Thursday, 8 November 2012

Ethel Kirkpatrick: an outgoing fleet

Thomas Kirkpatrick died only a very few years after he had had a house called The Grange built at Harrow-on-the-Hill in Essex. I did wonder whether it had been named after Edward Burne Jones' house at Fulham and considering Kirkpatrick had two daughters who were making their way as young artists, there was one important thing missing. It was a studio. The year after their father's death, Ethel and Ida (see her post) put this right.

Although Ethel Kirkpatrick's take on home-life in On top of Harrow Hill (see above) is witty and convivial, just as one would expect from someone whose father had been born at Coolmine in County Dublin, the domestic gets short shrift in her work. The nearest that we ever get is a simple bowl of marigolds. If it was wings that interested her near-contemporary, Allen Seaby, with Kirkpatrick it was sails. She did sails like no one else.


It took a few years before she found what she wanted. Moving from Brittany to Chambery in Switzerland and then on to St Ives in Cornwall, she finally began to work around Newlyn in about 1893 or 1894. I've already talked about her watercolour Boats at rest painted that year, but when she learned how to make colour woodcuts, probably only a few years after that, she found a metier that helped make her sails something not just special, but unique. It doesn't come across on a pc monitor, but occasionally her printed boats move across the picture like ghosts being blown along to a seance. She achieves a sense of something unearthly in those prints that no one else quite gets near. Not to my mind, anyway. Of all the artists I have written about here, you need to have one of those Kirkpatricks in front of you to fully understand what her achievement was.


As I've just suggested, she was in the first wave of British artists to learn to make colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner. She was certainly one of the earliest students at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and must have studied the craft there with Frank Morley Fletcher. For a craft that required such discipline, there was still an emphasis on experiment at the time and Kirkpatrick was one of a few artists who tested the range of the medium in a way that was similar to the approach taken by the Japanse themselves. Alongside Sidney Lee and Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown, she worked on colour variations of her prints. With Lee, if he changes from night to day, nothing much is gained. Brown, as I've said recently, is more subtle. She builds up the image from pure monochrome to strong colour. It wasn't just a change of the time of day with her. Oddly enough, though, there is an early print by Kirkpatrick called The full moon (bottom) where the time of day is so ambiguous, I have still not convinced myself it isn't sunset. I think she was obviously experimenting, even if we only have one version that has come down to us. But for her print An outgoing fleet, we have three. This second, silvery variation is so close in feel to Brown's colourless version of Largs harbour it is hard to believe they didn't know each others work well.


We have to remember that colour printmaking of this kind was something new to Europe in the late 1890s and for me it has become clear that Brown and Kirkpatrick both became interested in the effect of colour, but of all three artists, Kirkpatrick was the most evocative. She doesn't make herself unnecessary work. The images are kept to the centre of the picture and the cutting is often kept to a minimum. What she does excell in is tone. She achieves this not just by her jaunty use of colour, but by the way she applies the medium to the block, and the way she underprints.


She knew what she was doing. The complete set of build-ups she gave to the V&A in London makes that clear. More's the pity the set was for Brixham Trawlers rather than for An outgoing fleet. All the same, it just goes to show the striking lengths she went to to gain an effect that is far from obvious in the final proof. The underprinting, above, is for two trees, believe it or not, in The canal. There is a kind of planning and calculation in her work that is all the more surprising when you consider the effects she wished to achieve. If Allen Seaby once described colour printing as 'a sort of magic', the magic in Kirkpatrick's prints isn't only one of colour, or tone. It is more contrived than that. It is hard to conceive the way she managed to plot colours and shapes in the way that she did and come up with something, as I said earlier on, that is just so purely strange. It's an over-used phrase, I know, but what we sometimes get in Kirkpatrick is a dream-world. Of all the colour woodcut artists, she grasped what she might be done with the medium, in a way perhaps no one else did. She was not just vigilant, she was uncanny.

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