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.


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