Thursday, 19 September 2013

Walter J. Phillips by Nancy Green

Books about colour woodcut or linocut artists are becoming something of a cottage industry this year. Leonard Beaumont, Sidney Lee and Eric Slater are now joined by Walter Phillips from Pomegranate Press in Portland, Oregon. It is more of an appreciation than a scholarly work, with contributions from two of Phillips descendants, and a longer piece by the Cornell Arts & Crafts scholar, Nancy E Green. She goes over the life, adding details I had not come across before, and looking at his work as an artist making colour woodcuts (139 of them), watercolours, wood-engravings and etchings.
Yes, he was as prolific as he was determined. He also did not start making colour woodcut until about 1916, so the number he made is remarkable, especially given the high standards he set himself. The book itself is mildly disappointing. There are a lot of images, all in colour, but somehow not quite right. The selection lacks the impact of Phillips at his best. He was a rather self-contained man, making a lot of striking but self-contained images. (The ones you see here and not necessarily in the book, although The Chinese Coat is). He used his children frequently as models (and also presumably his wife, Gladys) but the book doesn't say who his subjects are. Nor does Nancy Green talk about Phillip's country in Manitoba (along Red River), and then later Alert Bay in British Columbia.

There are mistakes in the book - worse, they are other people's mistakes, which could easily have been avoided by reading the actual documents. Getting gallery names in London wrong is the kind of thing a scholar shouldn't do, but that Nancy Green has made a core subject. Perhap the problem is that the ground has already been covered more than once. A biography appeared during Phillip's lifetime, which is the main source for a lot of what we know about his life, and there were also books about him in 1978 and 1981. But this is the first to be made widely available by a publisher and is a must for your bookcase.

I was hoping for more about his return to Britain in the mid twenties and the artists that he met. It was a crucial time for Phillips. It was where Urushibara handed over his know-how, and he gained the expertise that gave his prints the perfection that people pay so much for. I opened the package with anticipation, but what comes over here is a lack of fresh research, the sort of thing you look for in a new book about an artist. But it isn't that kind of a book and, for all its handsome American exterior and uncluttered layout, it's all a touch dull and been there. Even so, at £13.52 on Amazon, (which is what I paid) or an ebay, it's a book you ought to own. Just apply the plastic.



  1. Thank you so much for that posting Charles. Fascinating and interesting. Sloppy sycophancy is both tiresome but also does a great deal to muddy the water and mess with facts. I am also disappointed by the fact that there is no information about his study in England under Urushibara. I was able to obtain so much more information from Urushibara's son, who seems to be a great keeper of so much modern British printmaking history. Is it really that hard to write to the V & A or the British Museum? I think not...I used to do it all the time. So it would seem that the book you have purchased is more of a picture book.

  2. You're quite right. It looks as if the publisher thought it would be a seller and asked Nancy Green to write something. She has the name but isn't much of a scholar. How could she make such mistakes? Most American writers are pretty vague about what was happening in Europe, even though the Europeans were often better at the time.

    As I was researching this, I found your comments about the letters from Giles to Urushibara. You are at an advantage speaking Japanese but the son must speak English better than his father did. Is he still alive? Phillips mentions those letters. Both Giles and Seaby were literate men but I have never come across a letter by Giles and have only come across 5 letters by Seaby, which includes one about wood ash fertilizer during the war. I am going to write to the curator of modern prints and mention the Urushibara material to her.

    Believe me the V&A and National Art Library hold stuff no one suspects, including the staff, but the Print Room catalogues are all to hell.

    1. Hello Charles. Yes Ichiro Urushibara was born and raised in London, so his English is very good. As I understand it, he is indeed still alive and living in Tokyo. He also has correspondence between his father and artists of importance to us. Of course Brangwyn but also Giles and via Giles, Phillips. In many ways, his knowledge and information is priceless, but he is not impossible to contact and any researcher could have found some way to contact him. I have his email address, but I think I should write to him first to ask his permission. However I am sure he would be more than happy as he is rightfully proud of his father and his father's contribution to western art and printmaking. The V&A staff are always very generous with information and you are right, they have access to information that is really astonishing...especially catalogs. I would never have been able to find out as much as I did about Isabel de Bohun Lockyer without them. I feel my information about her was far more scholarly than the book about Phillips. I guess in the end, the point is, there is little excuse for not getting facts correct.

    2. Well, do please put Ichiro in touch with me. It could be a two-way process as there are one or two things I could let him know about.

      The whole story of collaboration or artists learning how to make prints from one another is a fascinating and complicated one, and one that has barely been told for these artists of ours. Giles, I think, was the key to it all, rather than that old imposter, Brangwyn.

  3. Another publication this year is a comprehensive work on William Rice. This follows a book dedicated entirely to his woodblock prints

  4. Thanks for that. I couldn't find the book after a quick search. Thanks also for the reminder about 'California Block Prints', again from Pomegranate. I should get that one, too.