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.


  1. Beautiful, especially if you imagine the colours to be fresher and more powerful! I really like the third one.(But I hope you don't mind my saying that I hardly know any works by Phillips that could be described as "fussy and feeble").


  2. I'm glad you like them. You may notice that when you return the prints look they way they should do. It is all down to Gerrie's technical know-how so you can now appreciate Rankin in all her Gaelic glory.

    I couldn't resist a dig at Phillips. But aren't these prints better? Really, I thought they put the Phillips in the shade.

  3. Another fine revelation, I hope some more biographical facts will turn up now you've unobscured this neglected printmaker. Thanks !

  4. Yes, I have found other sources.

  5. Absolutely stunning. The colours are incredible.

  6. Catherine Ferns6 May 2014 at 08:46

    You are so right.......I think these are beautiful