Thursday 25 September 2014

Allen Seaby 'Art & Nature' at Reading Museum


To add to the list of early C20th British colour print artists with new exhibitions and books, we now have the most deserving so far. Following Sydney Lee, Eric Slater and Leonard Beaumont, an exhibition of Seaby's work opens at Reading Museum on 11th October, 2014, and runs until 22nd March, 2015. So, you have ample warning and plenty of time to go.

This is far from being his first solo exhibition at Reading (where he taught for many years) but I am not going to give away details here. The museum hold a good collection of Seaby's colour woodcuts and gouaches and no one should assume that only colour prints will go on show. It will be very interesting to see what they do exhibit. Seaby was an indifferent painter; not only that, his colour woodcuts over a very long career were uneven and not everything was as sublime as Heron, a print made when I think he was at his best around 1905 to 1910. But I don't want to prejudge a show, which most people with a serious interest in colour woodcut will want to see.


As part of this concerted push on Seaby , there is a book, to be published in mid October (the publication is delayed) and written by Martin Andrews with the help of Seaby's grandson, the linocut artist, Robert Gillmor. I've not had my copy yet but Andrews did a meticulous job on Robert Gibbings some years ago and I know that Robert Gillmor has long wanted his grandfather's work to gain the recognition it deserves.  I will be posting a review just as soon as I've read it. In the mean time, if you can't wait, you can buy a copy online from Two Rivers Press at £12.99 plus postage. It has 76 pages, they will send it anywhere and they aren't expensive, but you will need a PayPal account to buy it from their website.

Take my advice and buy your Seabys now. You certainty won't be able to afford him after all this.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Julia Mavrogordato revisited


Time was there was so little work by Julia Mavrogordato available online, it was hard to tell what kind of an artist she was or even how many linocuts she had made. This situation wasn't really helped by people such as myself posting bird images from the menu cards she made for the Orient shipping line in the 1930s. They are interesting, of course, but are no more than machine-printed designs.


Since then things have improved, though not that much. One or two more linocuts have appeared, the odd oil or watercolour and, yes, yet more menu card designs, which continue to skew the picture we have of her. But then what do we know? Unless you are a rather smug curator in Christchurch, New Zealand, sitting on a file of material, including information you've had from mere bloggers, there isn't a lot to say. She was a member of the United Kingdom branch of an old Ottoman Greek family, was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and was good enough at linocut to be asked to exhibit with the British linocut exhibitions organised by Claude Flight. So, it isn't much.


As you see from Summer sailing (top) like most other British linocutters (but not all) she printed by hand using printer's ink. This was how she achieved the uneven, atmospheric printing that were so typical of linocut in the twenties and thirties and that we all like so much. It also accounts for the famous smudged margins that we now associate especially with Claude Flight's students at the Grosvenor School. But the images we have are not quite so standard. I think all the ones I know depict animals or birds and also that, one way or another, that show the kind of pursuits that were popular with wealthy people.


There is sailing, hunting, show-jumping, but there is also something more, not so much a sense of privilege as a directness and an earthiness and directness that suggests life. We can also see the way she handles light. The thin, wintry light of Gone to ground (third from top) is quite different from the bouncing reflected light of Summer sailing and much as I like Sybil Andrew's linocuts of rural life, Mavrogordato has something special. The hounds plunging into the bracken and swimming through it have more life in them than the pattern-making of the Grosvenor School would allow for. She was an intuitive but an educated one.


The textures she achieves, the distinctive scratchings and criss-crossing of the surface of the lino doesn't really come across that well on the menu cards but even on a computer image, the variety of tones she achieved with limited colours is obvious, and the impact of her shapes and the fluidity is really quite remarkable. What I am saying is we need to see her as an artist working in linocut (and using it exceptionally well for all her primitive feeling) and not simply as another stylised linocut artist. Otherwise we miss the point of those excited, snuffling hounds and searching spotlights.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Charles Paine & stained glass


I would like to say that I have here an example of the work in stained glass by the British designer Charles Paine. Unfortunately, this fetching little bird is the work of John Platt (at All Saints, Leek) who was Head of Applied Art at Edinburgh when Paine was working there. There has been correspondences for some while now on my last post about the design work of Paine and it is typical of our ludicrous age that I have been unable to find any of Paine's stained glass to illustrate this post. Almost all you get is posters, ironic because I believe it was stained glass that he excelled in.

It is easy to forget how much colour woodcuts were seen as part of the Arts & Crafts movement at the time, but not only was John Platt involved in stained glass design before the first war (he learned the technique at the Royal College), Frank Morley Fletcher who was Director at Edinburgh was also a maker of stained glass and certainly worked with his students at Reading on a window there about 1905. Like Platt, Paine also attended the RCA, though a little later, and in the 1920s went to work as head of applied art under Fletcher at Santa Barbara. All of which tends to suggest to me that there is an unwritten story here that I do not have the time to research. Stained glass isn't fashionable in the way that posters and prints are, a shame if one only considers the vivacity and grace of Platt's work here.

Needless to say, if any reader knows of the whereabouts of any of Paine's work in stained glass, they should let me know and it might lead us somewhere.

Sunday 7 September 2014

What makes a winner? Colour prints at Los Angeles


I am probably not doing myself any favours with a post like this but here goes, anyway. At the end of the first war, the Society of California Printmakers held their first annual international exhibition at Los Angeles. This soon excited interest in Britain, interest which only grew when the British began to do very well for themselves. For instance, John Platt received the gold medal for best overall print with his exemplary colour woodcut, The giant stride, at the third exhibition in 1922, success that finally led to the Canadian, Walter Phillips, saying in 1927, 'As usual British artists take the awards at this exhibition.' How did this come about? And were those winning British prints really better than their rivals' work?


I think the answer has to be yes. From the very start, the British had concentrated on skill and although it was a cleverness that Claude Flight sneered at, the committee at Los Angeles was clearly impressed by the level of technical skill displayed by the British artists.  It was more than a matter of colour and expression. Platt had received a wide training, not only in the arts and crafts but to a lesser extent as an engineer and architect and all this showed up well in The Giant Stride. He was also canny (or fortunate) in his choice of subject. Giant strides had first become popular in the United States and the whole bravura episode on the beach must have had great appeal to Californians.


I don't know which other colour prints Platt was competing against in 1922 but by the time Arthur Rigden Read exhibited Carcassonne in 1926, he had two of the most illustrious of modern colour woodcut artists to contend with. Nevertheless, he came away with the gold and Gustave Baumann had to be content with the Storrow prize for best block print. Summer Clouds is a blissful evocation of art colony life in New Mexico but would have been no match for the imaginative and dynamic portraiture of John Platt. Now compare the simple life of hollyhocks and pueblo-living in the desert with Read's complex understanding of architecture and perspective. Yes, it was a self-conscious, prize winning piece, but it also had a history that helped it on its way and would not have been possible for Read to make without the great example of William Giles' Ponte Vecchio from 1908. It didn't matter whether it was Giles, Utamaro or Italian chiaraoscuro colour woodcuts, Read had a keen eye and knew a good thing when he saw one. The British had been trained to use the best examples from other cultures and from the past. It would have been as easy for Read to have taken the old walls of Winchelsea (where he was living by that time) as it was for Baumann to depict the pueblos at Santa Fe, but Read could do what Giles could also do; as the French critic Gabriel Mourey put it about Giles, Read could transpose his feelings and exalt and with Carcassonne that was what he did, and with more effect than Baumann.


Nor was Walter Phillips' Wylye Mill Bridge (1925) really in with a chance, for all its exquisite sensibility. Phillips liked to present himself as a pioneer and emphasised that he had never seen a Japanese colour woodcut when he made his first prints about 1916 and that he had approached colour woodcut with resourcefulness and determination like some logger in the wilderness. But Read had only begun to make colour woodcuts in 1922 yet only four years later, he was able to take a leading prize. So, how did that happen? I think it was because he was already steeped in printmaking and had been looking at Japanese ukiyo-e prints and other forms of printmaking since he was in his twenties. The kind of semi-abstraction made use of by both Baumann and Phillips had no appeal for Read. Read had a versatility when it came to both technique and subject matter that the Americans could only dream of. It was versatility based firmly on observation, both of life around him and the work of other artists, including Americans like John Singer Sargent.


Ironically, Phillips subject for the 1926 was a British one. Another artist to visit Britain was Ernest Watson who was awarded bronze for his linocut, Misty morning. In its own more conventional way, this is a fine piece and almost certainly doesn't come across as well on a pc screen as it would do in front of you. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with overstatement. It is the most obviously period of all the five prints here and yet again has a strong abstract feel to it. Compare Allen Seaby's The trout which won the Storrow the following year. Seaby combined style with observation and original technique. For all his borrowings from Hokusai, he broke with convention as wholeheartedly as Read.


But the real irony rests on where this leaves us all now. You can try and find a Baumann or a Phillips for the same price as a Read or a Seaby today, but you will not succeed - not on the open market, at least. Of all these artists, Read is the most difficult to come by, despite the fact that his reputation was high in the twenties and thirties and people (and I include myself here) just do not see enough of his work to make an adequate judgement of what he could do. Seaby admired Phillips and owned three of his prints but they would now all cost a lot more than anything by Seaby. Does that mean that Read, Platt and Seaby were overvalued by American judges in the 1920s? Or does it mean that American and Canadian colour woodcut artists are over-priced today?

I think you know the answer.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Modern Printmakers update

No doubt people are wondering what has happened to Modern Printmakers. The blog has been inactive for a while due to various reasons. Nevertheless, I still check the comments section and reply.

Hopefully, there will be occasional posts starting again very shortly. In the mean time here is one of Allen Seaby's wonderful kingfishers, currently on British ebay with an unnecessarily high starting bid