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.



  1. The Hog wash that is posted about my aunt-in-law these days are amazing. the said wedding was in Korea and no she did not go back to Japan in 1932. The last print by the way was done by the wonderful French woodblock printer, Paul Jacoulet. there are, however, pieces her that is very interesting, put in the right context, it would be very interesting!

  2. Well, that's funny, because the dates come from Richard Miles' 'Elizabeth Keith, the printed works'. Perhaps you ought to tell him off. I also took the details about the Moro wedding from 'Eastern Windows'.

    But this is obviously a fairly light-hearted post about Keith, so why get so excited? I have done a good deal to enhance the reputations of some of the printmakers on this blog and certainly don't think Elizabeth Keith's reputation needs guarding by you, or anyone else.