Saturday 29 December 2012

Claude Flight: the low-down


In spite of all the hooey about the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and the five-figure prices artists associated with the school are fetching (and, let's be honest, folks, they're never worth it), Claude Flight has not been that well-looked after. The reason is quite simple. There has been no biography, not even a monograph that summarises his life and career. Stephen Coppel, the leading British authority, certainly knows his stuff, but even so, bald facts of themselves, are unenlightening. So, I thought I might combine some images of less common prints by Flight with one or two ideas, for what they're worth.

Until Julian Francis wrote 'Tom Chadwick and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art' (just published by the Fleece Press), no-one had written anything, so far as I know, about the actual way the school worked, so Julian's book is a welcome and sane addition to what we know. It resists hype - and we have had hype almost beyond endurance - and talks calm sense instead. Me, I sit down and write these posts, then re-read them some months later and am aghast at my own chutzpah.


That aside, Flight deserves some calm appraisal. His life was just as underprinted as the prints he went on to make. It builds unwittingly from early failure to get into the Navy to receiving the Credit Agricole from the French government for his service during the first war. He was no more an ordinary soldier than he was an ordinary printmaker. He may well be irritating and posturing at times, but he is rarely dull. That he moved through the various fads and fashions of the twenties and thirties, is obvious; that contemporary writers still go on about the Vorticists and the thrill of modern life, is less so - by far. It was Flight himself who disagreed with them when he said, 'I am of no school'. I can understand that a newspaper journalist at the time needed a phrase like 'The Trogolodyte Artist' to get the attention of readers, but all the talk of Vorticism is not much better.

Flight picked up things as he went along, there's no doubt of that but his work to unfold the underlying structures has something in common with his father's work on meteorites. The role that Edith Lawrence played when he eventually met her in 1922, doesn't seem to have been worked out in any detail, though. There is alot less known about her, and what she was doing at the time, but of all the partnerships that existed then, theirs may well prove to be one of the most compelling.

It was certainly enduring. Fatefully, they left London during the Blitz for Wiltshire. Their studio off Marylebone Road was then bombed in 1941, and all Flight's lino-blocks were destroyed. They stayed on at Donhead St Andrews where Flight survived a devastating stroke in 1947. Lawrence, who was nine years his junior, looked after him for another eight years, untill he died forgotten in 1955. Not so very vorticist after all.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Leonard Beaumont: road to the glacier

I know it's not as easy for most readers to get up to Sheffield as it is for me, but I wanted to remind anyone who can get there, that the Beaumont exhibition that opened at the Graves Gallery yesterday is worth the trip if it isn't too far. And if that sounds like a qualified judgement, it is. It runs untill next September, so you have plenty of time. Independant they are in Sheffield, but also mean. There is no catalogue and not even a list of prints. (I had to make my own). But back to my doubts.

 There is something unconvincing about his work. At the same time he was making etched capriccios of Alpine subjects like Road to the glacier here, he was also starting out on a quite different road to a modernist Shangri La with linocuts like Mountain Stream. I like them both but I particularly liked the etchings of Switzerland. He denied any attempt to be factual ('I worked mostly from the imagination. I never took photographs or made rough sketches') and this tends to give that side of his work a painstaking, naive quality. It's a kind of higher form of doodle. I don't want to sound snooty when I talk about his lack of training, but I think it shows. Frank Brangwyn, who had even less of an art education than Beaumont, who attended eveniong classes at the School of Art, said that all art schools produced were 'clever imitators'. Ironically, imitation was the name of the game with Beaumont, to some extent. Even so, he was an eloquent and meticulous printmaker and the etchings are so fine, I am far from convinced they are not in fact engravings.

Perhaps he merely mimicked the style. Mimickry was certainly a theme for me in both rooms. In his final linocut, the cheeky Nymphs, errant from 1934, he even mimics the stipple effect of lithography and I went round playing the double game of spot the catalogue mistake and spot the influence. From Stanley Anderson to Claude Flight, they are all there. In itself, that is quite some range, and I do think this is where Beaumont falls down. He was never a professional artist so much as a professional designer, and I wonder to what extent he approached his printed work in the way a designer approaches his work, not so much with a consistent style as with a need to communicate. This he certainly did do, albeit in his dry and exact way (see above).


I thought giving one room over to colour and the other to black-and-white was a mistake. A chronological approach would have provided visitors with the striking differences between his etching and linocuts between about 1929 and 1932. The change-over was pretty remarkable, but because some of the dates given at Sheffield are wrong, the view of his progression is muzzy, anyway.  But, as I said, he didn't let the factual get in the way too much. Like John Hall Thorpe before him, he was trained essentially to meet a deadline. This probably made him a very reliable freelance in the end. No doubt, when he went on his trips to Switzerland and Madeira, he just wanted to let his imagination go its course for a change and if he appears to be as errant as his nymphs, it perhaps also shows a diverse and fertile Yorkshire mind at work. That it is different in Yorkshire, there is no doubt.
And when he said later in life that no one made any money out of etchings and linocuts in the twenties and thirties, he was strangely at variance with the facts. Untill the Depression set in, some etchers made a good deal, and at two or three guineas linocuts were by no means cheap. It strikes me as unusal that he had a father in a managerial position but went straight to work for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph at sixteen as 'general factotum' before progressing to the art department. He made imagination sound like something you did on holiday.


Wednesday 5 December 2012

A picnic with Ian Cheyne

One of these days somebody will tell the story of Ian Cheyne and his marvellous colour woodcuts. Untill then, I shall be tramping that lonely Highland road in search of Ian Cheyne myself. Hopefully, I won't be on my own. The last post about the SGPC exhibition in 1929 has started off a valuable discussion about the way Cheyne went about making his prints. Now these are readers with great expertise in printing, but even for them the real problem is not having a Cheyne print to look at. This post, using rather poor images of Summer Picnic, which I am fortunate enough to own, will hopefully give people something more to go on.

But first the story. Ian Cheyne didn't begin to exhibit colour woodcuts untill he joined the Society of Artist Printers in Glasgow in 1926. Both he and Jessie Garrow, the woman he eventually married, had been students at Glasgow School of Art in the early twenties, but it was Garrow who seems to have made the colour woodcuts first. The Studio Magazine had already published her striking and frankly unusual print The Wave in 1924. Just as their contemporaries in England had done with the Society of Wood Engravers and the Colour Woodcut Society in the early twenties, young Glasgow printmakers had founded the SAP as an exhibiting society in 1921. By 1926, their first six exhibits were by artists working in England: Ethel Kirkpatrick, Kenneth Broad, Yoshijiro Urushibara, Miriam Deane, ECA Brown and Mary Batten, so everyone was well aware of a wide range of work from England, even if some of the big names were absent. What the recent discussion has highlighted yet again is that Ian Cheyne was more aware than most.

The picture I get of Jessie Garrow and Ian Cheyne is of two fashionable young people. Garrow's main work had been as an illustrator and writer on fashion and interior decoration for the Glasgow Evening News and The Lady magazine and The Wave shows three young women alarmed that the sea might splash their elegant clothes as they walk along a quayside. One of the most interesting points made recently was that Cheyne possibly used pochoir, as stencilling used for French fashion plates and book illustration in the twenties was known. But stencilling was also much in use by dyers in Japan and looking at the leaves of the trees above, it certainly strikes me that Cheyne had applied pochoir methods in imitation of Japanese practice on his prints. The application of pigment is even, while brush strokes are visible on the paler greens to the right.

He may also have used pochoir for the mountain. The other interesting effect is bokashi, or the graduation of colour, used by both Hiroshige and Hokusai, especially with the European pigment, Prussian blue. This graduation was achieved by either lowering the block or a straightforward application by hand. That Cheyne made use of various ways of applying his pigments you can make out, I'm sure, from the images here. The date I have for Summer Picnic is 1928, when he was already an experienced artist in his early thirties. The two earliest prints he exhibited in 1926, Kirkfieldbank and A Highland Loch, have not turned up online, at least, so it's impossible to get a real idea of what all his early work was like.

And so it goes on. Alot of the images from old catalogues are in black and white. All the prints I have the details of, including Summer Picnic, were issued in editions of only twenty, a low figure for work showing such talent, but one that helps explain exactly why it is that his prints are now so hard to come by. That habit goes right through to the last prints he made after the second war. Normandy Beach and Primulas from 1946, and Springtime in Kintail from 1947, were all issued in editions of twenty. It is an extraordinary state of affairs. The irony is that Colnaghi wrote in 1945 asking whether he could supply proofs for sale. Perhaps this was why he set to and made those new ones. John Platt was the only other colour woodcutter staying the course after the war, but the fact is Mrs Cheyne, who died in 1993, still had unsold prints by her husband, some signed, some not, as late as 1984 or 1985. That no one had taken any interest untill then more or less says it all. That we are still no better today when it comes to knowing more about this first-rate printmaker says just that bit more, if you get my drift.


Sunday 2 December 2012

Society of Graver Printers in Colour, Fourteenth Annual Exhibition, 1929

In the twenty years since the Society of Graver Printers in Colour had been founded in Raphael Roussel's studio, it had  undergone a change that no-one could have forseen. By 1929, none of the founding members were exhibiting any longer and once the war was over, anyway, there was something a putsch by the colour woodcut artists. The good thing about the society had been this: it had been formed to promote the artist's colour print, and not any one way of making prints. The net result was that once lino became more popular in the 1920s, linocuts were accepted by the society, even though some of the old guard had been dubious about its merits.

The show opened with Mabel Royd's rather scrappy-looking Snake Charmer and closed with Urushibara's Menton, in all its bizarre perfection, so in between there was plenty to go on. At least one reader owns an evocative view of St Botolph's and the river Witham at Boston, first exhibited at this show, and you have already seen my own print of Helen Stevenson's The Coal Boat. Ten exhibits in, though, was this more desirable image by Stevenson, Autumn by the River. It just goes to show how far an artist like Stevenson would vary their approach, from a delicate impression of colour and light like this, to the brown and blokish details of a coal boat on Brodick Bay. What she never loses sight is Scotland itself. Just as it happens, this print not only came up for auction at Edinburgh only yesterday, it is the one I left behind at Ayre's old bookshop on Museum Street all those years ago.

A nice contrast to the British concern with landscape was Carl Thiemann's subtle Primulas. If it comes over as a mite old-fashioned, it also shows the lesson he had learned from the Japanese about the use of empty space, something so many of the British printmakers avoided like the plague. I wonder what this veteran of the Secession made of all the rivers and fields around his own two colour woodcuts. (The other one, Silver Pheasants, eluded me). It was noticeable the way societies began to include their Austrian and German colleagues in exhibtions after the war, (and were still exhibiting the Frank brothers in 1940). I specially like the way he handled the green on this. In its quiet way, it is marvellous.

Some way down the scale is Eric Slater's Cuckmere Haven, but then he could never have held his own against either Thiemann himself, or his reputation. That said, there is another reader who owns work by both artists. Slater had his limits, but there is no reason why a collection should show the similar limitations. And, to be honst. I'm not convinced the one you see here isn't Seaford Head, but it does show Cuckmere Haven nevertheless.

I couldn't lay my hands on a useable image of Edward Loxton Knight's The Primrose Seller, so you will have to make do with another landscape, this time Bredon Hill, with its well-known church on top. The Primrose Seller makes a change from Loxton Knight's rather schematic views of things, urban and rural. He was one of the few not to use the Japanese method and instead opted for decorative prints that now sell surprisingly well. Even in the thirties, though, he had a regular gallery in London that showed his work, but he eventually fell out with them, and went back home to Long Eaton in Derbyshire and became an art master. His greater sophistication, especially the way he restricts his palette, becomes obvious if you take a second look at Slater. Knight's energetic overlapping of planes of colour shows by how much Slater often lacks focus, both in style and subject. (And if you are wondering, the pale mauve area behind the black elm trees, is a quarry. I think the upright must be a chimney.)

With Ian Cheyne's wonderful Glen Cluanie, we see what British colour woodcut really could achieve. To my way of thinking, none of them got anywhere near Cheyne for sheer originality and panache. By comparison, Knight's real attractiveness becomes partly a matter of period feel. Nothing at all wrong with that, but Cheyne brings in all kinds of elements - art deco, Hokusai - to make images that are purely his own. Like Stevenson, his subject was Scotland, and I think this is one of the reasons his work rings as true as it does. The 1929 exhibition also goes to show that time is not a great leveller. All the work seen so far was up for sale at the same price of two guineas. If you could get hold of an Ian Cheyne today (and I doubt that many people can) it would be in the Bresslern Roth range of prices, I would say.

Even so, take heart, because work like Alison Bliss Smith's The Saxon Mill, Guy's Cliff is still around and quite affordable. She was a prolific woodcut artist, worked in Cornwall and exhibited throughout the twenties and thirties but nothing much ever seems to turn up except this print. A touch naive it may be, but not to be sniffed at, and at one guinea, it was fifth of the price of William Giles' peculiar but masterly Scarlet Runners that ends my own version of nineteen twenty-nine. When it came to viewpoints, Giles rang the changes more than most, but this is one of his most telling and tender. The range of observation, handling of colour, superlative printing, just takes your breath away. That work from the Grosvenor School artists, exciting as they are, could gain credence over work like this with meaning, just leave me incredulous. And I think this is the one I might choose.