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.



  1. Firstly, that Cheyne print is stunning, signed, unsigned or famous artist or unknown artist...I would have bought it in a heartbeat. It is a stunning example of art from a very specific period but it is so perfectly executed...provenance be damned.

    Regarding the woodcut by Boxsius. There are some things you very correctly point out. The print is very very similar to works by Kirkpatrick and Royds. It is simply implausible that he didn't study woodblock printmaking, and he was in all the right places at the right time in order to do so. The print is too perfectly executed in that very specific style to have been a self taught or a stumbled upon print. He may not have studied under Urushibara, but his works have that very Japanese application of colour and tonality. The paper of course, is always a key to me with Boxsius. He used different papers for different prints, and I am not expert as to what his rationale was to use a thicker printing paper, but then this one is on the most fragile japan. Could it have been his print making training and background? I don't know. This particular print, is so very different from his usual works, but so very British.

    It is so similar to the Scottish trained and teaching artists, not just Royds and Stevenson...but also the colouration of Seaby. It is also interesting that the British Museum describes his Corfe Castle print as being "Japanese" in style...which it clearly is not in my opinion. This one is though.

    The original purchaser from the estate left a rather detailed note on it, which I thought was interesting and the details of which I have shared with you. The purchaser was from Texas which makes sense economically. It was common in the period between the wars and then after World War II, up until the late 50's for moneyed Americans to travel to Britain and Europe and buy art and antiques. Texas certainly had a lot of money at that time and it isn't a stretch to think they were doing their modern version of the British "Grand Tour".

    She also makes it clear that the estate sale was attended by she and her husband, and there were about 200 prints for sale, and how much they paid for it converted into the US dollars. All of this was rather neatly typed and applied to the mount but the print had never been framed. It is therefore in perfect condition, with no marking or damage of any sort. It's a mystery and I doubt without the provenance I would have bid, but that's more about me not always trusting my instincts and also having a rather strict internalized set of rules governing purchases.

    It is also interesting that you have made this posting at this particular time. A couple of weeks ago in my usual Ebay trawling I stumbled upon a rather unappealing Meryl Watts woodblock. It was interesting, and of it's period but the subject didn't grab me. Well yesterday I included Watts, in my search and low and behold, there are works by her purchased from her estate. There are a couple of studies, a small watercolour and an interesting woodblock.

    Would I purchase any of them? No. Is it interesting? Absolutely! There is indeed a chance that a treasure may appear, and the seller clearly has more that will appear. Regarding E.C. Austen Brown, I always rated her rather highly.

    A fascinating posting, and I daresay, there is much much more to be said on the topic.

  2. It would be remiss of me to mention the Watts print but then not share the link. Readers my take a look at the other items listed also.

  3. One of the main things we don't know is how much training any of them received. Personally, I'm not convinced that formal classes were always necessary. Basically, though, it needs more research.

    Walter Phillips said had had no training. Not only that, he said he had never seen a Japanese woodblock before he began making colour woodcuts. Can this really be true? Many of them struggled at some point and went for help somewhere. Plus there are so many funny stories we need to re-think eg Eilen Mayo being instructed by Claude Flight over the telephone.

    I would be a touch more cautious over this Boxsius woodcut -untill we see some more woodcuts by him. Right now it's a another very intriguing part of the jigsaw. Hopefully, next month I shall be able to study the linocuts at the British Museum. Because I agree with you about the importance of papers and methods of printing.

    Printing is the key thing. Every one of them agreed that it was printing that was difficult and probably this was where they needed the training (and where Urushibara came in). But Morley Fletcher was demonstrating printing long before Urushibara arrived in the UK and his efforts need to be remembered in the London context till about 1906. Giles was also active in helping people. Ada Collier is one artist we know about. There will be others.

  4. I know for a fact that Phillips did in fact receive training, and I know it from Urushibara's son who confirmed it. He may claim he didn't but it is simply not true. Urushibara's son has correspondence between his father and Giles regarding Phillips, and also that it was Giles who encouraged him to return to England to study. I have also confirmed it from one other source, but it escapes me now, it could have been from the V&A.

    Eileen Mayo absolutely studied. She studied at Slade in 1924 and then at the Central. She studied printmaking at both schools, and she had private lessons at evening when economics intervened and she needed to work, she did it right up until her departure to the Antipodes. Who she specifically studied with during those evening classes is a mystery unlikely to be solved but it is known that she did. The over the phone classes, makes a good vignette for dinner parties, but seems hilariously unlikely. However, it is known that she did know Flight, and he included her prints in exhibitions he curated....but that is the case for many printmakers who used linocuts. I imagine these were fairly small worlds and people knew each other.

    Regarding Boxsius, again I only have the provenance, and it is unlikely that the original buyer would have made it up. In fact, I don't think she had any idea who the artist was and incorrectly labelled the print by Sylvia (sic) Boxsius, presumably because Sylvan was a name rarely heard of in the USA.

    The Corfe Castle print you used to illustrate your posting is labelled by the British Museum as a woodcut no? What are your concerns? I am genuinely curious.

  5. Phillips, according to the dedicated website, began making colour woodcuts a number of years before he came back to Britain and met Urushibara. But Phillips' own account about learning from an article by Seaby also doesn't make sense because the only article I know of appeared in 1919 after he began making prints. Sometimes they got their chronology wrong, sometimes they were ingenuous. It's hard to work out.

    'Corfe Castle' looks like all the other linocuts to me. I must admit, I didn't know about the BM's description. I just snaffled their iamge. They also occasionally say some peculiar things. Yours is obviously a woodcut but could you say the same thing about 'Corfe Castle'? I must look and ponder! It's all in the style.

    You are right about the small world of artists. I am gradually turning up connections (sometimes rather surprising) that suggest artists knew something about colour woodcut long before they tried it out. One of my copies of Fletcher's 'Woodblock Printing' was owned by the wood-engraver Millicent Jackson who never apparently made a woodcut in her life. Perhaps now one will turn up in Austin.

  6. The BM describe 'The Waterwitch' as 'a colour woodcut in the Japanese manner'. But then three prints by Boxsius including 'London from the roof' and 'The Waterwitch' were exhibited as colour woodcuts in 1940. This can't be right.

  7. It's all very interesting though. Regarding the BM descriptions, they are so often idiotic that I have to laugh. I actually think the best source is "The Studio" magazine, which I used to read in the stacks at university. They are also far more precise in describing the works, but there are sometimes terms they use which were more fashionable than accurate. It's hard to know.

  8. Yes, The Studio had its own fanciful charm but they did know the artists themselves and what they were up to.

  9. The impressive and very clever perspective in the purplish Edinburgh Castle print is very much reminding of Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1895 spectacular painting "A Coign of Vantage". See:

  10. To be honest, I find the Boxsius print rather bloodless and boring...


  11. Thank God for a dissenting voice! But if it is early Boxsius (and I still think the jury is out on that) it is worth having in a serious collection.