Sunday, 17 February 2013

W was for Wormell


A second look at the British illustrator and all-round success story, Chris Wormell - a second look because my first post only dealt with his designs for the Adams brewery campaign, and much as I like those, I actually prefer his animells.


His success, as I've said before, his based on the canny method employed, one way or another, by the illustrators that make a name for themselves. Wormell has drawn heavily on the two great founding-fathers of modern British relief printmaking. Both Thomas Bewick and William Nicholson have seeped into our visual awareness simply because artists and designers have returned to them time and again to build on their approach, so much so we now recognise something we know as soon as we see a Wormell zebra or kingfisher. This has to be one of the main tenets of Adland.

I am not decrying the originality or variety of Chris Wormell's work, but there is a difference between his wood-engraving of a hedgehog, which comes from a small edition, as you can see, and the more upfront frog on a lily pad. The hedgehog goes its own way, in a descriptive world to itself, and relies as much on Bewick's delicacy as the work of Ian Stephens does; the frog blends knowingness, caricature and appeal in equal measures, and is probably closer to the work of his peers in the United States.

Like Nicholson, he has no scruples when it comes to a keyblock, even though he has less need. All but two of Nicholson's woodcuts were hand-coloured, whereas Wormell's linocuts, so far as I know, are all printed. With Wormell, the keyblock is there for the impact and for the style. I doubt that you could print off one of Wormell's keyblocks and publish it the way one of Mabel Royds was, to reveal expressive or incisive cutting - and Royds learned just as much from Nicholson. His keylock provides pattern and outline but no more. Compare Seaby's broken, ragged line the second his alarmed grouse take flight with Wormell's deliberateness. His work is sometimes stationary, like old-time zoological prints, but like Royds and Nicholson before him, he has a great sense of shadow.


Even if Wormell is joyful colourist and rugged designer both, the truth is that, in the end, when it comes to birds or other animells, Bewick and the Japanese printmakers were better masters than the chapbooks or Nicholson who, after all, was only biding his time till he turned into Titian.