camera but a combination of memory and imagination. It shows. And as I said elsewhere, the Studio Magazine refused to illustrate Claude Flight and Edith Lawrence's linocuts because they were  design and pointedly showed their designs for furniture and rugs.

And just to be perverse, the Swiss landscape below is one of my favourites. The image is from a current auction-house catalogue and it's a pity it's so pale. For some reason Dominic Winter and have a stash of linocuts and books together in one lot. That makes them a gift to the trade. Still, this is Claude Flight less the overprinting and in some ways Beaumont's linocuts are the better for it. Interesting that we don't get Swaledale.

Please note: There is a second post in December, 2012, that reviews the exhibition. It's also worth saying that I'm an independant writer not a curator.


Friday 6 July 2012

Eric Slater at the Towner

As part of an exhibition called 'A point of departure' the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne has dug into its collection and hung a room with twenty-five colour woodcuts by the Sussex artist Eric Slater. The spin they have put on Slater goes something like this: forgotten artist who had not been on show since the Normans invaded. As anyone who tries to buy a Slater on ebay will know, this is curatorial tosh. You don't normally have much change out of perhaps £150 if you do. And when he starts to look like Ian Cheyne, as he does with Spring (above) it may well be more. But with Slater it pays to be selective. He is hit-and-miss.


No matter. The old Towner used to be a nice gallery to visit. Now apparently they have a new one equally strong on British C20th and seeing so many of Slater's colour woodcuts together is probably an opportunity no one should really miss if you don't live too far away. Slater really is quite an appealing artist although I would normally balk at the prices. But if you want to have a go, Bellagraphica currently have A downland mill (below) for sale on British ebay which currently stands at £119. It won't stay there.


The exhibition runs untill 11th November, 2012, so you have lots of time. Be there, or be square.

Monday 2 July 2012

Norah Pearse: Splash!

If the British are not depressed by the rain, they are alarmed by the sea. Splash by the Exmouth artist, Norah Pearse, has both elements but transformed for comic effect. The falling wave and the puddles of sea-water are obviously literal in an arch comic-book fashion. It seems very thirties the way she tries and gets away with it, all with the intention of capturing one of those insouciant pastimes the British go in for along the sea-front. I have done it many times. She has taken the gusto of the Grosvenor School and subtracted the modernist artistry. This is Recording Britain for the fun of it and not as part of a commission.

This little linocut also records another of my homes. I used to have a flat no more than two ot three hundred metres from this sea-wall. I couldn't see the Channel because of the houses in the way but the sails of yachts would slip by surprisingly close. (The sea comes right in at that point - hence the splashes).


It's a shame I couldn't find a better image for Of tigers, watched by children. It is very hard to judge it by this hopeless monitor image. Pearse trained at Exeter School of Art before going on to teach, but so far as I can make out only began to make her handful of colour woodcuts and colour linocuts when she reached her late forties. But you can see here, the emphasis is on leisure and that she has learned the lessons of the Grosvenor School and taken a look at popular activities and dumped genre. This is what I like about her. She shows us the places she knows and likes but doesn't over-emphasise them. I also like her sense of humour, and her sense of irony, and the way she plays off the raw against the tame.