Wednesday, 11 July 2012
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.