What we know so far about the early training of Ethel Kirkpatrick is sketchy and but she had begun to paint in watercolours early in her career when studying either at the West Kensington Schools (which soon became the Royal College) or the RA Schools in London and then at the Academie Julian in Paris. Watercolours by Kirkpatrick are not so easy to come by and so I was very fortunate to have this earlyish watercolour Boats at rest sent to to me by Clive Christy.
It provides a number of clues, not least that her interest in maritime subjects began early on. Funnily enough, the patterns and dark colours also suggests to me the way her interest in enamalling and jewellery might have developped. The watercolour dates from 1894 three years before she took a course in jewellery at the Central School in London. It shows part of the pilchard fishing fleet at Newlyn in Cornwall. (You can see the lighthouse at the end of the pier to the left of the larger vessel).
The date is interesting. 1894 was the year Lily Kirkpatrick moved to St Ives. It's generally assumed that Lily was a member of the larger clan Kirkpatrick. They were landed people from Coolmine on Dublin Bay but Ethel had been born in London. Her father had joined the British Army, was wounded during the Indian Mutiny and eventually joined the prison service. Over the years Ethel did time at Coldbath, Exeter, Wormwood Scrubs and most notoriously at Newgate. By 1894 Captain Kirkpatrick had had a house built at Harrow-on-the-Hill near London. Curiously, a studio for his two artist daughters had not been included in the plans. Ethel and Ida soon put this right. One was built after his death in 1896. It's been suggested that the sisters moved back to Harrow after the death of Lily in 1902. I somehow doubt this. Ethel was studying weekly at the Central School during the autumn and winter of 1897/1898 and the watercolour itself was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895.
Nor is there a simple jump between her watercolours of boats and the colour woodcuts. The earliest woodcuts depicting sailing boats that I know of appear to date from about 1912. This date is also significant. Generally, there had been no real opportunity for British artists to exhibit their colour woodcuts until the formation of the Society of Graver Printers in Colour in 1909. Nor was Kirkpatrick a founder member. (In fact, none of the leading colour woodcut artists were in at the beginning). But the opportunity to exhibit may well have led her to interpret some of her watercolours.
But there are subtle differences between the paintings and the prints. She continues to group boats together but there are fewer of them and, by and large, they often occupy a restricted space within the picture. She didn't believe in making it difficult for herself. Virtuoso printmaking of the kind practiced by William Giles (and he was very good at it) and John Platt was not for Kirkpatrick. The outgoing fleet is fairly complicated so far as her seascapes go. But what she loses in impressiveness, she gains by way of expression. Look at the way the boats and their sails turn with the wind and the water. This is what she was about. (One of her titles was With wind and tide). She is no formalist; she describes. Her watercolour training, the way she observed and sketched what she saw, led to the later colour woodcuts that she was proud of, the ones like Early morning Venice, Mount's Bay and a blue version of The outgoing fleet, that she gave to the nation. All of the six depict boats but all the scenes are different. The poet in her was at work, from London to Cornwall to Venice. She didn't let colour woodcut become too laborious for her, she let it set her free.
[I include Hiroshi Yoshida's Morning at Abuto as Klaus refers to it in his comment below].