Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Margaret Shelton: endless summer

If there is one thing that I notice about young would-be printmakers in Canada and Australia before the war, it is their initiative. Many were at art schools where there was no teaching in contemporary techniques like linocut and they had no option but to use manuals they found in book shops or the college library.

As a twenty-one year old at the Institute of Technology and Art at Calgary in 1936 she found Walter Phillips' The Technique of the Color-Woodcut and one of Claude Flight's books about linocut and used them as a basis for her own printmaking. (Phillips also went to work in Alberta in 1940 and she had the oppportunity to study with him then). Now comes the 'but'. Unlike the Australian contingent who studied in London with Claude Flight in the twenties, Shelton's technique was superb but her style conservative. There is nothing in itself wrong with that, but looking at her work, you would hardly think the 1930s were over by the time she made many of these prints.

But much the same thing happened to the British artist, Sybil Andrews, when she emigrated to Vancouver Island in 1947. Much as I admire her work, she just went on as if they 1930s had never ended. Later on she introduced something that passes for abstraction, but she continued with her Stations of the Cross series that she had begin in 1935. But then perhaps it's what comes with a long life as an artist.


Without a doubt almost all of Shelton's prints have Phillips sense of big spaces and soft distances, but you can't help but feel there was no need to change. It may be the case that in Canada there was still a market for work like this. As students they were already producing lincouts for small batches of ten or twelve Christmas cards, presumably to sell. It's interesting that Phillips was also a great one for Christmas cards that he sent out every year.

Even so, the gap between Shelton and Phillips was quite a wide one. Most of her own production was in linocut, which was beyond the pale so far as Walter Phillips was concerned. She did combine the techniques for some of her work, but from the 1940s onwards, when she started to make prints in larger numbers, lino may have been the only serious option. More surprisingly, she also used linocut for complex monochrome prints like the one above. At first glance, most viewers would probaly take them to be wood-engravings.

She was also a prolific water-colourist and, again like Phillips, she would use her many watercolours as a basis for her prints. This suggests just how much their conception was based on ideas of picture-making and were nothing like the work of Flight and his cohorts in London, but had more in common with the work of British linocutters like SG Boxsius and others I cannot mention. Perhaps it's just the mountain scenery, but who she reminds me of most are the Austrian artists Engelbert Lap and Carl Rotky. Did she know their work, or know immigrant printmakers? This is the problem with curators and art historians. Did they know enough to ask the right questions when Shelton was alive? Now that she is dead, we shall probably never find out.

I also have to add that the images you see here are a personal selection, not a retrospective. Quite alot of what she did I'm not so keen on. And it's rather like Lap. His skill was great, but there is only so much snow and so many mountains you can do without some calling out a search-party.



  1. Hello Charles,

    very interesting post, some very fine prints by an artist I wasn't aware of. However, the Lap / Rotky connection is not that obvious to me, to be honest.

    in any case: a very happy new year to you!


  2. Well, perhaps not in these, I must admit, but more in some of the others. There will more more Canadians coming soon.