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.