Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Elizabeth York Brunton

There must be a process whereby an artist becomes an enigma. How it came about for the Scottish printmaker, Elizabeth York Brunton, I do not know, but certainly an enigma is exactly what she has become. For someone with such an individual gift, we should have more on her, but in three years or so, I have turned up only two images. Belatedly, here is a first post on her.

I deduce that she came to colour woodcut late. This was by no means unusual. In fact, her close contemporary, Marion Gill, began to exhibit her first woodcuts the same year as York Brunton, having also studied at Edinburgh College of Art. Unlike Helen Stevenson, who graduated and began to exhibit the previous year, both Gill and York Brunton were in their early forties. But while Gill went on to become a superlative maker of prints in as far as her technique was just wonderful, York Brunton I suspect stayed closer to her teacher's own approach. The expressive cutting and printing you see here can only really follow the example of one person. Unfortunately, I have no proof that it was Mabel Royds. But you decide.

Like Stevenson, she had made a surprising number of woodcuts by early on in her printmaking career and I have to assume that some of them were student pieces. Certainly by 1926 there were at least eleven, all of them in the Japanese manner, and not bad going for someone whose first exhibition date (so far as we know) was 1924. Owls, with its twiggy blue keyblock, may well be one of them. Fairly simple in its structure, there is nevertheless depth of experience in the way she makes us look up and down the picture and note the alertness of the bird and its intensity of vision. (Like so many good works of art, it describes itself).


This follows straight through into two more of her subjects that sit and wait. Again, I am going to make an assumption that this so far unidentified print, is Summer. It is altogether more sophisticated and it has already been pointed how much it has in common with Frank Morley Fletcher's image of a farm at Trepied near Etaples. This one also looks like France to me and presumably describes a scene in a tourist town where people ride carriages for pleasure. If the way the keyblock is used to catch the shadow in the trees and bark is Fletcher, the array of colours, especially the soft peach and turquoise, is Royds. But Royds never has that sense of heat and indolence, even in her Indian prints. York Brunton's work is much closer to the painter who paints out of doors and catches the moment of time in her claws. Royds is just that touch academic by this point. The patterns that the print sets up - the tree trunks, the wheels, the doors, are more subtly French than either of her teacher's work, even though all three of them studied in Paris at one time or another.

Probably kindred spirits gravitate towards one another.  But I think I have made enough suggestions for one short post. Over the next month or two I shall be looking at more woodcuts by York Brunton and reporting back. The subjects sound similar: birds or landscape and sometimes both. Enigmatic, yes, and also intriguing.


  1. I wondered why I found "Owls" so appealing, so beautiful. I would read a line or two of your essay, then scroll back up to look at the print. Back and forth. And then you wrote, "Owls, with its twiggy blue keyblock. . ." And that is why, of course, the blue keyblock. A black keyblock would have bound them closer to earth than to air. Thank you for educating my eye.


  2. Mabel Royds also uses blue on 'Waterlilies' and an early print called 'Horse chestnuts' where she used alot of blue in the print. So that may be where the idea came from.

  3. I am very sure Charles that York Brunton studied under John Edgar Platt, and that information came to me directly from Edinburgh. I look forward to seeing your other prints, but I have to say Owls is still one of my favorite pieces of art. It is stunning in it's detail and the one you feature is a little more faded than the one I have. The blue is really quite vivid and deep. Anyway I look forward to your next post on her.

  4. Knowing who to contact at Edinburgh requires extra sensory perception and as you can see, I had very little to go on. I changed my mind about the second image after I'd posted. The colours are also similar to Fletcher's Trepied image.

    So far as teaching at Edinburgh goes, I wonder what kind of course people like York Brunton who were artists followed when the bulk of students appeared to follow the 5-year diploma course that led to a teaching qualification.

    A trip to Edinburgh looms next year.

  5. My great aunt was Elizabeth York Brunton. I have in my possession her writing album from 1889 when she was an art student in Scotland. I have contacted a couple of art experts to see if they can shed some light on the the writings and art work produced for it by her fellow students. I have had no response to my enquiries so I wonder if someone could please advise me where to go from here.

  6. I've been away and only saw your comment today.

    It all depends what art experts you wrote to. The problem is your great aunt would only be known today by people interested in colour woodcut - collectors or dealers. Perhaps you could say more about what she was writing about. Do you have a date as well? And what is the subject?

    I think she was mainly a sculptor and in common with other sculptors developed an interest in printmaking. The British Museum have the best collection of her prints but I doubt whether the curator of modern prints will be able to throw much light on what you have. The art gallery at Musselburgh may be interested because they have a portrait bust by her. I assume the subject is your great grandfather. But again, I doubt a curator will be able to tell you much as so little is still known about the lesser artists of that period. I know because I talk to them (the curators not the artists. I wish.)

    Incidentally, York Brunton could not have been a pupil of John Platt (see Clive's comment above) because the BM have a print which appears to be dated 1914 ie two years before Platt's first print.

    Personally, I would love to know more about these writings of hers, so if you have time, please do email me at cgc@waitrose.com. I have done some more research since I did this post but there isn't a lot to go on. I know as much about British colour woodcut as anybody but I know someone also did a thesis on the early history of Edinburgh College of Art and I can look at up for you. As it happens I have since bought a proof of 'Owls' on ebay and would happily do another post based on anything you can tell me.

  7. PS I am away again until 8th February so will not be able to reply till then (unless you get back to me today).

  8. I am researching Brunton of Mussleburgh - Elizabeth was the duaghter of William Neilson Brunton. If anyone had information on the family I would love to know about it. Especially the link between Brunton & Dixon family of Sheffield. Both involved in wire / paper mills. We have a 1925 Rolls-Royce ordered new by John Dixon Brunton son of WN and brother of Elizabeth - thanks. Sue - Sue@realcar.co.uk

  9. There is an image of a paper mill here on Modern Printmakers by the Scottish artist, Anna Findlay. Do you know where the family mill was? Were the Bruntons involved in manufacturing wire to make paper with?

    Did you know that the Musselborough Museum have a bronze bust of W.N. Brunton, presumably by his daughter.