Tuesday 18 August 2015

John Dickson Batten and the hobyahs

Alphonse Legros used to tell his students at the Slade School in London that if they were going to rob anyone they should rob the rich. John Dixon Batten took him at his word when he came to draw his hobyahs for More English Fairy Tales.

Striking, really, that he should turn to Hokusai when he was need of protean figures. Hokusai had both humour and creativity in abundance. Striking, too, just how much Batten put his own mark on his hobyahs. An admirer of Japanese art, he had no real use for Japanese aesthetics and believed Western artists had to adapt what they had learned from it.

Not surprising if you consider how far his professor at the Slade was steeped in the Western tradition, the kind of man whose idea of what to do on a trip to Italy was copying frescoes by Raphael in the Vatican. You can how much he learned from the Old Masters in the drawing a Greek man.

But then if you compare the line of the man's back and the line of the hobyah's back, you can see how much Batten learned from Legros and how much both Legros and Batten had behind them and in the end the training he received was to well-grounded for an artist as good as Batten to dress his work up with bits and pieces of ukiyo-e.



Monday 17 August 2015

On ebay: Helen Stevenson 'Moonrise'


I wonder how it is that a dealer on US ebay can have the outlandish nerve to ask much as $1,450 for the Scottish artist Helen Stevenson's colour woodcut Moonrise and put up a photograph so cheap, so tawdry you can gain no idea of the print's real worth but there you are. I just feel sorry for the artist. You pick up the excited tone from the little note attached to the sale, a note I won't reproduce although I was tempted by the utter daftness.You would think that someone had at least been off to the British Museum or British Library but no, they have idly swiped their information from the Annex Galleries' website (where another print by Stevenson has languished for quite a number of years now simply because it is far too expensive).

I hate to disappoint people who intend to make so much money but there is no evidence that Frank Morley Fletcher (or anyone else) taught Stevenson to make colour woodcut. Fletcher was principal of Edinburgh College of Art when Stevenson was a student there but no one has any idea whether colour woodcut was even on the course. Both Clive Christie (from the much-missed Art and the Aesthete blog and who put me on to this sale) and myself put a lot of effort into researching Stevenson but without much reward and, as I said, in the recent post on Jessie Garrow who studied at Glasgow School of Art at the same time, she and her husband taught themselves. All we can say is that Fletcher gathered staff round him - essentially Mabel Royds and John Platt - who made great use of the keyblock as he did and Stevenson did much the same.

That said this looks like Stevenson at her most seductive, transparently atmospheric but firming everything up with her signature use of black. I know from work I own just how effective this can be when combined with Stevenson's wonderful way of applying the ink. I think you can just make this out on the hillsides. She was sometimes careful to restrict the colours she used and make the best of her grey-greens but Moonrise appears to be unusual even by Stevenson standards. In the foreground and on the cottage you can also make out the type of patchwork she used on The hen wife. Working around a particular time of the day and its light was admittedly in favour with Fletcher and some of his early students like Allen Seaby and William Giles although Giles couldn't put up with Fletcher's dogmatism about method.

This print dates from 1928 or just before. She exhibited with the Graver-Printers in London but all her subjects were Scottish and she must have sold consistently through galleries in Edinburgh because many pictures retain old gallery labels. My own proof of Goatfell is in Wales so I can't say offhand which gallery sold that but Stevenson's work isn't rare in the UK as colour woodcuts go. She made a lot more prints than Fletcher who is sought after partly because of the cachet and partly because of the scarcity. But who wants Fletcher? Only people with collectoritis. It's Stevenson at a fair price for me. And I can wait. I'm used to it with her.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Arthur Rigden Read: an education in himself


It was 1923 and Arthur Rigden Read was on a roll. He had only begun making colour woodcuts the year previously at the age of forty-four but already had already followed up John Platt's re-launch of British colour print with some distinctive and original portraits of his own. The sweep may well be an acquired taste today and admittedly it took me some time to come round to it but once you have the key, it has all sorts of interesting aspects.

For instance, you only have to take a look at one of Utagawa Kunisada's portraits of the kabuki actor, Ichikawa Danjuro  to see what I mean. Not only had Read appropriated the mop of hair (and wag that he was translated it into a brush) both the dark colours and exaggerated expression have some of their source in the work of the masterly Kunisada. This is all a roundabout way of giving an example of what I meant when I mentioned Read's interest in 'shape' in one of the comment boxes. Not that shape was all there was to it; throughout his work, Read had a surprising gift for expressing texture.

The lady in black has it all: rough old coat, silky feather, weather-beaten face. No-one except Allen Seaby had ever made such an effort with description. Nor had anyone moved obviously beyond the usual Japanese models of Hiroshige and Hokusai. Read had no real training as an artist. He was a mediocre water-colourist at best with all the amateur's talent for pernickety detail but no one took the dictum that colour woodcut provided excellent training for the student more to heart than Read and no one benefitted more from it. It made him selective and showed him how to emphasise the telling detail. He learned how to liven up a silhouette against unprinted paper from Kunisada but his application was both unique and entertaining. Imagine the reaction of his contemporaries at the Society of Graver-Printers in Colour and the curators at the British Museum seeing the outlandishness of Kunisada transformed without the least hint of looking Japanese. This was where his originality lay - he didn't show off his knowledge or misapply Japanese aesthetics. No, at forty-four he was wise enough to absorb their lessons as William Nicholson (below) had done before him.

OK, Nicolson's Die Alte Frau (1897) has dramatic genius and the kind of detachment that all good art has. Read was much less sure and when it came to a serious attempt to come out on top, it all could go disastrously wrong. Trying to use Leonardo's The last supper as a model for a French country market scene he called Market in Languedoc was, as ideas go, pretty inappropriate. The mismatch is just too great and add to that awfulness of genre and - well, I will say no more but only show the wonderful details at the feet of tradesmen and their customers. Fascinated by both basketry and poultry, I have no doubt the birds for sale in France would have been quite irresistible to Read. Imagine him sketching the turkeys, guinea fowl, pigeons and ducks and the array of baskets. It's a little encyclopedia of wickerwork and yet not naïve.

There was a lyrical talent at work in Read, a talent no more obvious than in his blithe May morning (1924). The bird-cage almost certainly made by the Romany people he so much admired suggests how essentially modest Read was, able to include not only his own fixations but the work of others, including the embroidery basket of his wife, Kathleen. In the end, I am not writing here about a set of influences, its a list of compliments that Read was paying. It was said at the time that his success was almost inspite of himself, malgre lui in fact the phrase was. He has the elegance and objectivity of the French temperament and French art. Ingres he may not be but very likeable and independent-minded he is.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Away for the weekend with S.G. Boxsius


Even though I have been writing about him for a number of years now, it was not until I bought my house in Wales this summer that I began to realise what an individual take S.G. Boxsius had on the British landscape. I will be the first to admit that A Devon village (below) could easily fit into the generic view of the countryside made famous by the flat but fetching dust-jacket designs of Brian Cook. But then Cook's work is more likely to be a simplified version of the more subtle work you see here.

 Boxsius was a Londoner who infrequently depicted the city he grew up in. London from the roof  and Kew Bridge are exceptions. But even with Kew Bridge the sense of an outing to Kew isn't far away and what he sometimes did (especially when he visited the West Country) was present postcard views. Nothing exactly wrong with that but the places he visited were shown exactly as an informed visitor would see them. Every time I pass through Criccieth on Cardigan Bay on the train and see the ruined castle above the town, I am reminded of Corfe Castle. It's the neat build-up of buildings that does it, medieval overlaid with Georgian and Victorian and all put together with a stylish, intimate and crisp sense of perspective. They are so well-behaved and good-natured, we hardly notice the way Boxsius carefully takes us in and out of the shadows of a place or by how much these weekend-away views have the art master's visits to the National Gallery behind them.
I have pointed out before that his exquisite Seaside used Georges Seurat's Bathers, Asnieres (acquired by the Gallery in 1926) as a model. I suppose what I am saying is that London isn't as far away as you might think. Many of his prints are architectural compositions and even when he depicted trees, as in the dashing linocut, Twilight, Winchelsea. At the time, Winchelsea was the home of Arthur and Kathleen Rigden Read and I assume that Sylvan and Daisy Boxsius were sometimes visitors because the town appears at least three times in his work but I think Boxsius must also have known the white fencing and orange rooftops from William Giles view of Rothenburg am Tauber made twenty years earlier. Even when he is at his most lyrical, bookishness is not so very far away and modern girls occupy their time with reading. If his holiday prints can look occasional as much as the pure colours, their literary feel makes them something more telling. You just have to try and work out or guess what he had been looking at but look he certainly did.


Time and again as the trains runs from Machynlleth through Barmouth and Harlech and on to Criccieth and Pwllheli, you see not only the neat towns but the same delicate views that Boxsius uncovered for himself. I don't think anyone, not even much better artists, were capable of the meticulous sense of distance that he had, the way the light picks out a skein of fields and woods and brings them closer. Ironically it appears composed and artificial. What my frequent journey along Cardigan Bay has shown me is how far Boxsius chose his subjects and revealed himself. Unfortunately, it's where he is at his palest and most subtle and generally beyond what a monitor screen can reproduce all that well. The view across the estuary in Autumn is one classic example that I know but the distant view of the town in Old Whitby gives a good idea of what I mean. In Boxsius the foreground is often nothing more than a prelude to what is a long way off and less obtainable, it's the classic view of the batsman to the boundary.

Saturday 1 August 2015

On ebay: Kenneth Broad 'A Sussex Farm'


Also on e-bay but this time in the United States, a very fine but imperfect impression of Kenneth Broad's quite lovely 1925 colour woodcut, A Sussex Farm. Straightforward as it is, it was also one of the most direct and atmospheric of all British colour woodcut landscapes. As the only image of this print available online was a rather poor one, I thought it was well worth posting this image simply so that people could see what Broad could achieve when he was doing his best work in colour woodcut. Unusually for e-bay, the photograph does do this woodcut justice. The colours are a touch higher than the one I own so this may be a very fresh impression. Unfortunately there is some loss of ink top left and paper is missing on the reverse where the print was glued down.

None of this has deterred the seller and it goes up at $750, a price I don't think I would pay even if it were perfect. Even so, I include a close-up of the title to show just how expressive Broad's printing had become at this stage when he was at his most prolific and original. Like Ethel Kirkpatrick before him, the unique expressiveness of the tone was in part achieved by underprinting. Exhibited at the California Printmaker's International Exhibition at Los Angeles in 1926, the year Arthur Rigden Read took the gold medal with his tour-de-force Carcassonne, presumably this was one of the impressions Broad sold in the US at the time. Unlike Read, though, Broad's career failed to take off and many of his later prints are rare.