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.