Sunday, 15 December 2013

S.G. Boxsius 'In old Whitby'


In many ways, In old Whitby is a colour woodcut in search of a subject. It is nowhere near a duff as the last print by Boxsius that I featured, but it is some way short of Boxsius  at his beautiful best nevertheless, and I ask myself why.

I sometimes wonder why it was that Boxsius failed to exhibit prints until the early thirties when he knew enough about linocut to write an article about making them in the mid twenties. It may well be that although he signed prints like this, he was still not entirely happy with them for one reason or another. His stone steps and wooden rails leading down to the water are more of an exercise than a subject. He manfully distinguishes between the grey stonework and the maroon shadows and orange rooftops, but all the same one wonders why he bothered. It's not that he wasn't intelligent or able.
Part of the answer I suspect can be found in a print by William Giles called At eventide. Rothenburg am Tauber which Giles came up with about 1905. Now, the article on linocut I mentioned was written for Giles and in my mind there isn't much doubt that Boxsius learned his woodcut trade from Giles, but where Giles succeeded in At eventide with masterful insouciance, Boxsius comes unstuck, and where Giles transforms his wonky white rails and twisting tree trunks into runic sentences, SGB is literal.

Boxsius was clearly searching for something of his own here because he attempted this same subject of harbour slipways and steps more successfully in some of his Cornwall prints. Apart from the imaginative independence of Giles, Boxsius also lacked his training. Almost all British artists who went through the State system were trained as teachers. The only fine art course on offer was at the Royal College if  you got on. So far as I am aware Boxsius trained (and taught) exclusively within the State system whereas Giles also studied painting in France. I have no idea about the courses either of them took at the Royal College, but what I am suggesting is that what many artists in the early C20th lacked was formal training as painters. If you add to that the strong influence of the arts and crafts movement which by and large rubbished any distinction between fine art and craft, I think you can see why printmakers as various as Kenneth Broad, Allen Seaby, Sidney Lee and Boxsius often turned to other artists for ideas. As we saw in the post before last, a good look at Seurat transformed Charles Bartlett's rather subectless Indian images into something more spectacular.

Finally, readers now tend to comment when Boxsius images that are new to them turn up on Modern Printmakers. This is because some of the images have only just found their way onto the web. This latest is a good find by William P Carl Fine Prints where it is now for sale at $550. My thanks are due to them.


  1. Fascinating posting again Charles. I think you are spot on, and as usual you get to the crux of issues. The funny thing is, as I opened the page and only had the first quarter of the image on my screen, I as stunned. Line, perspective and beautiful's pure genius, until I scrolled down. Then, it was gone...the problem being that there is too much nothing in the Boxsius. Comparing to the Giles is tricky, because no matter what you look at specifically in the Giles print, there is some there there. Giles knew how to move your eye around the print, and that is part of his gift. He loved the pathway, the line to take you eye where he wanted it to go. Boxsius sometimes got it, but often didn't. Kenneth Broad had the same problem although he managed it in more cases than Boxsius. When we talk about imitation, I think in many cases Emil Nolde was a huge inspiration to Giles, and he certainly mimics many of the aesthetic decisions that Nolde made in his earliest prints. We all start somewhere I suppose.

  2. Well, that was an equally interesting remark about Nolde. I'd not really thought much about possible continental influences on Giles, apart from some of the French lithographers like Riviere and Steinlen.

    Boxsius was a Muswell Hill cubist as you could quite rightly see from the top quarter of the picture - by far the most interesting area. You can see him moving towards his far more successful panorama of Whitby harbour in this print, another one with a yawning gap, but which I think he handles well. To some extent with SGB less is more.

  3. I was just looking for history of Boxsius as I have one of his colour wood cuts in print; "Mid-day". We used to have four different ones but lost track of where the others went. I'm in N Shropshire and just wondering what to do with it? Any ideas?
    I note he had some interesting students.
    Thanks for your insight.

  4. Well you could always sell it to me but I'm in Morocco right now. E mail me Back on Sunday 2nd. Haji B