Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Half-colour colour woodcuts


On Monday a print called A Highland Loch by the Scottish artist, Helen Stevenson, went for just over £200. This may well be the highest that one of her colour woodcuts has gone for on on ebay. The irony is that someone paid that amount for one of her cheaper prints. How do I know this?
I will admit I don't have any exhibition record for the woodcut with a price, but all the prints that used a limited number of blocks as this one did, with its three colours and the keyblock, were designed to be cheaper. Eric Hesketh Hubbard (below) specialised in this kind of print and even went so far as to collaborate with Frank Whittington, who cut the block for him. Hesketh Hubbard would have been quite capable of making colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner, but what he wanted to do was produce affordable prints at his own Forest Press.

But what is affordable today? And do you seriously go out and spend that much when you could buy directly from a dealer for the same amount? It's not as if Stevenson is rare by colour woodcut standards. But the point I am making is that I think Stevenson, like Hubbard, made a conscious decision to limit the work she put into the print in order to make it cheaper and much as I like Stevenson's work, I don't think A Highland Loch finds her on top of her form. Frankly, what Hesketh Hubbard did with his gypsy encampment is superior - and he only used one colour. Where he gains is partly with Whittington's complex cutting and unusual use of hatching.

The master for them all was William Nicholson (above), with the illustrated books he made in the late 1890s. Almost all of his prints, though, were hand-coloured, and were not woodcuts at all. But he showed what could be done with black and a few complimentary colours. And I think this was where Stevenson fell down. Like Nicholson, Hesketh Hubbard wisely opted for black and a pale-ish sepia. The colour of the tree, similar to the other two artists is fine, but the green strikes me as intrusive. You have to know when to stop.

A later master of this sub-form of black and yellowish tones was the much-loved and lauded Arthur Rigden Read. As it happens, one of his prints that took this approach failed to sell on ebay, even though the starting-bid was reasonable. Unfortunately, I don't have an image, but his cat (above) is better, anyway. What Nicholson and Hesketh Hubbard achieved in their rather austere way with their umber and ochre, Read softens and enlivens with a complementary grey. It remains easier to print, but dumps the chapbook manner.

Like Nicholson, Read knew that no matter whether he was depicting a cat or a cowman, these limited tones suited portraiture more than landscape. But if the few colours help to give Read's farmer in his Sussex smock great rustic charm, he was one of the few to use the same approach with far greater subtlety. Read was not a one-note printmaker. Obviously, many artists limit the colours and tones they use to great effect. What Read did was to achieve a lovely balance between the black-and-brown style and the greater sophistication of an artist like John Platt. It all depended on what you could do with grey. Or what you could do with £200. Better spent on Nice weather for ducks if you ask me.



  1. Well said Charles. I was astonished at the price, and the simplicity of that woodcut. I woke up and saw the price it ended on, and almost fell out of bed. I have only one print by her, and it is so complex, and fine, with detail and determination in every line. That is what makes Stevenson so strong. I saw this print and felt it was clumsy and cookie cutter. I also agree with your summation that it was done as a more affordable piece. I have seen her prices, and recall in the recesses of my mind, that she exhibited and sold her works at reasonable prices and prices that could be afforded by ordinary people. However, let us say for argument's sake that her prices have increased in the years...is this the one? Is this the print that captures Helen Stevenson and exemplifies her skill? Absolutely not. You and I also both know that her works are small and one of the things that sets the smaller works apart from larger pieces is the details and the fine lines and depth of image. This print doesn't have it. Having a very superficial knowledge of Stevenson, it is clear that this isn't her best work, and not even good work. It's pocket money work, that someone has decided to spend a substantial amount on. People are misguided but no doubt it will appear on a dealer's site with the pre-requisite blather and guff with a ridiculous price. I also want to say I enjoy your postings where you cut through the crap. I was thinking the same thing as you, on the other side of the world, yet you have expressed it much more forcefully than I could have. Bravo.

  2. Funnily, enough, Clive, I sometimes think I'm only taking your lead! Unfortunately, some people get upset when I am critical of what goes off on e-bay, but, like you, I think that is part of what a blog is about.

    The fact that I haven't found a record for 'A Highland Loch' being exhibited at the Society of Graver Printers suggests she didn't think it was her best work either, but I don't know how the details came to be on my list, which has 33 prints on it.

    If you buy her work, anything is worth having at a price, obviously, but events like this just give people the wrong idea. Recent Boxsius prices I can understand, to some extent, but I think this was double the cost of the 'Hen Wife'.