Friday 22 November 2013

John Hall Thorpe


I am not going to deny that the Australian printmaker, John Hall Thorpe, hasn't received short shrift on Modern Printmakers; nor am I going to promise to make amends with this postm the first one I have given over to him. What I will say is this: he was the first of the London printmakers to understand the new commercial conditions after the first war. Whether he made the best of them is another thing. But, so far as I know, he was the first colour print artist to have a one-man show in London. And it was not just one; he had two in one year alone.

The year was 1919. Unfortunately, I have no idea which prints he exhibited and in many ways, it hardly matters. Hall Thorpe is not the kind of artist you go to for innovation. You go to him for only one thing: lots of flowers in very simple vases. The only serious book about him offers no dates for any of his prints, but he had certainly begun to turn out his famous series of colourful flower prints by the early 1920s. Three wise men had appeared by 1919 and found him shamelessly exploiting the work of Robert Gibbings (specifically Evening at Gaza) but he had trained as a copyist at home in Sydney, where he had worked as an illustrator and staff artist on two newspapers in the 1890s, so that should come as no real surprise.

But once he had done with variations on the work of Gibbings and E.A. Verpilleux, he set his own very successful trend with his flower studies that actually derive from the height of the Vienna Secession almost twenty years before. And very jolly they are. Hall Thorpe was the very first colour woodcut artists I ever bought, way back in the summer of 1976, when you could pick them up for very little. As I've said before, the one I had was Marigolds, but it was left with friends who became unobtainable. (And I would still like it back, Maureen, if you're reading this.) But why anyone who should want more than one Hall Thorpe, I have to admit, is beyond me. My mother, who is now very ancient, took to Sweet Peas on a birthday card I once gave her, so I shall include that rather insipid image as well. And I think this all sums up the appeal of Hall Thorpe. The prints have little intrinsic value and what you end up doing is associating them with people and places. They have that kind of bold intensity that enables you to do that.

Anyway, Hall Thorpe turned his studio, marooned somewhere between Earl's Court and Fulham Road, into the Hall Thorpe Studio, then opened the Hall Thorpe Gallery somewhat nearer to the West End, the real innovation being that he was the first artist to both make and publish his own colour prints. Almost everyone else depended on society exhibitions and, if they were lucky, a one-man show or, if they were more fortunate still, a permanent dealer like Colnaghi or Bromhead Cutts. Hall Thorpe dispensed with all that, and for almost twenty years was very much his own man, right until the end, in fact, when he refused any medication for the pneumonia he was suffering from (he was a Christian Scientist) and died.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Looks familar? The art of borrowing


Oscar Wilde once famously said to J.M. Whistler, 'I wish that I'd said that, Jimmie,' to which Whistler replied, 'You will, Oscar, you will.' Wilde knew a good idea when he saw one, as many other artists and writers have done, (and many could improve on them). Where borrowing stops and plagiarism begins is another thing. Hiroshi Yoshida (above) just about gets away with it with his witty addition of a tent and campfire. I just cannot believe he didn't know that William Giles wasn't an avid camper. Hence the mountain campsite. William and Ada Giles presumably went to Corsica
before the first war and Giles came up with his 'venturesome' The last glow, central Corsica in 1915, some while before Yoshida would have been busy with his brush.

I suppose with Japan's unique reproductive system of making prints, anyone's work was regarded as fair game. Even so, Yoshida's borrowing is so blatant, it takes your breath away, and I can well understand why Giles became so indignant about European artists like Elizabeth Keith co-operating with Tokyo publishers. He might have had a point when it came to Charles Bartlett, who worked for Wantanabe from 1915 (Yoshida also provided designs for Wantanabe later on) and a couple of years afterwards came up with his little masterpiece, Silk merchants, India which owes quite alot to a great masterpiece - I mean, Georges Seurat's A Sunday afternoon on the island of the Grand Jatte.

Surprising, I know, but nevertheless true. You only need to compare the seated turbanned figures to see what I mean. But what Bartlett really nicked from Seurat was the theme and tone of the work. Bartlett, no doubt, had the excuse that colour woodcut wasn't his main work and it certainly makes you wonder about those people who pay so much for them now. But then, I also think that's printmaking for you, and in many ways adapting Seurat to an Indian setting was in itself an original thing to do.

Nor was he alone in making good use of Seurat. S.G. Boxsius had such a habit of using other people's work, whether prints, paintings or photographs, it really just became a part of what he did. I think partly in his case he must have learned the habit early on as the youngest brother of six. Imitation just becomes second nature, as I know, being the youngest myself.

You might find some of this a bit tenuous, but there is circumstantial evidence, as they say, to kind of back this up. So, I am sure that Boxsius was well-acquainted with Seurat's other masterpiece, Bathers, Asnieres when he came to make his marvellous little print, Seaside. I have talked before about a photograph of Boxsius teaching at Bolt Court surrounded by the casts of classical statuary the students had to draw. Copying was a standard part of the system, to the extent that Frank Brangwyn complained that the art schools only turned out 'clever imitators' (instead of brazen polymaths like him).

Even more than Bartlett, I think Boxsius made exceptional use of Seurat. Seaside is not great art, but I love it all the same, and it is fascinating to see an art teacher taking his own lessons to heart by looking hard at other artist's pictures and learning something from them. Personally, it is no surprise to me that Boxsius fell for Bathers, Asnieres. I have been gazing at it in the National Gallery in London ever since I was eighteen. Boxsius, for me, is an affordable Seurat, basically.

S.G.B. was also very deft when it came to Sidney Lee, but Lee himself was no slouch when it came to nicking stuff. Unaccountably, he turned Hokusai's image around, losing the crucial oban shape and sometimes even more unaccountably leaving the moon out altogether when he made his daytime versions. The moon and the separation of the principal  figures was the whole point of the picture, but never mind, I admire old Sidney for having a go. Hokusai's print reads from bottom  to top, but Lee's lacks focus and reads all over the show.

Lee had a collection of Japanese prints and was, in fact, the first British printmaker to make such direct use of Japanese colour woodcut. Unfortunately, Lee rather spoiled it all by attempting to put himself above all that by insisting artists looked too much at the Old Masters. Perhaps Lee didn't include Hokusai amongst them. But then, Lee is easy to mock, partly because he is in some ways, an unsympathetic artist. But if he took ideas from other artists, at his best he was full of good ideas himself, and other artists recognised that. He certainly believed in himself.



Wednesday 13 November 2013

William Lee Hankey's deserted village


In 1909 a new edition of Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village was published with illustrations by the British artist, William Lee Hankey, using the new four-colour offset process to reproduce Lee Hankey's watercolours. By that time Lee Hankey had been experimenting with colour printing for about five years, using a basic combination of etching and aquatint to produce a wide variety of images that were in many ways new to British graphic art. Yet, it was the way that he seems to have worked alongside another artist who was using a quite different medium that I find just as fascinating.

Unlike Lee Hankey, Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown is no newcomer to Modern Printmakers. The pair were both members of the art colony that centred on the town of Etaples in the Pas-de-Calais, with Lee Hankey working in his studio in the town, and Lizzie Brown (if I am not mistaken) at the village you see in these two etchings by Lee Hankey, The full moon and Marie of the fields. The Austen Browns had probably lived at Camiers, a few miles from Etaples, for three or four years before Lee Hankey began to make prints. In the image at the top, you see the chateau beside the Etang du Roy, one of the a series of large ponds to the south of the village; behind Marie I think what you can see is the main street from the ridge, roughly to the north.

The area was small but astonishingly varied, with sand dunes along the coast and sheep pastures on the ridge, and must have seen at the time like a small world unto itself - certainly one that offered more than enough scope to double as a deserted village in C18th England. Although Lee Hankey's work for The Deserted Village has been praised elsewhere on the web, you will see straightaway how far popular illustration led him into conventional ways. Basically, the man in the illustration, above, looks liked he has just been beamed up by Scottie, and the scale of the figure and the arrangement of the houses are far less dramatic than the image of Marie with her rosary out in the fields.

In fact, it was Lee Hankey's wife, Mabel, who I think had developed a nice line in C18th pastiche some years before her husband, so it's interesting to see him working so intently in a village his friend, Lizzie Brown, had virtually made her own. You find exactly the same locations in his work, sometimes from the same angle, and certainly the same activities like haymaking, but seen in completely different ways. Above, we have Lee Hankey brimming with masculine vigour, below, Brown, picking out Lee Hankey's women you can see gathering the hay, but showing one carrying it away beneath the most tenuous of moons in By the lake.

It shows exactly why, I think, etching suited Lee Hankey and colour woodcut was the right medium for Brown. Lee Hankey's early colour etchings are certainly atmospheric and often bravura, and while his Harvest Moon is imaginative and powerful, I think Oliver Goldsmith would have also recognised a fellow poet in Lizzie Brown. She started with a basic grey and brought her colour up in stages, true to the essential monochrome nature of great graphic art, but using colour with a sure and selective touch. While Lee Hankey produced editions with a smaller (and cheaper) number in black and white, and then adding colour by means of a muslin wash, with Brown colour is always intrinsic. Both artists often began with monochrome and experimented with colour thereafter, but the end results are quite different. What the Irish protestant, Goldsmith, would have made of the Catholic imagery in Lee Hankey, is another matter altogether, but it does make me wonder whether his own deserted village was a deserted village of the Faith.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Thirty-six views of Hideo Hagiwara


This is not the first time I have written about an artist who lost a substantial amount of work as a result of damage caused by bombing during the second war. Paul Leschhorn's studio in Frankfurt was destroyed, as were many of the blocks of the linocutter, Claude Flight, in London. But the effect on the Japanese artist, Hideo Hagiwara, was so great, he virtually had to begin again at the age of thirty-seven.

Printmakers and print publishers are particularly susceptible to this kind of thing. A major earthquake in Tokyo in 1923 meant that many blocks stored in publishing houses were destroyed. It's perhaps not so surprising that so much of the work that Hagiwara made after the war looks is deliberately naïve, like someone who has gone back to basics.

But what we are left with is a rather distorted view of his career. He began printmaking as a student in Tokyo during the 1930s, but almost all the work available dates only from the sixties onwards. By that time, in a fashion that was uniquely his own, he used abstraction as pure as Mark Rothko or Ben Nicholson, alongside naïve figurative work that makes a mockery of the standard art history idea of development. What happened with Hagiwara is that everything eventually overlaps and interrupts.

Certainly, this was the first time I researched an artist and had to make sure there were not two of them working with the same name. The Japanese have the kind of talent that can make a universal art out of a personal dilemma. I suppose one way that Hagiwara approached this was to base a series of prints made in the eighties and nineties, on Hokusai's Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji from the 1830s. The concentration on motif and its repetition is one of the most forceful aspects of Japanese art, and one that appealed a great deal to Western artists.

The series was not a straight lift from Hokusai. In his work, Mount Fuji often provides a witty but trivial focus for the print, with the human activity surrounding it becoming the real subject. With Hagiwara, the mountain is always the subject, even when partially obscured. Also, unlike Hokusai, he uses shape in a fluid way to suggest incompleteness within the work itself that is remarkably similar to the way Allen Seaby made his woodcuts well before the first war.

Adapting western styles and techniques was nothing new in Japanese  printmaking. From the earliest days of ukiyo-e, an artist like Hokusai was using a new European pigment such as Prussian blue with such frequency, it has become synonymous with his work. It was not just Western perspective that had to be learned, but also the realistic use of cloud and shadow. In learning foreign conventions like that, the artists were able to question their use and divert them simply because they were not bound by them.


By the time we come to an artist as sophisticated as Hagiwara, what with all the loans and counter-loans, we hardly know where we are. But he is one of the most simpatico and lyrical of abstract artists, more subtle and complex in his representations of sand gardens that Okiee Hashimoto (also featured on Modern Printmakers). In his hands they become stone-rubbings of themselves and everything floats lucidly as if he were representing consciousness itself. (The image immediately above shows the reverse of January.)


Tuesday 5 November 2013

A tale of two prints: William Giles and 'Midsummer Night'

For a long time I used to wonder why it was that William Giles was considered the leader of the colour print movement in Britain. I always found some of his work rather insipid, in the way that minor Edwardian artists often are. What I didn't do was to take my own advice and make sure I saw more of his prints in front of me before I made that kind of judgement. I only say all this because all too often Giles doesn't appear to cause much enthusiasm. This attitude changed some months ago when I saw a middle period work showing the Isle of Jura, and again, when I saw a print of Midsummer Night only a few weeks ago, I could see that there was one good reason for his leadership, at least.

It was quite straightforward. Both images were faultlessly printed. Here was someone who lived the arts and crafts ethos to the full, and was simply very good at what he was doing. The period was full of these sheer productions, of course. Ruskin and early Royal Lancastrian pottery come to mind. Like Giles' best work, they have that marvellous sense of craftsmanship and finish. As much as they were friends, Allen Seaby's experimental approach to woodcutting, with all its tantalizing loose ends, was not for Giles. Everything with him was bought as close to perfection as he could get it. No wonder he became friends with that other arch-perfectionist, Walter Phillips.

I am not suggesting everything Giles produced was in some ways perfect; it wasn't. But it was the quest he undertook for such high standards that captured the imaginations of other artists. In the box alongside the print I saw, was the baren he had used to print this image. He had had it made from green glass and had had a pine handle attached (which has come off). You might wonder why he had gone to such trouble and whether this was just another of Giles' eccentricities. But this was no ordinary woodcut; in fact, it was not a woodcut at all. In his search for the finest of images, Giles had first abandoned cherry wood for his blocks in favour of Kauri pine from New Zealand, but still not content, he had employed a zinc aquatint plate to make  a print. Finally, he opted for steel (I believe) and this is why he needed a glass baren to rub over the back of the print. You will notice the fine print at the very bottom of the image. You would not associate that with any kind of woodcut. You can also make out that telling word 'copyright', which brings me to the second reason for his leadership.

This was probably the first commercially published British colour print. In fact, the image you see at the top isn't the one from 1912, as is so often stated. It dates from 1919. The first image from 1912 so far as I know is the one immediately above, as published by the French dealer and publisher, Goupil, who had a gallery in London. 1912 was the same year that Verpilleux was taken up by the Bond St. dealer, Colnaghi, who published all his work from then on. What was interesting about Giles' approach to commercial publishers is that he wished to show that colour prints made to the highest standards could be sold successfully by publishers, and I think this was another side to his leadership.

Goupil closed during the war, and soon after the war ended a new gallery and publisher opened called Bromhead, Cutts, and it was they that brought out the second edition of 150. But Giles was by no means finished with Midsummer Night. I suspect the development of what he called the Giles method took up alot of his time and he also needed to make money, and he finally allowed a third edition to be published in 1922. So much for limited editions. You can see the Bromhead Cutts version is different from the earlier one, but these second and third editions show Giles not only trying to sell prints after a long war, but, in fact leading the way both in making superb prints and in selling them properly. To his credit, he then handed plates, baren, and a proof over to a museum 'for the use of students', putting the print beyond further re-publication.

This did not stop other artists from taking his lead and making versions of their own. I am far too much of a fan of S.G. Boxsius to call him a plagiarist, but I am sure you will agree he looked with care at Midsummer Night before he made his updated version in his woodcut, Noonday. That Boxsius made the print out of admiration, I would say is obvious. I also think he made Giles modern, and brought in something new, as you must do when you borrow an idea. I was lucky enough to come across this beautifully printed woodcut during last summer and, again, just take my word for it, here was Boxsius and his hero at their best.

Friday 1 November 2013

Old mill, Sussex by Sylvan Boxsius


I wouldn't normally want to post a print as weak as this, and it is only here because it is of considerable interest. I would think this was an apprenticeship piece by Boxsius, poorly conceived as an image, and poorly printed. You can see the creep of the watercolour to edge of the block. I can never remember, but I think that denotes lino rather than wood, which is how it was described on ebay recently.

I don't know how I missed it, but I did. Thanks to Clive Christie's tip-off, though, here it is. Boxsius didn't start exhibiting his prints until 1930, but was making linocuts some time before that. Looking at this, I can see why he held back. The curious thing is that he became such a master printmaker, in his own way.

The seller was asking the kind of cheeky price he always asks. It's banal telling people that an artist's work is rising. Do they really think that it will encourage someone to pay more? Anyone buying Boxsius currently will know exactly what the prints are going for. Expecting to get £300 for something as disappointing as this, though, is simply naive. But, I have to say, that is the way it is going right now.

And before anyone writes in to say that I hate ebay, anyway, the fact is ebay is a public auction and there is nothing wrong with criticising untoward behaviour, particularly as it has been myself that has put a huge amount of effort into researching SGB. I don't expect credit, just to have my say.

Out of interest I have included another mill that came up on ebay, but this time by Robert Howie.