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.


  1. Wonderful posting on Mavrogordato and delightful swipe at a "smug" curator. I guess the thing I love about her work is the sense of motion and her her ability to distill down noise and a cacophany of colour into wonderful lines and fragments of motion. She was incredibly talented and lauded in her day, but since most of her art has ended up in institutions, it's hard to to hear anything more about her. I applaud your determination to continue shining a light otherwise hidden under a bushel.

  2. I know you have been a long-term fan. Hopefully more readers will come to appreciate her work, too, but I have to say the response has been muted so far, so thanks for the encouragement. I love the earthiness; it was complex what she was doing.