Wednesday 29 August 2012

An Exhibition by the Colour Woodcut Society, November, 1927

I don't know who wrote the review of the eighth exhibition of the Colour Woocut Society at the Macrae Gallery in Fulham in 1927, but whoever it was, the person tended to pick out the same artists for special mention for a number of years. The critic probably never noticed but presumably the artists did. No one would be surprised by some of the names John Platt, Allen Seaby and Yoshihjiro Urushibara would almost always be worthy of mention. It's the less well-known names that are more interesting. But even more fascinating and frustrating are the names we barely know at all.

I have no choice about where I start. It has to be Platt's Red chestnut no 1. Not because I think it's the best work the unnamed critic wanted to praise. It's a fine virtuoso print but it also happens to fit in with the lay-out. No, the one I like most inhabits another element. If Platt was fascinated by airborne imagery, just as Allen Seaby was, I think it would have been Seaby's superb image Trout that I would have bought. One image Seaby often goes back to is the kingfisher poised above a brook or river; here we see an animal underwater. Either way, what captivates Seaby most are those things it is least easy to capture. There is a memorable, self-deprecating description where he watches over a partridge nest day after day only to find he has missed the momentary phenomenon of the chicks being dried by the cock-bird soon after hatching simply because the birds were more vigilant than he was. But what we dont always see, Seaby reveals in his woodcuts.


Less striking perhaps but a name that comes up in more than one reviw is Lizzie Austen Brown. It's not often colour woodcut artists seriously attempt an urban subject as Brown does in Battersea factories (at least I think I've matched title and image) and if there is more than a touch of Whistler here, well, we forgive her. Brown was a consistent artist who was serious about printmaking as her unsigned proofs attest to - and better at it than her husband. Whats she loses in bravura, she gains in subtlety.


Geraldine Maunsell's print, Falmouth, defeated me. In fact, I've seen nothing by her anywhere. Her husband, Guy, became a successful civil engineer who built the Red Sands forts in the Thames estuary during the second war. But when they were poor immediately after their marriage in 1922, they took off to the Dordogne and then Portugal simply because living was cheap there. While she made woodcuts, he painted in watercolour.


I was more successful with Mary Creighton McDowall's Church in the Dolomites - or at least I hope I was. The linocut you see in the photograph hangs on a bedroom wall in the house belonging to McDowall's niece. If this really is the image she exhibited, it would be of considerable interest because it shows the society giving space to another medium, though I can't as yet be sure about this. (You can see more of Mike Chisholm's photographs on his blog called Idiotic Hat.)

Poor Phillip Needell was less fortunate than I was.His Northern Patrol was singled out for criticism. If the drawing is literal we can perhaps put it down to Needell basing the print far too closely on a watercolour made some years before when he was at sea with Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Nor did Needell get the chance to draw his head off at the Slade. His father insisted on him working in a bank, just as Neave Parker's did. The only formal training he received was at the Regent Street Polytechnic, presumably during the evenings. It has always struck me as overworked and awkward but it obviously was felt to be a success by the artist himself.


An artist who did manage to escape working in a bank was Arthur Rigden Read. While his four brothers became clerks, Read went into design. Unfortunately, his print The mandarin gown has escaped me. I was tempted to replace it with The batik scarf  but decided against. As with all of Read's output, sometimes his shawls and scarves work and sometimes they don't.


Yoshijiro Urushibara's Daisies makes a fine professional contrast to the hand-made feel of so many of the prints here, apart of course from Platt whose work standards were just as high as the Japanese artists were. I shall resist posting Arabella Rankin's Iona simply because it isn't clear which Iona woodcut is meant and also because I have already posted a group of them recently. Ethel Kirkpatrick's Boatbuilding is of course another matter. Kirkpatrick I cannot resist (except for 1928's Communication, ancient and modern).


 Her view of a boatyard shows an artist depicting a subject she loved. I was smitten by this print as soon as I saw it. Obviously the reviewer was as well. And whoever he was (and it may have been Charles Marriott who worked at The Times for 16 years) I think he knew a good thing when he saw one. Later in her career, Kirkpatrick discovered a modicum of restraint and this view across what must be Mount's Bay from Newlyn stands in contrats to the more outlandish colours of  her view from Mousehole across the bay towards St Michael's Mount. But Kirkpatrick can do no wrong so far as I'm concerned. Or, perhaps I should say, up untill 1927, at least.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Frances Blair


If any reader thought I might run out of forgotten Scottish printmakers any day soon, they would be wrong. Frances Blair is as about as forgotten as they come, and completely without justification. At first glance her work is straightforward faux-naif but she has an interest in form and structure that belies the apparent simplicities. Her first prints date from around 1925 and she was soon making  both colour woodcut and linocut like Anna Findlay. The linocut you can see below, Cornish Cream Shop, isn't as stylish as Findlay at her best, nevertheless Blair kept stylish company and by 1929 she found herself exhibiting alongside Norbertine von Bresslern Roth and Margaret Preston at the Grosvenor Gallery in Sydney. The show was simply called 'New colour woodcuts' and if nothing else, this gives hope to readers in New Zealand and Australia because her prints do surface in both countries.


She made the move from Edinburgh down to Cornwall some time in the twenties. The brown sail, top, finds her in Ethel Kirkpatrick territory, around Penzance (you can just make out the PZ registration on the boat). Kirkpatrick was equally fond of orange sails (specially if she could set them off against mauve skies) but Blair shows a modicum of restraint and thus captures the form of both sail and boat with utter panache. Please note the seams on the sail itself, the neat combination of pattern and form. She also has French-style objectivity  off to a T. These are little panoramas but she still takes on many things.


This is very much a work-in-progress on Blair. I only have a date of death - 1954, which comes from the ever-vigilant Cornwall Artists Index. She was certainly working at Mousehole by 1924. Like Kirkpatrick, she was also a watercolourist, and must have known Arabella Rankin, who also exhibited in Penzance at least once. Unlike Rankin, from what I can see, she is as much interested in the working life of ordinary people (note the earthernware cream pancheon beside the dairy-door) as she was in landscape. The Pass of Lairig (above) is in the Cairngorms in Scotland. I have a list of around a dozen prints or so.  A Sussex Mill, Hen Farm, Woods o' Dee and Evening, Morar give some idea of her range but I think there is enough of her work here to suggest that she was not only aware but consistent and clever.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Harold Curwen goes to night school

The real problem with research is this: you can't research everything. So even a writer as well-informed as Alan Powers has this to say about Harold Curwen's studies in the new lettering, '...he spent a year studying calligraphy with (Edward) Johnston at the Central School in London...'

A year to most of us would mean just that, a period of continuous study. The truth is Johnston's class, Writing and Illumination,  took place weekly, on a Monday evening, between 7 and 9.30 pm. And this would all be inexcusable pedantry on my part except for this: we now forget how important evening classes were for vocational study for men and women from all backgrounds. Night school was the popular term and many people who attended gained qualifications necessary for them to succeed. Some years before Harold Curwen attended the class at the Central School, Alan Seaby had to take all his early art classes in exactly the same way. His father had died young and he had to help support the family as a pupil-teacher. It wasn't untill he had passed national examinations at evening classes held at Reading School of Art that he won a place at the University College there. Night school was a way up for all kinds of people.

All that the courses at the time Curwen was at the Central School  had  in common with provincial evening classes was the time of day. By 1908, the year Curwen left, even that was changing. Sidney Lee's class had moved to an afternoon. As for other staff,  Edward Johnston was fast becoming the leading figure in the revival of British lettering, Eric Gill was teaching design for monumental masons, Noel Rooke was kick-starting modern wood-engraving in the book-production department. It was not so much a matter of how much time you spent there, as how you learned. JD Batten famously went into Johnston's class one day asking if any student could cut lettering in stone and Johnston had put forward Eric Gill who he went on to describe as 'the stone-mason who is cutting the tomb-stone for Mr Batten'. (Batten was forty-five at the time).

This infectious egalitarian spirit was the order of the day. Distinctions between teacher, artist and student were discouraged. Much was down to the forward-looking ethos formed by the co-principal, William Lethaby. He had taken on Frank Morley Fletcher to teach woodblock after he had produced only one colour woodcut; Johnston had hoped to gain a place at the school as a student only to be told he would be taking the class. (Admittedly, Lethaby went on to play for time until Johnston had gained experience, but he had a true instinct for the kind of teacher he wanted: the ones who would teach students to innovate because they themselves were still learning). It was a remarkable place to work and study because of this and the students saw themselves as pioneers. Batten's own third colour woodcut, The Tiger, and in many ways the most effective one he produced, was made during the Wednesday classes with Fletcher. (The second image is a 1927 colour woodcut designed for Curwen by Eric Ravilious).

Curwen himself had already spent time at a Leipzig music printers before moving onto Regent St. Once he had taken over at the Curwen Press, the effects of those early days became obvious. Gill produced what I think is the most memorable of the Curwen unicorns and the list of young designers who were employed by the Plaistow works includes the most diligent of the period: Claud Lovat Fraser, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious. This was one magic link between arts and crafts and modern design as we know it.

Incidentally, some of the original images you see here are still available. Harold Curwen's children's book for Puffin will cost a few pounds and the Ravilious image comes from the first Woodcut Annual edited by Herbert Furst, which comes complete with handblocked cover by Paul Nash and Gill's unicorn on the back fly-leaf. Finally, Batten's Tiger has come up on ebay within the past three years, though I very much doubt the next time it will still be £60, or so. Someone had a bargain. Sadly, it wasn't me.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Chris Wormell & the Adnams campaign

Chris Wormell crept up on the British people unawares and without hardly anyone knowing his name, became part of the visual culture. Not that he was the first graphic artist to ever do this. He only joins a distinguished company that includes Eric Fraser, Edward Ardizzone, Paul Hogarth and, last but not least, Claud Lovat Fraser. How do they bring off this visual coup d'etat? There are many good graphic artists who never achieve any popular status. Is it purely talent and, if so, what kind of gift do they have?

With Eric Fraser it was a matter of tapping into the visual DNA and adapting the wood-engraving style that had become so prevalent by the 1930s. Ardizzone was more subtle. His use of the soft colours and ballet poses of French rococco led us somewhere we vaguely knew about although we couldn't say why. Like Fraser, Paul Hogarth made use of a recent style, in his case the main ploy was to make use of the shape-shifting psychedelia of the mid-sixties. The best of them though, was Lovat Fraser, with his canny blend of the popular C18th chapbook manner and the sophistication of the French Directoire revival. In his short career he produced something that was generic, waggish and appealing.

Without ever have gone anywhere near an art school, let alone the Royal College, Wormell took up some engraving tools in 1982 and taught himself how. By then the revival of British wood-engraving had begun. Everywhere people were fed up with the often boorish, academic and basically uninteresting art of the seventies and began to look elsewhere. As you see from the adverts here, Wormell looked to the colour graphics of the 1920s and 1930s and simply brought them up to date. He exchanged soft-focus nostalgia for Friends of the Earth.

That said, I am a great fan of Wormell. I gave a copy of his Alphabet to my great nephew and before I knew where I was his mother was pointing out his work in Waitrose and, as it happens, it was another member of the family who is a partner of the firm who took Wormell on to make the linocuts you see here for the Southwold brewery of Adnams in (I believe) 2004. (It was their art director who had the the bottle top idea). They called it 'Beer from the coast' so going down the pub turned into a trip to the seaside, an England without ideology. You only have to scroll down to the recent post on Arabella Rankin to see the kind of fine artist that served as a precedent for Wormell. His work is alot easier to come across than hers but will cost you quite a bit more. Failing that, visit one of the Adnam's pubs in East Anglia and swipe one of their beer mats. His work is there as well.


Friday 3 August 2012

Elizabeth Keith: an honourable eccentricity

When Elizabeth Keith published a set of caricatures in aid a war-time charity in Tokyo in 1917, the men who made up her subjects who found themselves dressed as teddy bears or sailors must have felt hugely relieved. Any chap who had been unwise enough to grow a moustache, or even to grow bald, found himself in a tutu, fairy wings, an evening gown, a bustle, anything that would diminish them. It was all daintily camp and the net effect was to make her victims not just vulnerable but available to public scrutiny.

Would she have got away with this back home in Aberdeenshire? Probably not. Would the idea even have arisen? She was certainly not the first traveller to note the emotional differences between the East and the West. But she may have been the first to turn the tables on the Western community so pointedly. When the bond forms between Ishmael and the Polynesian islander, Queequeg, Herman Melville has Ishmael say, 'I felt a melting within me. No more my heart was turned against the wolfish world. ' The emotional effect on Keith of being in the Far East was just as great..


On the Phillipine island of Moro she attended a wedding where she described the couple as 'the boy and girl culprits'. She was most affected by the girl, with her whitened face and downward gaze, sitting in a room where men predominated. 'The unhappy bride was high enough for all to see her, and the people stared and stared with a curiousity that seemed unquenchable'.

No less than her own, then. She describes being overwhelmed by her first visit to Pekin. 'I had not dreamed of such colour. The place overpowers me. I have not been able to sleep. The crowding impressions are too excting. The longing to understand has been almost unbearable.'


This vision was soon recognised by the canny Tokyo publisher, Shozaburo Wantanabe. He had already had the watercolours of the British artist, Charles Bartlett, translated into colour woodcut. But Bartlett was in Hawaii and it is quite possible that when Wantanabe visited the department store exhibition of her travel watercolours and told Keith that East Gate, Seoul, by moonlight could be made into a colour woodcut, he really had had a vision of his own, for Elizabeth Keith went on to be his most successful and his most loyal artist. 'He declared that it would be a great success,' she said. 'I took his advice and he was right.'


Unlike the arts and crafts printmakers back at home, she only produced the designs. Even so, her close involvement with Wantanabe's blockcutters and printers was not without a fine sense of pantomime. By her own admission she had limited Japanese and was reliant on her wily publisher. 'I constantly break with tradition, much to the disgust of my printer,' she said, only to find their own behaviour just as disconcerting. There was, she discovered, a fine line between chance and intention. The blockcutters were so scrupulous, they would faithfully reproduce haphazard marks she regarded as flaws, flaws they couldn't comprehend.


Her stay in Japan lasted untill 1924. Then, back in London one day, on a visit to the critic Malcolm Salaman, she met the leader of the British colour woodcut movement, William Giles. Now Giles was no great fan of reproductive work, which he soon afterwards described as 'replicas' and the ensuing fame 'false glory'. While there Keith was shown a proof of Giles first colour woodcut, September Moon, which Salaman owned, 'a masterly print,' he said, 'done after only a year's study,' and Giles assured her she was quite capable of cutting and printing her own blocks, just as he had. What Keith herself thought of the print, we do not know. And whether this pep-talk was quite the antidote to Wantanabe that Salaman made it out to be, is doubtful. The idea that Keith returned to Japan and set about making her own prints starts with Salaman who went on to say that her activities were tolerated as 'an honourable eccentricity'. She certainly opted to study etching with WP Robins at the Central School, not woodcut, and there were exhibitions at the Beaux Arts in November, 1924, with another one in Paris but personally I know of only one print that she cut and printed herself and this is her Japanese carpenter (below) from 1937. But she was unable to settle in Britain, and returned to Tokyo in 1932.
But by then, political conditions were beginning to deteriorate and she never made the return trip to China she had so much wanted to make, and 1936 found her back home yet again, after sell-out exhibitions in the US on the way. The next year there was a second exhibition at the Beaux Arts in London. It may be that she only began to cut and print her own work (as you can see from her inscription) once she knew she was unlikely to go back to Japan. Even so, after the war, she found herself marooned and out-of-fashion, and even unable to support herself by selling her prints, and went live with Elspeth and John at Idwell just as she had done all those years before in Tokyo.


Wednesday 1 August 2012

And an Ian Cheyne up for sale

Even when he is not at his very best (and to be honest, I don't think he ever missed the mark) an Ian Cheyne print is always worth considering. I have to say A fisherman's church perhaps isn't one of my favourites. The waves are just a bit too frilly for my liking. All the same, it is a lovely and desirable thing and if you really want to see what a good printmaker can do with a few colours, you don't have to look any farther than the example that you see here. Cheyne knew his grey northern seas and it's interesting to compare Arabella Rankin's very considered approach to the Scottish coastline with the vivacious Ian Cheyne's take on the same subject. His prints almost always include some figures; I've not seen one by Rankin that does. Pigs, yes, aplenty, but human beings, no.

I have to thank an alert but anonymous reader who tipped me off about this rare occurence - I mean, a Cheyne actually coming on the market at all. If you compare it with the rather wonderful Sybil Andrew's print for sale at the same gallery at £9,750, the Cheyne doesn't seem so expensive at a tenth of the price. But Abbott & Holder in London are nowhere near as attractive price-wise as they used to be. That said, they have lots of nice things and the gallery in Museum St, if and when you are in London, is always worth a browse. I was very peeved to see a large linocut for sale there on my last visit that I had last seen on ebay. (There's a moral there but I try not to dwell on it). They also have Ethel Kirkpatrick at her most Irish and unearthly.