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.


  1. Charles,

    very interesting post - even if I must say I am not too fond of Giles' work, to be honest. Boxsius`"Noonday" was new to me - a masterpiece!


    1. Yes, Giles is certainly an acquired taste for many of us today, and much as I like the sheep, I can do without the peacocks. That said, the more I look at his work, the more worthwhile I find him.

      Boxsius has less to him, but, just like you, 'Noonday' is a work I am in awe of.

    2. I think Klaus is being a tad harsh but I do understand Giles isn't for all. The peacocks are not my cup of tea either...and I am not fond of the sheep but they appear in more than a few of his works. I think he is at his best when his doing architecture and luminous light...but then I feel the same about Seaby. I have his snow scene which he also did in different colouration and his Eaton College and one of his St Andrews prints (I think he did more than one but I am not sure). Seaby is very very different when he does architecture as is Giles. Both of them should leave the birds....well.....to the Germans. They were much better at it. I find the Boxsius attractive but I would choose either of the Giles prints you featured.

  2. I have always rated Giles as a master of the print, and I am not the only one. There is a reason he is a master, and it isn't just dedication or determination. He was in the forefront for a very distinct reason. His prints aren't just masterful, they are astonishing. He was focused on blithe opalescent colours, which can easily (and still are) taken as woodcuts. Luminosity was one of his key issues, and it was a quality dependent as much on technique as on the physical properties of individual pigments. It's only when you have seen his prints you will notice that, held to or against the light at a particular angle, the richness of printed color is astonishing.

    You are correct Charles that in his determination for mastery of the image using the medium, he experimented with different woods and then abandoned them altogether to use metal plates. When he wasn't focused on colour, he was focused on silhouettes against the sky but his key was to do all of his prints WITHOUT overemphasis. This was something that very few Germans, Americans, Japanese and his compatriots ever seemed to master. I have been a fan of his works for years, and although I only have four or five...they still amaze me. I still find myself stopping to look at them. I find it intriguing that you connect him to Ruskin Pottery....I suspect they shared many of the same aesthetic ideals...but Giles was better at it financially. I have seen records that his prints were sold for 200 USD in the early 1900's and I think financially he was quite comfortable. It would be fascinating to know more about him and his personal life and the man as well as the artist.

  3. I think that was an interesting point you made about overemphasis. He is certainly one of the last artists you could describe as art deco, and is the polar opposite to the Grosvenor School brigade.

    He comes over as unworldly, but I suspect you are again right, there were some sound financial ideas behind him. That said, Ada Shrimpton was almost certainly better-off than he was, otherwise she would have been unable to work as a single woman for all those years before their marriage. Salaman also makes a telling comparison between Shrimpton and Shylock's daughter

    I also agree, he is one of those artists you do want to know more about, but frankly I am not about to publish the result of months of hard research online.

    Giles and Ruskin have the same ideals of finish and a similar iridescence. They are not interested in truth to materials. Giles saw wood or metal as a means to an end and was not concerned with any expressive qualities they had. Interestingly, a rather later modernist like Edward Wadsworth took a similar view. For all the sentiment in the prints, Giles was unsentimental about methods.

    1. I agree with everything you wrote except that he was "unworldly". I also agree he and Edward Taylor saw the materials as a means to an end. Coincidentally, I also like Ruskin pottery.....but then you probably knew that. As for Wadsworth...well I tend to think of his work as much more German than British. Didn't he study in Germany? It doesn't matter much, I wouldn't be able to buy anything by him anyway.

    2. No, I didn't know you liked Ruskin, but it does make complete sense.

      Most of Wadsworth's training was in Britain, but he learned to make woodcuts at the Knirr School in Munich while he was supposed to be doing other things. But, yes, I agree, his woodcuts are German more than British and, funnily enough, I had a post lined up on this very subject! As none his Munich woodcuts have survived, no one has any idea what he was doing apart from the fact that he was aware of Kandinsky's work.

  4. Edward & William Taylor were inspired to create their art pottery in an effort to emulate the Ancient Chinese high fired reduction fired "flambe" glazes, often with spectacular success (sang de beouf) whilst others, such as dove greys were (in my opinion) dreary failures. Unlike Giles who was in control of his colours, Taylor's pots often seem in control of their own destiny! Each is a unique work of art, a result of technical excellence and a lot of luck.

    When I first saw the 2 Giles, I immediately thought Dawn and Dusk - which in turn reminded me of Urushibara and his Night and Day at Stonehenge. Then after reading your posting I appreciated it was more 1st state and 2nd state and even 3rd states -

    .... I prefer the top one. More vibrant colours and less sheep ?

    1. What you say about the Ruskin approach is interesting.My own knowledge of the potters doesn't go much further than what I used to see in antiques centres and looking at their work in Birmingham.

      The Giles prints are usually described as versions rather than states simply because there were two separate editions. Presumably, the Goupil edition sold out and Giles refined his technique between 1912 and 1919. The later one is glorious.

      As for Urushibara, well, he took quite a few ideas from Giles, including for his 'Stonehenge, Moonlight' which partly derives from Giles' print of 1910. What he did was change the size and position of the moon (he also left it out) to change the overall tone of the print, which he was very good at.