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'.


  1. I find it interesting that one of the six blocks used was metal. At some point, even the Japanese would use a combination of metal and wood blocks on occasion, though I'm not sure that they did so this early. The great shin hanga landscape artist Hiroshi Yoshida, for example, used zinc plates to print the more intricately detailed portions of over 50 of his prints. There is also speculation that the publisher Doi used a metal plate to print the keyblock outline of Noël Nouët's prints. But these examples would have been 30 or more years after Batten.

  2. I assume Fletcher was using a technique similar to the Baxter method, patented in Britain in the 1830s. Once he had a copy of the Tokuno pamphlet from the Smithsonian they made rapid progress but like Hiroshi Yoshida I suppose they used a metal plate for the keyblock. It's interesting that Japanese block-makers at the time also engraved on box like Europeans.

  3. The unanswered question is when did the Japanese begin to use wood in combination with metal? I'm rather sure that they tried all metal plate printing at some point during the Meiji period in reproducing images or magazines or newspapers, though I've never really studied their use of that technology. But as far as art prints are concerned, Yoshida didn't start experimenting using metal plates in combination with wood blocks until the late 1920s, and I don't believe that he used a metal plate to print the keyblock outline in more than a handful of times beginning in the 1930s. Almost all of Noël Nouët's prints were made in the 1935-1936 time period. That still leaves several decades between their work and Batten's.