Friday 11 September 2015

The 1890s & experiment


In July, 1899, the London gallery of Goupil held an exhibition of work called Original etchings printed in colours by Theodore Roussel, a title that could hardly have prepared visitors for the nine sensational objects that made up the show. 'Original' was hardly the word for them. Chic, waywardly exquisite, outlandish, and of these terms might have served better but 'original' it was because from beginning to end, Roussel had made these unbelievable objects in his studio at Parson's Green.

Roussel was of course French. You had to be to make anything so weirdly devastating. And though I laugh, I have to say I have warmed to Roussel and what he was doing. Untrained, he was nevertheless a fine painter, who had been introduced to the art of etching by the American J.M. Whistler but by the nineties had come well and truly out of Whistler's shadow. Call it zeitgeist, call it originality, somewhere along the way Roussel had hit on the idea of mounting and framing small colour etchings showing vases of flowers and views of Chelsea in the most refine and unusual way. To be honest, I am vague about the techniques he used but they were complex and required numerous printings. Decadent they may seem ay first view but radical is hardly the word. But why?

Untill then, the proper home for a print was a portfolio or solander box and every single one of them would have been in black and white as Rembrandt's and Mantegna's had been and as Whistler's were. All right they were exceptions, notably Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts but intaglio prints were another matter. Beyond that by offering his prints for sale - ready mounted and framed would be an understatement - Roussel was exhibiting his conviction that they belonged ion the wall along with the oil paintings and what have you.
Here were two radical departures and yet there is a third aspect to all this that not even curators at the V&A with all their erudition will point out to you. These object were crafted. There were no editions, each one was unique, a very different approach to the one we take today in deciding upon the originality of prints. It was not unusual by then for artists to blur the differences between the fine arts and the production of a series of objects. One look at the enamel work of his contemporary, Alexander Fisher (above) should make that obvious. But no one had had the sheer temerity to approach a print in this way.

Interestingly enough, Fisher had had to go to Limoges to discover for himself the old ways of making fine enamel. Back in London he had gone into production and was making work like Glad tidings and Cinderella and the doves by 1898. By that point he had been teaching the art of enamelling for two years at the Central School of Arts and Crafts where at least one student was the printmaker, Ethel Kirkpatrick who would also have been taking Frank Morley Fletcher's class in colour woodcut by 1897. Unfortunately, despite trying, I have still been unable to track down a single image of Kirkpatrick's jewellery (and believe me I have been at it for years) so you must make do with work produced by Fisher's follower and assistant on the class, Nelson Dawson, who worked alongside his wife, Edith.

The Dawson's took the Morris approach to production, dividing up the tasks between themselves and their craftsman, with Nelson acting as designer and Edith head enameller. Boldly attractive and colourful, with none of the detachment of Roussel or the religious symbolism of Fisher. They were highly successful and their work much sought after for a number of years. They also make plain what they had in common with their contemporaries like William Giles (below).

Bear in mind that Giles was the son of a craftsman and describing himself and his fellow practitioners as an art worker rather than an artist. How Roussel saw himself is another matter. Nevertheless when a group of artists making colour prints in Britain had their first proper meeting (the true date has never really been ascertained but it by 1910) it was held at Roussel's house in Parsons Green and Roussel himself became the first president, a post he held until his death in 1926 when Giles took over. Looking back at it, it was an appointment that seemed hard to understand. By 1910 colour etching as a fine form in Britain had had its day. But Roussel was French and the kind of colour woodcuts that Seaby and Fletcher were making had already peaked and gone out of fashion in France. Meanwhile the Dawsons (bottom image) the Lee Hankeys and the Austen Browns all had studios in or near Etaples

Well before then Giles had taken his lead not so much from Fletcher as from Roussel, producing work like Midsummer night  that was as refined as anything Roussel had made and equally ignoring the rules in order to make something startlingly original. I have to admit I have moved about seven or eight years away from the nineties but it shows the extent to which it was Giles who tried to hold the course by making colour prints by the best means possible and not trying to divert the enterprise along the  more conventional Japanese course. I saw the face of one of those curators at the V&A when he had this print in front of him for the first time, astonished that anything so fine could have escaped his notice. Believe me, nothing prepares you for the sheer craftsman-like magnificence.

Placed in this kind of context, a print like John Dickson Batten's The centaur starts to make more sense, sense that becomes more interesting once one compares the work that John and Mary Batten later produced for St Martin, Kensal Rise in London and the triptych made by Fisher (above). Also bear in mind that Mary Batten was a carver and gilder like Giles' father and it all begins to make even more sense still.


Wednesday 9 September 2015

A Studio lithograph on ebay: John Dickson Batten's 'The tiger'


John Dickson Batten is having his day. Within only days of two postings about him (on Modern Printmakers and on The Linosaurus) here we have another Studio lithograph of one of his prints, this time his first original print called The tiger. I hasten to add that what you see above is an original proof owned by the British Museum and donated by Batten himself in 1920. Below is the lithograph that has just been passed over on British ebay. (It was up at the OK price of £3.50). But no doubt you can tell the difference.

First the story. Batten worked with Frank Morley Fletcher on two colour woodcuts then made this print in Fletcher's first class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts 1897/1898. I don't know whether Batten ever said in print why he allowed lithographs to made of his early prints. He did say that what he wanted to with colour woodcut was to avoid mechanical means of reproduction and I assume the reason behind The Studio publishing images of both Eve and the serpent and The tiger was to gain extra publicity for the whole colour woodcut project and not to pass them off as original prints. They are reproductions and nothing like the lithographs being produced by Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon at the time.

Would I buy one? No I would not. I did once buy a lithographic reproduction of a watercolour by Arthur Rigden Read on ebay and I treasure it because it is a fine example of the technique of lithography by Read's fellow students and adds a good deal to the little I knew about Read's early career but I paid only a few pounds for it. And it's what ebay can do well - allowing people to exercise their eye and to make use of what they know to pick up something interesting for a few quid. Going on about what some Studio lithograph might be worth takes the excitement out of everything.

Monday 7 September 2015

Charles Bartlett at the Academy Julian, Paris, 1887/1888


It might seem a bit odd to pick out Charles Bartlett from such an illustrious group of young artists at the Academy Julian in Paris but it continues a conversation between Darrel Karl at Eastern Impressions and myself about students who attended the Paris academies in the mid 1880s. Some of this has been by email, which doesn't draw in others. So here for the first time for me at least is the first photograph I have seen of a young British colour woodcut artist. (He was 27 or 28 at the time). He is un-missable on the left, with his arm stretched out above the easel.
I will just pick out four others. Paul Gaugin is right at the top and rather out of focus. The man with the delicate features and in a light waistcoat below Gaugin is Vincent van Gogh. To the back of him, with equally fine features and watch chain is Pierre Bonnard. Less well-known is the Scots artist, A.S. Hartrick, front centre with the handsome moustache and hand rested on the shoulder of his companion. (He was a friend both of Van Gogh and Frank Morley Fletcher who attended the academy soon afterwards.) Other British colour woodcut artists-to-be who attended were Ethel Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown who also became a neighbour of Bartlett's back in London - and long-term readers of the blog will know just how much I would like to find a photograph of either of them.

And before anyone thinks that the research is mine, the photograph and identification of the artists can be found on a Van Gogh post on the library blog at L'institut national d'histoire de l'art or INHA. I was hazy about how to get the link working, I'm afraid.

Sunday 6 September 2015

John Dickson Batten's 'Eve and the serpent', 1895


There has been some discussion over at The Linosaurus about John Dickson Batten's well-known colour woodcut, 'Eve and the serpent' and also the mechanical reproduction of it published by The Studio in February, 1896. This is the best documented of all British colour woodcuts with all the documentation available somewhere online and I have to say I think it is surprising that so many errors keep on resurfacing about this particular print. Both the British Museum and the Hunterian at Glasgow agree that the correct date is 1895, basically because that is what Batten said.

The image at the top is readily available online and shows the proof from the collection of the Hunterian and is annotated by Batten as number 42. Obviously quite a few were printed, all of them, it would appear, by Frank Morley Fletcher - certainly this one was. Batten said that after a period of experimentation Fletcher found that using Japanese technique provided the most satisfactory results. Even so, the Hunterian point out that one of the six blocks was made of metal. This was the same approach adopted by George Baxter earlier in the C19th. It was not until Batten and Fletcher made a second print together that Fletcher adopted a pure Japanese manner and with the keyblock closer to ukiyo-e prints rather than the Kelmscott Press type of woodcut.

Japanese method or no, Batten's models for the print were purely British. Compare The Forest, the very subtle tapestry designed by William Morris, Phillip Webb and John Henry Dearle in 1887. By 1895, the year that Batten and Fletcher worked on 'Eve', Dearle was chief designer at Morris and Co was responsible for a lot of the foliage and flowers in the background of tapestry and stained glass designed by Edward Burne Jones, another obvious model. It is less obvious perhaps, but what also attracted Batten was the co-operative manner of work at Morris and Co. He was not the type of man to roll up his sleeves and have a go like Morris who tried everything from vegetable dying to glass-blowing and it was not until Fletcher began taking a class in woodcut at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1897 that Batten learned how to make a colour woodcut but he was keen to work with others when developing new methods of work.

It has been noted that his second oil painting, The Garden of Adonis - Amoretta and Time (1887) used a series of glazes laid over pure colour in true Pre-Raphaelite fashion. What he wanted to achieve with woodcut was perhaps similar, some way to print in opaque colour without using the mechanical means employed by people like Baxter. This is exactly why not too much value should be placed on The Studio image. It was there to draw attention to the making of a colour woodcut that Batten had been reporting on for some months before he and Fletcher had any idea  they could make the project work. Again it was an open-ended and co-operative effort and quite remarkable for that and the beginning of what Fletcher went on to call 'the movement'.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Kenneth Broad's 'A Sussex Farm' revisited


To my surprise the American seller of this woodcut did the sensible thing and re-posted it on a proper auction basis. It currently stands at just under £100 with less than four days to run but it won't stay there. That said it will be interesting to see what does happen. It may have blemishes but this is Broad at his best. The colours are especially fresh and vibrant, the image beautiful.
By way of added interest I am also posting his masterpiece, 'New Fair, Mitcham' which I believe was also completed in the autumn of 1925 and acts as a companion piece. Both subjects are summer-time scenes but astonishingly Broad chose to depict the fair in red and grey. Almost as surprisingly Broad failed to enter the print for the California Printmakers Exhibition in February, 1926, and entered a 'A Sussex Farm' instead. I think he may well have stood a chance of winning even against Rigden Read's very fine 'Carcassonne'. But then Read thought 'Carcassonne was the weaker of the two prints that he had accepted so it shows that neither artist was a good judge of their own work.