Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Alice Coats

One day some time around 1922, a student at Birmingham Central School of Arts and Crafts found a copy of Morley Fletcher's Woodblock Printing in the library and decided to have a go herself. (I am assuming the student was a woman). She found a cherry block (not in itself an easy thing to do so she must have been determined) and set about making a print. Presumably this got to the ears of someone with connections and Yoshijiro Urushibara himself was invited up to Birmingham to show the students how.

The effect was immediate. A colour woodcut mania set in. And Alice Coats, who came from Handsworth and studied at Birmingham between 1922 and 1926, must have been amongst the students who went on to found the Central School of Colour Woodblock Engravers in 1923. Her view of St Phillip's churchyard in the city centre is one of her uncommon early woodcuts. November is also that uncommon thing, an English colour woodcut with a realistic urban subject. It's also the only colour woodcut by her that I've seen. I think printmaking wasn't her main interest at the time. She was there at the school to study illumination and lettering, one of those key arts and crafts courses, that had begun life at Birmingham in 1901 after the success of Edward Johnston's Illumination and Calligraphy course at the Central School in London.


But what is especially interesting about all this are two things: the way the students were encouraged to work with materials (like the cherry block), as Walter Crane had noted years before, and also the initiative shown by them. It was Have-a-Go. And Alice coats did. Woodcut, linocut, etching, wood-engraving - she tried them all. I particularly like the etching of Christmas party mistletoe below. It shows her warming to the subject that was eventually to preoccupy her. Even here, she is studying a plant in its enviroment, even if it is an artificial one. (The trees in central Birmingham are other early precursors of her great interest in botany).


From Birmingham she went to the Slade School and around 1931 put colour woodcut behind her and began making those newly-fashionable linocuts. The last colour woodcut I know of is The new ricks and plants and rural landscape begin to predominate, so far as I can see. There are more of her linocut images available but not enought to come to any great conclusions. But she was taken up by the Redfern Gallery in London, very much a home to the modern linocut movement.


As so many printmakers did at the time, she went into illustration, producing at least one children's book in the thirties and then after the war her classic Garden shrubs of their histories. Not so much is  known about her history as yet. This is all that I have. A print like The calf pasture strikes me as much more Iain MacNab than Claude Flight. But Still life with pears shows her capable of a far more modernist take on things than winter in Birmingham. Whatever the medium, though, whatever the style, I get the feeling she never lost sight of her ultimate subject. I will be looking for more.

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