Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Ethel Kirkpatrick & Isola San Giorgio Maggiore

It takes an artist who knows what they want to do to go on returning to a view of the same small, island. Not any island, I have to admit, but the extraordinary Isola San Giorgio Maggiore at Venice as seen here by Ethel Kirkpatrick in 1898.

It was at that time she began to first make colour woodcuts, but she had already been painting and exhibiting watercolours like this one for at least four years. But what we have seen untill now are the watercolours painted in the west of Cornwall, even though she and her sister Ida went on various sketching trips in southern England and beyond. What we have seen so far may only be a matter of what has turned up, so I am very grateful to the reader who sent in this unusual view of the island with the domes of Santa Maria della Salute at the entrance to the Grand Canal just to the right.

It shows San Giorgio from the west, possibly from the Giardini Pubblicci, or from a boat. Almost all the views of the island you find tend to emphasise its isolation, but Kirkpatrick takes a viewpoint that recalls Istanbul seen across the Golden Horn.

The restricted palette of blues and reds is telling. Here is an artist who was about to embark on a career making colour woodcut, and it shows just how much that medium would suit her style.  Early morning, Venice (above)  involves another view of the island, with the campanile apparently missing. It was made years later, when the topography of the city was of less interest to her than the nature of its light. But watercolour gave her the opportunity to create a panorama with a real sense of depth that colour woodcut does less well.

By the time she came to make Evening, Venice  (above) in 1913, I think she was on the top of her form and it just shows what expressive freedom she had gained when she came to colour woodcut. It has her taking yet another view of Isola San Giorgio, probably from St Mark's Square this time, and it is fascinating to see her looking at the same subject in three such different ways. So, many thanks to Kia for sending the watercolour in today. We now know more about Kirkpatrick than we did on Tuesday.


  1. I love that last one, Charles. I can think of so many similar images which I'd love to show you but I don't have access to my images at the moment.... Beautiful.

    1. The third image comes across best on a pc screen. I was disappointed because the size here doesn't really suit the watercolour.

  2. It is a beautiful painting, and shows that Kirkpatrick was an astonishing artist. She had an affinity for water, and it comes through in her paintings (the five I have seen) and of course her woodcuts. I think the blues and the purples are her strength and they are obviously her preferred tones. She uses them deftly and beautifully, but also she uses them evocatively. It is sad that the painting is quite foxed but even with the blemishes, it is a beautiful painting. A lovely painting and further exploration of this artist Charles.

  3. What is also interesting is the way Venice became a third element in her work, alongside boats and water, and set her imagination working in a way that fishing-life at Newlyn didn't.

    I was surprised by the watercolour. It reminds me of the way that some later Victorian artists depicted the East as something intensely itself.

  4. Yes I agree with you. She had a very real relationship with Venice and that part of Italy. I agree with you about Victorian artists also, they had that kind of relationship with Morocco and Turkey. It seems that the only images I have seen of hers that were not British, were all of that part of Italy.

    She clearly had a love of the region and of course of the light. I think that is the thing we forget about Italy in light of modern obsessions with shopping/hotels/duty free and dining "experiences". The best thing about Italy is the light, that deep purple light at sunset that renders everything one dimensional yet bathed in colour. It sets behind Renaissance architecture or Umbrians hills and it has this amazing effect. Australia and California have that too, but it seems that during the Victorian and early Edwardian period they appreciated it and worked hard to reflect it faithfully.

  5. Of all the British colour woodcut artists, she was the only one to consistently try and capture the effects of natural light. Giles was too experimental to look normal; Broad's 'A Sussex Farm' certainly gets there. I can't think of anything else offhand but her training in watercolour stood her in good stead, and her progress from watercolour to woodcut is a very interesting one. Phillips, like Giles, was another active watercolourist but I can't bring any of his to mind either.

  6. Superb watercolour! I'd give my right arm for it! There is is still a vaporetto-line from which you get exactly the same view just before it stops at San Marco. I must say that in my opinion the watercolour captures the mood of Venice better than the woodcuts, probably because of the subtle use of colour and light, as Clive points out.


  7. I wonder if you might unintentionally be doing Kirkpatrick a bit of an injustice there. As I said, her recording instincts were stronger in the early days when she also needed to get work exhibited at the RA etc. I accept what you say, though, that the watercolour makes a stronger statement about Venice, but she realised more than most that colour woodcut was capable of other effects. The uncanny ghostliness of some of her prints just doesn't come across on a pc monitor. Later on it is the way the boats glide by that is striking, not the location.

    Anyway, I'm pleased to see the Ethel Kirkpatrick Society on such good form - comments from three members!