Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Janet Fisher

For an artist of such sweet simplicity, Janet Fisher (1862 - 1926) uses a helluva lot of black. But then she was in good company. Both Mabel Royds and her woodcut model, William Nicholson, also used black to create graphic images that may have looked almost childlike but were, in fact, throughly sophisticated. Unlike either of them, Fisher stayed the course. Her work is almost impossible to date. She was still exhibiting in the 1920s even though she was studying as early as the 1880s. What marks her out is her sensibility.She has abiding interests that show up throughout her career - whatever that period may have been (and I don't exactly know).


And beneath the sweetness, there is an abiding rigour. Images of donkeys and goats, old men and old women, may be appealing, but she approaches almost everything she does with a wonderful sense of colour and form. She was a classicist, pure and simple. Hers are prints that, for all their attractiveness, appeal to the mind, as much as to the eye. The great stone arches of Italy are inherently interesting to her as much as the surviving Greek temples. She is more a contemporary of Roy Lichtenstein than JM Whistler.


I have started off with prints whose subjects are less genre than some of them are, I suppose, just to make this point. But even when her subjects are purely genre, there is no escaping the fundamental discipline behind her work. Those saturated Prussian blues she uses in the print above may well suggest someone who has looked at Hokusai but it was someone who could resist the japonesque. At her best, she is almost above style. Unlike her paintings, her prints make wider claims. In going to Italy, she became a European. She is also a colourist in the way her printmaking European contemporaries were.

To this end, almost no one else requires excellent reproduction to get a proper sense of what she could do. I was very grateful recently to see the photos posted by peninky aka Bellagraphica on ebay. These did her work justice and if you care to compare the old woman bent forward over the fire and Fisher's drawing of the scientist, Sir Francis Gaulton, you may also come to the conclusion that what illuminates them both is the light of the mind. You only need look at the way she takes a difficult viewpoint so that she can study Gaulton's skull.


I suppose what gives me sufficient confidence to say all this is the little I know about her own background and training. Her father had been educated at Oxford before he went into the Church and eventually was made rector at Walton-on-Trent in Derbyshire. In itself, that isn't very mnuch to go on, but it indicates the climate that she grew up in. She was still studying art in her late twenties and didn't attend Hubert von Herkomer's school at Bushey in Hertfordshire untill she was about thirty.


This was a private school run by a famous artist, not along academic lines, but where study was centred on the student as opposed to technique. Von Herkomer, who came from southern Germany,  also made etchings and mezzotints, and there was a print workshop at the school. Nicholson's future wife, Mabel Pryde, was a student there in 1891, along with her brother, James, who was soon working with Nicholson as one of the Beggarstaff Brothers. I don't know whether or not she came to know Nicholson, but her prints have more in common with his than with the Anglo-Japanese, as Claude Flight liked to call them. You can see on my Nicholson post that both he and Royds made use of a girl with black and white goats. Ever alert to formal structure, Fisher introduced a row of verticals into her own goat-girl woodcut. She must have known his books. Even so, Fisher was more interested in printmaking than he was and was making them long after he had stopped. She constantly uses black, blue and green because she understands the requirements of graphic art. No one could ever say of her, as they did of the artists who made woodcuts in the Japanese manner, that they may as well have painted in watercolour. She may have been sweet-natured, but she was serious. If some of her subjects  are pre-occupied, she looks directly at us.

Thanks are due to Keith aka grumpyangler for additional information about students at Bushey.


  1. I have a soft spot for Fisher, and your posting on her gives credit to both her talent and my admiration of her. I think the other thing that I find really interesting about her, is that her prints were unusually large and her art still appeals to modern tastes. Her images are ordinary people, moments places and scenes which become, under her block treatment, eloquent expressions of a certain period of time.

    I like Fisher best when she is about vision and stunning colour...the works end up being more about mood rather than what she was truly seeing.

    I think that is the mark of an artist. I am pretty sure that she did indeed study in Germany, at least for a time, but I may be wrong. If she didn't, she was certainly influenced by the Munich school, and of course as you mention, Nicholson. A great post.

  2. Well, everything you say here is also right. I tried to suggest a Munich connection but then I think of Deane who often actually reminds me of Thiemann or early Klemm. It may be that we have to find out more about the British printmakers like Lee and York Brunton who were exhibiting at Leipzig.