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.