Thursday, 7 February 2013
The Society of Graver-Printers in Colour, Paris, 1910
If the British Society of Graver-Printers in Colour had been as truly francophile as they appear to be, they would have have had a group photograph taken after their first meeting at Raphael Roussel's studio in London. Perhaps they did; I don't know. But Roussel's son, Theodore, was another founder-member, along with William Lee Hankey, who had a studio at Etaples, and also the Austen Browns who had moved to live at Camiers nearby. The Society's next move was to hold their first exhibition at the Bedford St gallery of the French dealer, Goupil. The show then moved on to Manzi Joyant in Paris, a firm of print publishers and dealers who worked alongside Goupil.
I can't be absolutely sure that Allen Seaby's robust and brilliant Peacock found its way to Paris because I failed to make a note of what he and William Giles showed in London. But never mind, he had certainly made it by then and it is exactly the sort of bravura piece you would want to put on show.
But what is so striking about the Paris show was how varied, experimental and inclusive it was. Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown's Girl and goose is much less flamboyant in mood than Seaby and falls into line with the kind of low-key work with a rural subject that the French really were producing. If it looks genre and rather cute, her cutting and colours are bold. Her use of white is typical of the British avoidance of snow as an easy option and the patterning of the birds and their beaks with the fence behind is subtle and musical. (Incidentally, this print came up on ebay more than once, but was mis-sold as her husband's work even though Mr Austen Brown wasn't capable of anything so professional and she often printed for him.)
Lucien Pissarro was never a member and, so far as I know, only exhibited with the Society this once, but I have to assume they wanted to fill out the Anglo-French character of the show in Paris. Yet again I didn't make a note of what he showed but his small and delicate wooodcuts would have sat easily alongside the work of Lizzie Brown. Poor Lucien! His life was beset by domineering men. If it wasn't his father exercising quality-control over his work, it was the formidably patriarchal Jacob Samuel Levi Bensusan whose daughter, Esther, he married. At the time, the print room at the British Museum was a favourite meeting place for artists and collectors and Esther and Lucien took the opportunity to meet there out of range of Jacob and his velvet fez. His work has tremendous delicacy and charm and was quite unlike anything else being made in England.
He also worked in black-and-white, but this show was about one thing: colour. It didn't matter what kind of a colour print it was. Lee Hankey didn't show any of his wonderful colour etchings but the Society also invited another non-member to show with them. This was Charles Mackie who had already made the near statutory move to Paris and the art colonies of Brittainy. He had also gone off to Venice with his wife and, I believe, Harold and Laura Knight, only two years before this show and a number of his very individual colour woodcuts take the serene republic as their subject.
I would think it was both his sympathies with France and his unorthodox printing style (he used paint with oil of lavender as a medium) that attracted the Society. Perhaps politics were also at work, but there seemed to be a genuine desire to show a broad range of the colour prints being made in Britain. If I have mainly included colour woodcuts here, it doesn't give a fair idea of what the other printmakers did. Mackie's period of making these prints was fairly-shortlived and the reason why he was never a member was because his blocks were cut for him All the same his impressionism, when it works, is hard to resist. I think the prints were certainly intended for a wall and not obe pored over in a portfolio like mine are.
If John Dixon Batten learned to use the Japanese method with great aplomb, Japanese style was another matter. By 1910 his Constance, with its literary background and narrative style, must have stood out as odd and old-fashioned and I must admit I find it odd that his prints were being exhibited. He had stopped making them by then but he was such a founding-father himself, I suppose he was hard to avoid. The low-key eroticism harks back both to Burne Jones and the days before Batten's own marriage, but the colours and the sensuous inking are pure Batten. No one else quite did this after him and as I've said before, this print is under-rated.
I couldn't say the same thing about Frank Morley Fletcher's Minx. His print output was surprsingly small and Girl reading as it is also known, was his one and only figure subject in print form. Possibly just as well. Batten's drawing may be conventional but he had had learned his trade illustrating books of fairy tales, which required figures, large, small and varied. But he made even fewer prints than his friend Frank, a simple fact that hasn't helped the reputation he has today. But then, I wonder what they made of him in Paris.
French print collectors may well have recognised Henri Riviere in the work of Sydney Lee. Never a member and not even making colour woodcuts by that time, Lee nevertheless maintained a strong position amongst the colour print fraternity, a position I find hard to credit (and I have to say I am surprised that the Royal Academy in London have given him a show). He's not a stylist - or at least he's not the sort of stylist that I would go for now. (I had a Lee phase many years ago). But then almost all the prints here are less stylish than the work produced after the war. What all this work does have is a sense of newness. Behind all these works was a real effort to master the difficult art of colour-printing and this accounts for the healthy diversity of methods and the perplexing diversity of styles. The actual range of post-war colour prints was probably narrower than it was in 1910.
One man who went on with experimenting long after this show closed was the man from Wallingford, William Giles, and he was still at it in the 1920s. There is something rather technical about the way Lee allocates his flat colours in Drying Sails and if Giles' colours are just the sane side of lurid in Swans, well, he and Ada did spend hours in a punt on the river Thames observing them. But he completely rises above any of his studies (and he often took great care in making prints) and his swans inhabit a dream-world in the end more seductive and more evocative than the work of Carl Thiemann simply because he is as observant as he is visionary, and Berkshire to the core.