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.