Monday, 22 October 2012

Kenneth Broad: the information act

Of all the British artists who ever made a colour woodcut, Kenneth Broad is the most informative (and I say this in the face of fairly strong opposition from the likes of Allen Seaby and Ethel Kirkpatrick). I couldn't find a better example to show you what I mean than this photographic study of Broad at work in the fields. It's the architect-artist on default setting: the use of strict perspective, the interest in contemporary dress, the almost anonymous face, the trees - all these things find their way into his small masterpiece The New Fair, Mitcham and I would find it hard to believe that Broad hadn't posed the photo himself, probably for his wife Mary to take, simply because there is a similar photograph taken from the other side - you can just see his painting clobber beyond the stool, including his Army small pack ( a very blokish touch).

Broad's prints are often like Hogarth's. They tell you alot. The photo is equaly calculating: not only is this what he looks like (more or less) it also shows what he is painting, and where the subject stands; it says he sketches outdoors and sits well back from his subject. On many of his crowded scenes there is empty space in the foreground where Broad has set up his collapsible easel and stool and set to work. He isn't avoiding the crowd; he only wants to get it all in. There is the same wide view in A Sussex Farm (see Kenneth Broad Town & country) even though there are only clothes without people in that woodcut.

Both prints date from 1925 and The New Fair, Mitcham almost certainly comes second because he couldn't have made the print before 12th August, 1925. That was the day Mitcham Fair opened at its new site on Three Kings Piece. It was less Broad's job to imagine than to record and he would have been there to see for himself. He had already made a print of Mitcham Fair at its old site in the town in about 1922 and, if nothing else, the move to a new site offered Broad the chance to tackle the subject again. This second print shows exactly what kind of person he was. It is a considerable improvement on the earlier work. Some time in 1922, he hit his stride and by the December of 1925 all of the prints were for sale at his one-man show at the Macrae Gallery on Fulham Road in London. This was something unusual in itself. A Sussex Farm also found its way to the Seventh International Printmakers Exhibition at the Los Angelese Museum the following spring. But the Mitcham Fair print is as typical of Broad as you can get. Even so, the two prints hang together in my mind.


The image on my previous post is probably more faithful, but the one you see here comes from Broad's own collection, and may well be the exhibition copy he used at the Macrae. (It's 5/150). I don't care whether Edward Loxton Knight's print Goose Fair, Nottingham, which came up on ebay recently, is more obviously attractive and displays more flair, I think Broad is better. It is more interesting and more skilled. Broad sits firmly on his stool inside the craft tradition. He spent some of his spare time poking around the tidal gravel banks along the river Thames, collecting worked flint tools. That was the kind of craft he liked - the durable. The same went for his collection of old forged iron. Broad's work is also durable. The New Fair, Mitcham also pre-dates the Loxton Knight by three years and it's certainly interesting that Knight used much the same organisation for his print. With Broad it is: foreground, crowd, striped tents, then sky while Knight has: foreground, fair, suburb, sky. The use of the shapes of trees and smoke to link the areas is striking in Knight's woodcut but what Broad uses to divide up and also connect the picture vertically is original and more difficult. I mean those red and white posts of his.


If Knight loaned Broad's idea, then Broad I would think was in hock to a great master he would have seen in the National Gallery - take a look at Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano.  Why the striped posts were there in his print, I still have no idea. I mean, I don't know what purpriose they had in reality.  He also uses them in Mitcham Fair and he obviously likes them alot. They attract him but he also makes use of them, they are jusrt as much found-objects as the flint axeheads. Knight ends up, as he he so often does, looking like a maker of patterns. Broad's approach is more vigorous and more objective, not perhaps qualities we necessarily associate with colour woodcut. But the striped posts are useful in another way. From very early on, including in the first Mitcham Fair woodcut, Broad had a strong liking for red and bright pinks. Of all his work, though, The New Fair, Mitcham is his most subtle effort with dark red. In the print below, he rather overdoes it.


But for Kenneth Broad, August arrives in two different ways. Completely unlike A Sussex Farm, the colour scheme for the fairground is largely unrealistic. That first print does without a keyblock and so softens everything to gain the effect of an early summer morning. In the second print, only the clothes tell you it is August; the sky says it's November. Taking two such complementary but very different approaches to the same time of year shows just how modern Broad was in his approach. In Sussex, he expresses summer, but at Mitcham it is analysed.

The architect in him is never far away but in the second Mitcham print, it is very close. The intensity of the use of the keyblock for the crowd make all the people interlock like the structures that his own bees made. (He had eight hives at his house in Rotherfield). And he's interested in some of the most temporary structures people make for themselves. He thinks outside the box. The tents and vans are fairly obvious. More thoughtful and waggish is the pram the young nanny has left behind her. The curves carefully echo the roofing to the traction engine.


I couldn't resist adding this photo taken by the colour woodcut artist, Mercie Lack, of the archaeologists at work on the Sutton Hoo burial site in the 1930s. Like Broad, Lack and her partner were also keen amateur archaeologists as well as exprimenters with early colour print photography. But she appproaches her subject here with as much of a surveyor's eye as Broad does in The New Fair, Mitcham. He cheerfully adapts the stripey posts to make giant surveyors poles out of them, no an obvious humourist, but as with many things in Broad, humour is there if you look. The only reason artists like Broad remain under-rated and misunderstood is because no one knows their work. Prints lie in boxes in print rooms. Broad, for better or for worse, also threw in his lot with the colour woodcut crowd. As an artist, he may have seen himself as a watercolourist, first and foremost, but his prints provide his most original contribution and in the end he has found himself keeping company with everyone from William Giles to John Hall Thorpe. It limits the way we look at him and for someone as much an individual as Kenneth Broad, it just means that we miss out in the end.

But there is still more. Overlooking the whole human project at Mitcham, we also find Broad the botanist at work. The feathery tree taking up a quarter of the image is one of the black poplars that grow on the common. I'm not sure whether it is a native or hybrid black poplar, but I assume that Broad knew what it was. He was too well-informed not to. There are also trees on The Forest at Nottingham but they are plane, lime and oak and look nothing at all like the elegant creatures in Knight's work. Broad is more subtle by far. In describing, he also suggests. The poetry, like the axeheads, is half-buried.

I want to add that informativeness runs in the Broad family because I am deeply grateful for all the help and information given me by the artist's grandson, David Broad. Without him and his sister, Nicola, there would be almost nothing.


  1. As always great reading and very informative. There has been a time I wasn't very keen on his circus prints, and judged they had a "cheap comic book feel" to them. But you've cured me long time ago. I now perticularly like the crowds, and they remind me of Emil Verpilleux who also staged several of his prints with groups of people but in a different scale.

  2. The crowd reminded me of Verpilleux as well. But with Broad you read the image from bottom upwards. I think it's the opposite with Verpilleux. His people generally are less important. The way Broad places figures quite often reminds me of architectural drawings. His sense of rhuthem and scale is dynamic and nigh-on faultless here.

  3. Allow me if I may to add my two cents worth. I think the strength of Broad's work is the intensity of colour and the depth of his image.

    His grasp of the method was outstanding but they also show the method at it's most logical moment. Everything is done to convey a sense of depth, life and movement without compromising the simplicity of the technique itself. The other thing that I find astonishing about Kenneth broad's work is the clarity of line. Many printmakers used colour to wash out the line, and that was popular at the time time Kenneth Broad was working, but he doesn't do that. His highlights are high and light and his tones and colours are always broad and clear. He doesn't worry about shadow so much as he does for line. These things to me are amazing about his works.

    The other thing about Mr. Broad is that he had an architects eye. His works are striking because of their sculptural characteristics. His woodcuts are striking because not only do they capture the architectural aspects of his view but people are there. He is fearless in capturing people, when most artists of the time avoided it. Kenneth Broad captures human activity, against the architectural backgrounds and does it so successfully, it gives the image of being easy or "comic bookish". Don't be fooled....what you are seeing is mastery and skill.

  4. Gosh sorry for the spelling and grammar errors, I just tapped it out and clicked publish without proofreading. Ooops.

  5. I can forgive you most things, Clive, and your contribution to the Broad discussion here (a discussion that you yourself started off some years ago) is very welcome.

    The emphasis you place on aesthetic considerations here is, of course, essential. If anything, I erred on the side of subject matter and story-telling but only because I think people do need filling in about exactly what is going off. The plain truth about Broad's work, as you suggest, and especially in a print like this one, is its extraordinary concentration. Intensity and depth are certainly strengths, but they also go beyond style. Unlike many other colour woodcut artists of the period, Broad notably has meaning. Seaby was another.

    I really can't improve on what you say about Broad's use of line. But I am cautious about generalising. Much of what you say is true of this print, where he was almost certainly at his very best. Unfortunately, he also fell short of that on occasions. With the earliest work, that's understandable; with some later work (if I have my dating right) it's rather more disappointing. I don't know what the answer is but, all the same, I am just as grateful for your thoughts here as I have been to David. You prove yourself to be a man after Broad's own heart. I note your injunction that people aren't fooled. I detect a touch of special pleading there. I think you realise yourself that Broad will never hold the centre ground. He's not that kind of artist. He asks us to consider and think. There is an internal logic, as you quite rightly say. I would add that you find it in the man as much as in the picture.

    As for shadow, he has his own answer in those terrific mauve ones in 'A Sussex Farm' which is all about colour and light - and shadow. He strikes me as remarkably self-aware and with the abilty to take radically different approaches. It's in the nature of things that it doesn't always quite work.

  6. I am sure Nicola and her brother David have shared with you some of the images that were created by their grandfather, and I think upon seeing them en masse, there is a certain aesthetic unity and an undeniable similarity to those works that I love.

    I wasn't really pleading, it was more of a response to Gerrie's earlier misapprehension regarding the works by Broad. On a personal note, I first saw Kenneth Broad's works when I was about 22 years old. During that time I was an undergraduate student, and I used to sit in the stacks at Sydney University reading old issues of Studio Magazine. I envied the massive collection and resented the way they appeared abandoned. I used to take notes on all the artists and art that I liked but that I had never heard of....and it ended up being far more beneficial to me as a student than any lecture I ever attended or class I ever took. It was a few years later that I saw one of Kenneth Broad's woodcuts in the flesh, also in Sydney. I decided then and there that if I ever came across any works by Kenneth Broad, I would acquire them. I have done just that, and I still stop to look at the works by Broad that I have. I have a few artists that I feel that way about...but Kenneth Broad is included.

    I think also, his aesthetic is my aesthetic. His period and style is also mine, and for those reasons, I have a real love of his work. I have one watercolour by him also, and it is the work of an artist and a strong hand; confident aesthetic and someone who knew what he was doing. We shall see if time re-appraises Kenneth Broad, but I am confident that it will. I also think that with Nicola and David being so generous with their information and knowledge make it fairly certain that his star will rise. Perhaps not to where it should be, but that is neither here nor there.

    When I wrote about Kenneth Broad on my now defunct blog all those years ago, there was NOTHING about him. It was through Nicola's message on the blog that there was even the beginnings of learning more about him. This leads me to one of the reasons I don't think Kenneth Broad has the interest he deserves, and that is, his works are not in any large British Museum. I have often thought his works should have been in the British Museum or the V&A, but that is not my call to make. It reminds me of an email I got some years ago from the heirs of Elizabeth York Brunton, who also said that one of the reasons why her works were so scarce and she was largely forgotten was because she didn't identify herself as an artist, nor did she use her art to define her life. Many of her works were scarce, because York Brunton simply gave them to family members as gifts. I think in some ways, Kenneth Broad is similar. He didn't identify himself as an artist and he didn't let his art define his life. Anyway, these are just my humble opinions. I think the last page is yet to be written on Kenneth Broad, and that to me, is hugely gratifying.

    As always your blog is a huge source of food for thought and I enjoy your historical placements and the intelligent way you flesh out the details of artists and their art.


  7. Thanks, Clive. And thanks for the impassioned view of Broad. David has sent me alot of material and your input here has reminded me me to try and make the best use of it on the blog. Unfortunately, I've been preoccupied with other things as well.

    The whole issue of what it meant to be an artist or craftsman is complicated. So far as many people were concerned colour woodcut artists were practising a craft or, as some of the older generation said, were art workers. We may be incredullous now, but without that movement there would be no colour woodcuts in this country, or the US and Canada.

    The whole trend was against specialisation but the amount of work it took to make some of these colour woodcuts was considerable. It's perhaps no wonder people like Broad made so few. The vagaries of the print market also didn't help. But the factors are so many and varied, it would take more than a blog like mine to do them justice.