Friday 31 October 2014

James Ravilious: hunters in the snow

When Seamus Heaney was about to describe his potato seed-cutters, he invoked Breughel, saying, 'You'll know them if I can get them true'. I lived in Devon at the time James Ravilious took these photographs of north Devon farmers working with their sheep and dogs during a blizzard. I remember my own road being full of snow and I think Ravilious got his farmers true.

Ravilious is one of those artists who start people off talking about Englishness as though he were expressing some peculiar quality about us. What I like about these photographs is the way he could put all that behind him while he was working alongside these men. The harsh conditions provided him with the best opportunity he had to show that he could do more than just show how people lived in rural England.


The snow provided large areas of white but alongside them he has a tremendous range of tones. It's one of those paradoxical things about monochrome - in the right hands, it can be used to get the feel of things of themselves. In the 1920s Arthur Rigden Read was masterly in the way he got the sense of silk or sacking or feathers by using what was more or less black-and-white. Being a photographer Ravilious could work directly with the light to render those extraordinary armfuls of hay. These photographs are not about who we are, they are about what we are.

The Beaford Archive hold all the negatives for the photographs taken between 1972 and 1989 and all of them can be viewed online. All I have done here is to look at one aspect of his work, but I think there is something profound about the ones here. His father, Eric, never achieved anything like this. James found a way of retrieving something, much the way his farmers did.

The photographs are a record of events and of a way of life and he never lost touch with very ordinary things, but some of these also go well beyond that. You can see the sense of rhythm he achieved (especially in the photograph above) and the way he could build on it, and sometimes get somewhere very unusual. There are political borders and real borders, often within countries themselves. Modern life doesn't recognise such things by and large but Devon is a borderland and I think Ravilious picked that up.

Thursday 30 October 2014

James Ravilious, Paul Leschhorn & snow

The next two posts will be about the British photographer, James Ravilious, who did the work he is best known for in north Devon and the Franco-German printmaker, Paul Leschhorn, who often depicted the Vosges Mountains in France under a heavy cover of snow.
Ravilious didn't have the great interest in snowy mountains and forests that Leschhorn had but I think he did some of his most compelling work when showing the winter conditions that Devon farmers worked in when looking after their sheep. But really what these two posts are about is this: black and white, even for artists who work in colour, is a sort of weather for them, basic and unavoidable.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Eric Slater's ebay


Following the recent  sale of Eric Slater's well-known  The coastguard station (below) for £720, we now have A Sussex Mill (above) with a starting-bid of £250 from the same seller. Time was (and it was not so long ago) Slaters sold for £250. Not any more. Readers with an interest in Slater will have noticed that some prints have fetched a lot more - if I remember rightly one went not so long ago for around £1200.

The print on offer varies quite a lot from the version in James Trollope's book, Slater's Sussex. Generally, I think it's livelier and presumably Slater felt the same way about it. The blues are brighter and there is more green so the contrasts are greater but that only increases the colour-by-numbers effect that Slater undoubtedly has. They have period charm, yes. Are they worth £750? Most certainly not. Why are people prepared to pay so much? I really have no idea.

The prints certainly appear to be in good condition and how many are left to come out on the market is anybody's guess. The woodcuts with an edition given in the book are in 50s and so it surprises me they keep on turning up. I also wonder what will happen if something rare is being held back in reserve because I am quite certain that a market is being created here for those who seem willing to pay.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Edna Boies Hopkins


I never appreciated just how good Edna Boies Hopkins was until the postman handed over a book about her this morning. It says a lot about the kind of images we see online to start with and the way they don't always do an artist' work justice. An exception would be the old post on 'Japonisme' but in Dominique Vasseur's book, print after print holds its own, and it was worth every penny, nickel and cent.

She is one of the few artists I find hard to decide which images to choose (when I have a choice). She was not just prolific, she was consistent. I may not like everything she did quite as much but nothing gets the thumbs down, which is saying quite a lot.


But here is what they call a personal selection. It's heavy on the famous flower prints but those are the ones I like most. From the more obvious Japanese imbued ones of her early years to the art deco images of the twenties, I think they are all like her, terrific.


Less was obviously more with Hopkins. What she was doing was essentially simple but done with great style and imagination. She was one of the generation of American artists who spent a lot of time in Paris as well as training with Arthur Wesley Dow and in Japan and it's that wealth of backgrounds that show up so well in all the prints here. She is full of nuance, like a spring day.


She spent ten years in Paris between 1904 and 1914 then with war looking imminent, he got a job teaching in Cincinnati and they moved back home. But Cincinatti didn't hold her and independent woman that she was, she taught in New York and set up with printmakers like Blanche Lazell in Provincetown and from 1915 began to use what's been called the white-line method.


I'm not going to go into details, partly because it doesn't appeal to me so much and partly because I just think it gave many of the prints a fake modernity and for Boies Hopkins something was lost in the mix. B.J.O. Nordfeldt was one of the artists to take this method to its logical extreme but I'm not convinced by a lot of his work anyway. But Boies Hopkins is another matter.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Hans Neumann's 'Neuschnee'


I've heard today from a reader in Germany who recently bought a proof of Hans Neumann's woodcut Neuschnee. It differs quite a lot from the one I used to illustrate the recent post on Neumann's work. To start with, unlike my own, it is signed (but then mine has a strange fine scratch on it). More importantly, it is inscribed sonderdruck. I think this means it is from a fine edition and was printed using a water-based medium rather than printer's ink. As you can see, the tone is different and my reader says the blue is stronger than in the photograph he sent.

You will also notice that the paper is wrinkled (below) where the block was printed and that it is cockled at the top. Generally, this suggests a woodcut has been printed on japan although I have seen nothing more of my reader's print than you have. Mine is on a stiffer, laid paper which is pale beige. I also need to say the second image does have a keyblock border but it was missed off the image I found. You will also see that in close-up the finer image is stippled while the brown image is not. I would certainly think the change of colour is intentional. It makes the difference between the two images obvious and would possibly encourage collectors to buy both. I know that given the chance, I would.

Many thanks to Markus in Germany for sending in the image. I suspected there was something odd about this print and know we all know.


Tuesday 14 October 2014

Allen W Seaby, Art and Nature: Martin Andrews & Robert Gillmor

Anyone who sets out to produce a small book about the British artist, author and educationalist, Allen Seaby, will be faced with a large predicament: what to make of it all, the bird illustrations, the pony stories, the colour woodcuts, the art history, the ornithology, the animal carvings? He died in 1953 but was essentially a late Victorian, erudite, thorough, encyclopaedic and are any of us a match for that?
Martin Andrews and Robert Gillmor have sensibly shared the task. This was the option taken for recent books about Lucien Pissarro (2011) and Walter Phillips (2013). The specialist can deal with history and technique while a descendant of the artist can write a memoir and appreciation, as happened with Phillips. In Robert Gillmor, Seaby is fortunate enough to have a grandson who is also a distinguished linocut artist and writer and who has already given talks about the life and work of his grandfather. The task of writing about British colour woodcut given to Martin Andrews was in many ways far more complex. The history of the subject, and the part that Seaby played in it, has not so far been written and nor, as it turns out, was this the occasion to do so.

There is a good deal to admire here. The first part of the book takes the scrap-book approach, giving a strong flavour of the varied life that Seaby led and the final section takes an all-round approach to Seaby's work as an artist. To readers of this blog, much of this will be new. Illustrations from his sketch-books are very rewarding. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of them and fewer of the later work on linen. The watercolour sketches takes us back to the days of John Ruskin, William Holman Hunt and Edward Lear, with Seaby himself achieving the balance of description and form his work is noted for. Unfortunately, the key document that shows just how he developed his approach is missing from the book. It is certainly all helped by the high standard of reproduction and the scanned images you see here are unworthy of the book but the best I could do.

This is not a book about Seaby's colour prints and producing a scholarly catalogue, useful as it would be, would have been a long and very difficult task. High standards have recently set by James Trollope for Eric Slater (2012), Timothy Dickson for Leonard Beaumont (2013) and most remarkably Robert Meyrick for Sydney Lee (2013). Seaby produced more prints than any of them, around 100 full-size colour woodcuts over his long career, many without titles, and none that I can think of with dates. Yet a check-list for many of his woodcuts, with titles and dates, has been in existence for many years (and I have a copy) and what mars this book are the mistakes with both dates and titles that could have been avoided. Unaccountably, the authors also give descriptive ie invented titles without placing them in brackets to make clear the titles are unknown. So, Twins (1936) becomes 'Goats and kids' early 1930s, Tutankhamen's burial place (1925)  becomes 'Valley of the Kings' Egypt, early 1920s, Rotherfield Mill, Sussex (1935) is relocated to Brill in Oxfordshire during the 1940s, and what must be Black, white and grey (1936), showing a hutchful of rabbits, becomes the delightful 'Happy family'!

I could go on but should now deal with the tricky topic of early colour woodcut in Britain. No one should approach this minefield without considerable preparation and absolute caution. Robert Meyrick did a concise and informed job as part of his essay on Sydney Lee (and there was perhaps only one mistake) and James Trollope, not being a specialist, wisely left his remarks about colour woodcut to the final section. What made Martin Andrews attempt the write a five page summary of  'The colour woodcut movement' and where did the material come from? There are no notes, and I wonder how any of this will strike readers new to the subject. 'Artist and teacher' and 'The colour woodcut movement' are riddled with errors and what I can only take to be assumptions.

It would be easy (and unkind) to go through everything, but I was bemused to learn for instance that John Dickson Batten was studying at Reading School of Art  in 1876 (and perhaps he was) when he was still at Amersham Hall School, but then the notes are lacking. But the worst is reserved for Walter Crane who is made to give up an important post as principal of the Royal College of Art to take up a part-time position as director of an art department at a provincial extension college of Christchurch, Oxford. Crane left Reading for the Royal College when it was set up in 1898 and, frankly, it would have been sensible to have left Reading and the Royal College well alone. Suffice to say, more research was needed, or a lighter touch. It wouldn't have broken the bank if the history had been left to another day. Or to someone else.

Allen W Seaby, art and nature is published by Two Rivers Press at £12.99 and is available directly from them.


Saturday 4 October 2014

Hans Neumann & Otto's legacy


The Otto of the title is Otto Eckmann, the German painter who sold off all his paintings in 1894 and worked solely as an applied artist after that. It was a radical move true to a radical era. By the following year he was contributing graphic work to the brand-new Berlin periodical Pan. (The first edition had an advert for Samuel Bing's L'Art Nouveau exhibition in Paris.) He then began working for the Munich periodical Jugend when that opened in 1896.

Neumann was the son of the artist and teacher, Emil Neumann, and while his brother, Ernst, had gone down to Munich to study at the Academy, Hans had remained in Berlin to study under his father. It was by way of Ernest that he came to know Eckmann. Although Pan had used both etching and lithography as well as some colour woodcut to illustrate the magazine, Eckmann encouraged both brothers to make use of woodcut. 'Concentrate on woodcuts,' he told Hans in 1901. 'The woodcut technique... is forcing you to concentrate on the essentials.' (Die Technik des Holzschnittes zwingt Dich unweigerlich dazu, Deinen stilistischen Ausdruck auf das Wesentlichste zu konzentrieren.)  It was good advice. Eckmann could see that Neumann was simplifying the technique in a modern radical way. Eckmann took a broad approach but made heavier use of Japanese art, including the keyblock used by the ukiyo-e printmakers. From the start, Neumann used the keyblock with caution and very often not at all, as you can see from his borzoi.

But perhaps there was also more to Neumann's Wesentlichste than only woodcut. I think there was a greater crossover between modern creative lithography, with its use of texture and bold shape, and innovation in modern woodcut. At least one of Neumann's early prints is described as a litho-woodcut (and I'm not sure what that means) while Sonnenschein  is as casual as a photograph. Neumann was looking beyond Japanese colour woodcut at other techniques being used around him. What was attractive about woodcut was the simple fact that he could print them himself and did not have to rely on a printer or his press. It helps explain his early use of that commonplace of German printmaking, hand druck. It is the dullness of the red and the stippled printing of the second borzoi that gives the game away. It may be as abrupt and selective as a Japanese print but it is modern in a way that almost no woodcuts using the Japanese method ever are.

Neumann was not a purist; unlike Carl Thiemann, there is never any great sense of the medium being used and when he does occasionally go in for conventional cutting, as he did in Canale Grande, it looks like a Thiemann. A later print like Neuschnee is unmistakeably a woodcut but I wouldn't say it was altogether typical. Also, unlike a lot of the prints he made, Neumann didn't make use of a watercolour medium to print with. He obtained the greater clarity you see here by using printer's ink. (I know that because I am fortunate enough to own this print).
So, did Eckmann really have a legacy as Neumann said he did, what he called Ottos Vermaechtnis. Well, if you look at the way Neumann handles the meandering shapes made by the larger pine trees or compare Eckmann's crab from Jugend with Neumann's Rabe im Landeanflug, I think the answer is, yes, he did. The point is Eckmann died from tuberculosis the year after he gave his fellow-artist the advice, so it perhaps gave the remarks greater valedictory force.

What we also have to remember is just how early some of these images are compared to many modern colour woodcuts and yet they appear contemporary with artists like Thiemann or Hans Frank who in fact were working later. The real legacy lies here; there was a decisiveness about Eckmann, he was ill but got on with things, and he gave Neumann a simplified, directional force that comes across the first time you see his work. I was lucky to see some of his best prints first, prints which are still not available online (and I have tried scanning them but it weakens them and it would be wrong to do Neumann such an injustice).

I could say more (and probably will). It can take hours to uncover new images hidden in little corners of the net. Nor do I think the scope of the images that are easily available online always do Neumann the justice he deserves. The delicacy he achieved, especially in his later work, is not always something a pc monitor screen is good at. Beyond that, his sense of scale is also missing. Nothing beats seeing the print in front of you, particularly with an artist like Neumann who relies so much on tone, and Eckmann's advice to you would be, 'Buy them when you can.'