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.



  1. Charles,
    as you probably know, I find this post tremendously interesting: both reading your text and looking at the images is a delight! In my opinion, it's the Cheyne that takes the biscuit. Normally I am not a big fan of modernist mumbo-jumbo (as a matter of fact: neither was my grandma), but the fresh casuality and playfulness with which he creates a Scottish Fuji between a Hokusai sky and purple heather is just irresistable. I'd give you two Bresslern-Roths for this one!

    The Thiemann is quite interesting, too, although I find his floral subjects rather stale and boring. Still, this is one of the nicer examples, and you are certainly right about the importance of empty space here. He might have learned that from Fritz Lang, the master of spareness, too, don't you think? I have only a black-and-white image of his Silver Pheasants in a catalogue raisonne, it looks similar to some of M.E.Phillips fowl.
    As usual, you are a bit unfair with Slater. The print you show is definitely Seaford Head. I see your point about a lack of focus and restriction here, but you can also see things from another point of view: Slater's print is of dazzling complexity, nonetheless he manages to create a whole in which the numerous different colours and spaces fit perfectly. Note the different nuances of green and brown which he uses in order to illustrate the play of sunlight and shadows of clouds on the water and the shore, for example. I think this print is his best work, a masterpiece!


  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. There were other prints I could have posted but there are even more, though, that I would still like to find. It's always rewarding to find new images when readers are appreciative.

    If you look on the Eric Slater website, you will find a short film about him. I have to admit, the quality of the image is poor and I always want to retract on Slater, to some extent.

    Even at the time, Cheyne was highly rated and his prices didn't make a huge amount of sense. There was an exhibition of work by six leading colour woodcut artists in the forties. Cheyne was one, Giles another, Seaby a third. He is one of the most frustrating artists to deal with. Despite the esteem he is held in today, we still know so little about him.

  3. The Cheyne is stunning of course..his works are symphonies of line and colour, however the Stevenson is stunning. She seemed to have the same love of the landscape and the sense of colour that Cheyne had. Scarlet Runners of course is a marvel of printmaking, and symbolic of how truly talented Giles was, and at that time he was generally considered to be one of the masters of the print both in Britain and in the USA. His handling of the medium was truly astonishing. By comparison, the Slater and the Loxton Knight are flat and uninspiring. I like Loxton Knight's sense of colour but I am afraid I have never quite understood the popularity of Slater. I have had the chance to buy his works and I have turned them down. I just think they are dull-ish. As for the's interesting in a Japanese way, and it's a more of a study of Japanese printmaking but it isn't his finest work. By comparison to the ones you have featured in this is the weakest. However Charles, please more like this, it's wonderful and illuminating. Another great posting. Bravo.

  4. I received an interesting comment by e mail about the way Cheyne achieved the gradations of colour - one of the most distinctive features of his work. My reader assumed he had used a roller in the way Robert Gibbings did, but I've just had a look at 'Summer Picnic' where there is a variety of brushmarks (and marks of some kind that suggest application by hand). I also note that the Prussian blue is a flat area of colour and the he may also have used a roller for the sky. But did Hokusai's printers do that? Surely they used brushes. Any ideas?

    I tread a rather tricky path on this kind of post because I am bound to put a foot wrong somewhere. I really didn't have very much to say about the Thiemann but tend to assume that readers will soon turn eloquent about their favourites.

    But I'm glad you enjoyed it. There's an ongoing conversation here, one which is rewarding all round. Unfortunately, not all the comments end up in the box - no more than all the prints I'd like to post end up being posted.

  5. I was wondering if you had re-purchased the Stevenson print
    at Shapes of Edinburgh? It sold for £95 and I was the underbidder.

    James Barnes

  6. I wrote this post around the Stevenson because different readers had tipped me off about the auction. I think the post went up on sale day, so, no, James, it wasn't sold on to me, much as I would like it. On the face of it, £95 wasn't expensive.