Sunday, 18 November 2012

Portrait of the artist

I had to give this post a general theme, I suppose, but really it isn't much more than excuse to string together some favourite photographs of artists at work. They are all connected with the early radical days at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. I know I keep going on about that place, but there it is.

The first registration for the school took place on 30th October, 1897. No one knew how many students would turn up, let alone that it would become the most influential art school in Europe. The calligrapher with his quill in the compelling and unworldly image, top, is Edward Johnston, one of the first teachers there. His talent was identified with uncanny precision by the principal, WR Lethaby, when Johnston went to enrol as a student but went away with a commission, which was followed by the offer of a job. The photo was taken in 1902, possibly at his rooms at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Note the plain oak Arts and Crafts writing-table.


William Lethaby was one of a group of architects who had played a key role in the Arts and Crafts movement and the societies it gave rise to. This striking portrait of him, above, is by the wood-emgraver, Noel Rooke, who had played a canny role in the revival of British wood-engraving at the school. It had fallen to Sidney Lee to take over Frank Morley Fletcher's class in colour woodcut when he himself had already stopped making them and was moving forward as one of he early exponents of the new wood-engraving. Rooke eventually took over the class from Lee after pushing a Trojan horse into the bookbinding department. That's my reading anyway. I'm not a great fan of Rooke's work but I think this is pretty good, mainly because you can see all the stylised tics of the wood-engravers but with Rooke remaining focussed on the subject.


Morley Fletcher left the class in 1906 and twenty years afterwards made a disastrous move to a private college of arts and crafts at Santa Barbara. I have always assumed this photo was taken in California, partly because of his age, but more because of the ample cut of his short-sleeved shirt. It looks like he has the block for the tree-trunks and their reflections for Waterway from 1904 in front of him. (It's a surprisingly large print). The woodcut to his right is certainly his own California 3, Ojai Valley from 1935. He and his wife, Dolly, moved to Ojai after some time spent living in LA. The portrait makes a great deal out of him as a maker of colour woodcut when he had made only three new prints in all the time they lived in California, California 3 being his last.


May Morris would have been one of his first colleagues at the Central. I'm never quite sure whether she did any actual teaching. She had taken over the embroidery department of Morris & Co at the age of twenty-three after studying at South Kensington (eventually the Royal College) and directed the embroidery class with one of her own students in charge. The photograph was taken about 1890, presumably either at Hammersmith, the family's London base, or at the Morris country house at Kelmscott. Either way, the incidentals are as interesting as the face (and that is very interesting indeed, like her mother's). The exquisite dress, the frolicking wallpaper, the chased picture frame show Morris counselling the very best to us all.

The very idea of Eric Gill (above) working at the same school as May Morris is almost beyond comprehension. He was an early student of Johnston's who was then laying the way for much of modern lettering. While Gill was still in his class, Johnston, who was a Scot, drily described Gill as 'the monumental mason who is making a tombstone for Mr Batten'. (John Dickson Batten had walked into his class with the commission). Gill's workman's tunic and rope belt seem a world away from Morris' beautiful garb and yet he was just as arts and crafts as she was. Perhaps more so.

The Corkman, Robert Gibbings, was a student of Rooke's before the first war and later on a friend of Gill's. Wayward from the start, he had been in danger of frittering away his energies untill Rooke had suggested wood-engraving to him and he took to that with gusto, eventually buying the Golden Cockerel Press at Waltham St Lawrence in 1923. This photograph was taken ten years down the line, in the year Gibbings was to sell up. (He ended up in the late thirties flat-broke and living in the garden shed with his son). But this photo sums up all his virile charm. The ordinariness of his dress again stands in contrast to May Morris' 1890s refinement. He had asked Gill to work on illustration at the press but Gill, as unworldly as the rest of them, had fussily refused on the grounds that Gibbings wasn't a Catholic. Undeterred, Gibbings decided to publish a book of Gill's sister's poetry as bait. Brighton was no match for County Cork.


  1. Always nice to see photos of artists and a bit about their lives. California certainly became a siren's song to Brits in the arts, actors included. Thank you.


  2. It was old friends from Fletcher's Paris days, one of whom was very wealthy, who persuaded him to go. But things went wrong even before the Depression closed the school.