Saturday, 6 October 2012

How prints start: Helen Stevenson, William Giles, Ursula Fookes

Early on in 1929, Helen Stevenson had four of her colour woodcuts on show at the Bromhead Gallery in Cork Street, London. At the time she was probably many miles to the north, in Scotland, where she was an art mistress. Her subjects were also there, in her much-loved land of Argyll and on the gallery wall beside The coal boat was the work of one of her teachers at Edinburgh College of Art.


Mabel Royd's Boat builders showed by how much the student had gone her own way. Royds' India was the one she remembered from her sketch-books but her boat-builders take up poses as though they were still in the life-class at the Slade where she herself had been a student.

Like Royds, Stevenson worked from watercolour drawings, but her figures are almost always incidents, there to give scale and interest. The wider interest for her was the landscape and we are lucky that one of her watercolours survives to show her sorting her subject out.


The coal boat shows one of the many small vessels that delivered coal to yards and distilleries along the western coast of Scotland. This one is anchored in the stony shallows of Brodick Bay on the Isle of Arran, with the wooded northern shore and the lower slopes of Goatfell shown beyond the boat. (Goatfell was the subject of another woodcut. The conifer planatations that can be seen in the photograph obviously were not there when Stevenson painted the view. It's interesting how much care she took over the skyline.)


I think Stevenson wouldn't have considered the sketch any  more than a working drawing, even though she inscribed it to the writer and art historian Georg Brochner a few months after the exhibition had been held. (Ironically, the drawing cost someone four times what the woodcut cost me, even though the print is more satisfying by far). With the print she had made a fairly radical departure and depended largely on shades of brown and the Japanese technique of bokashi (the application by hand of the pigment to the block). I suspect she was already well aware of what the effect would be when she drew the boat. The sketch is what she needed to remind her of the details of boat, clouds and shoreline. She hardly departs from those details, apart from making the stony foreshore more prominent, but what the print gains is an overall control of tone, which the drawing lacks. It is slightly odd, but Stevenson often made colours prominent in this way, most notably with the startling blue in The hen wife. (See her post). By the time she made Gylen Castle, Kerrara the green of the machair, the coastal grassland, is as sumptuous as a late print by Mabel Royds.

This brings us to another type of pasture, the one grazed by William Giles. Where Stevenson makes use of a brush, Giles takes up a pencil. Obviously, I can only make use of any preliminary work that survives so we only see a part of the process, but Giles' main interest first off (notable for a great colour printer) is in form. I like the play-off here between the flock of sheep and the herd of stones and the way he comes to a decision about the scope of the image. It looks as if he only brought in tone after that, with this striking use of a sepia wash.

Even more astonishing was the care taken by his contemporary, Elizabeth Christie Brown, who made many proofs without colour, or with very little. The uncoloured colour woodcut, below, may still be rather genre, but it is genre of the kind that Degas or Seurat just might have made. And it may well be Largs harbour in Ayrshire, but it is seen through a telescope that once belonged to Corot.

Fascinating that both Giles and Brown show how much cross-over there was between early C20th colour woodcutters and artists who only made aquatints and etchings. One way or another, Brown and Giles find the image by building it up in states, the way an etcher would, and colour comes last. In some ways, it wasn't always integral and personally I like the preparatory work by both Brown and Giles very much - alot more than I do the watercolour by Stevenson (and I am a fan of hers). The conception is as different as the final effect.

But as the Bromhead Gallery were showing woodblock prints like Stevenson's the Redfern nearby was showing artists as young as Stevenson but less the teacher training - if, that is, you don't include the Grosvenor School. Very little is know about the formal training Ursula Fookes had apart from atttending Claude Flight's weekly class at the Grosvenor in thetwenties. How far she worked in front of the subject, like the other artists here, is hard to say, but by the time she came to make her design for Washing line in the wind (below) a process of radical selection had taken place.

You only have to take one look at this and know you can ignore most of what Claude Flight had to say about the woodblock method.(And all of it was negative). His style of printmaking required just as much careful planning, as we can see from the intersecting planes and the notations Fookes had to make. It's also fairly obvious from the coloured proof that she had to try out different schemes because the proof is different from the plan, and for all the apparent pzazz, the linocut is no more spontaneous than a woodblock print. William Lethaby years before had made the point that relief printmaking was an excellent form of training because it made the student plan. He avoided any art talk as far as he could. He probably knew the art would take care of itself.


I need to credit Annex Galleries at Santa Rosa, California, for their image of the coal-boat, and also John Shillito for the loan of his Mabel Royds print and preparatory drawings. Many thanks.


  1. Fascinating reading and insight, great examples.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. I could have go on.

  3. Hello Charles,

    I've read all of your blogs and enjoyed them very much. My husband and I visit the UK from time to time,renting cottages in the west country,and so the care you take in educating your readers about woodblock prints and the depth of talented British printmakers is especially appealing. I did enjoy your critiques of eBay offerings and hope you'll reconsider your vow to stop. Your sharp wit is a pleasure to read . . . and informative, too.

    Karen Charbonneau, Post Falls, Idaho, USA

  4. Hi Karen, It's always a pleasure to get feedback from readers and I'm so glad to hear that the blog helps visitors to this country keep in touch with its culture.

    I'm afraid sellers on ebay are not always as appreciative of my posts as you are. I probably said in the past that I would stop taunting and teasing them but there have been more less scurrilous ebay posts recently, so I haven't stopped entirely! All very amusing to us, but not always so funny to them.

    Sincere greetings tpo Idaho from Nottinghamshire. Charles