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.


  1. But have you also noticed that Hall Thorpe prices appear to be slipping, at least on ebay? At the same time Slater prints have gone through the roof on the back of the James Trollope's book? There is no real logic to it all as you know.

    The National Museum of Canada was buying Phillips seriously at the time, which is more than can be said for the V&A and the British Museum. Museums are just more clued in about prints across the Atlantic and always were even though I think many of the British colour artists were just more original. I mean if you had the choice of a Phillips or an Ian Cheyne, what would you go for?

  2. (I hate to barge in like this, knowing that Baumann isn't among your favorites, but I simply couldn't not do it; even though the print in question isn't among *my* favorites. Also, I've never posted here, but am an avid reader, and I'd like to use this opportunity to thank you most heartily for your posts on Ethel Kirkpatrick - she is in my opinion one of the finest printmakers in the history of the medium and her obscurity is to me absolutely baffling. I try to show her work to any of my friends who might be interested, but not too many people are interested in old prints these days.

    Having written that, I realize how strange my comment may look - an all-out attack at first, followed by a hasty retreat and thanks on an unrelated topic. I'm sorry, I'm really terrible at writing, and seeing how many hours it took me to describe the prints, I can't see myself being able to soften the rewrite the entire text yet again. I am sincere in thanking you for Kirkpatrick posts and keeping the blog in general, and I'm sincerely sorry if said sincerity does not come across because of my poor choice of topic for a first comment in a favorite blog.)

  3. Well, it was fairly cheeky post and was meant to stimulate some discussion, and I was especially pleased it has started another reader commenting, and I hope you are now going to have your say from now on. Any blogger will tell you that readers responses (comments, sending in images, saying they are related to the artist, etc) are the life-blood of a blog and make it all worthwhile.

    The Ethel Kirkpatrick Society is not a real society at all, of course, but it sounds very much as if you are a member. It is only a way of saying that she has a special, one-off appeal. I was won over the very first time I saw one of her prints in the eighties and have been a big fan ever since.

    I was being a bit provocative about poor Baumann. He really did turn out some very attractive things and I can see why he has special appeal in the US.

    Anyway, it was very good to hear from such an avid reader and I'm pleased to know the blog seems fit for purpose. Many thanks.