Saturday 17 October 2015

Edinburgh School

The one thing I did not want to do in the last post was to give the wrong impression about Mabel Royds herself. I suspect the reason she was willing to help Norman Bassett Hall was because she had always learned from other artists throughout her own working life. But then there are so many misconceptions about Royds, it is hard to know where to begin. But one person that was right about her was Malcolm Salaman when he described her work as synthetic. It was not only a matter of how much she assimilated from other artist, there was also something premeditated about her use of colour.

The Indian notebooks are also misleading. It has also struck me as odd that notebooks that were sometimes ten or more years old could provide the basis for new work. But you only need to compare Elizabeth York Brunton's colour woodcut 'The pergola' from 1922 and Royd's 'The musicians' from 1927 to see how far Royds could synthesise her drawings made in India and work made by her contemporaries after she had returned.

Royds and her husband had moved back to Edinburgh in 1919 while York Brunton had been born there and had trained at Edinburgh College of Art amongst other places (but almost certainly before it became a college under Frank Morley Fletcher in 1907). Like Royds (who was six years older) she had also trained in Paris and had spent time working there. She was a sculptor-printmaker like Eric Gill and to a lesser extent Robert Gibbings. She had a strong interest in structure, texture and light. Her prints are far from technically perfect and often have a scrappy look to them but they were also spontaneous and exploratory and again I suspect this was what attracted Royds who after all was quite a literary and cerebral artist. But then York Brunton was no slouch herself when it came to lifting ideas from others. Take a look at William Giles' 'At eventide, Rothenburg am Tauber' from about 1905.

Giles had a wayward originality and commitment to his trade that was beyond the reach of many artists and York Brunton's inclusion of his outlandish orange rooftops in her own print shows exactly the kind of example he had set for artists who were making colour prints. His work is seminal, it is as simple as that. I had always assumed that York Brunton had used a French subject for her print. Looking at the all together for the first time, I can't really avoid the coming to the conclusion that her woodcut shows Rothenburg as well! She did work in Germany as well, after all. What is fascinating is the way the combination of deviant purple and warm sand was first transferred by York Brunton into her own woodcut then taken up by Royds along with Brunton's use of shadow.

All this strikes me as productive and not at all inbred. All three prints have something different to offer us. York Brunton's may be the weakest but it also has the kind of nonchalance and vigour we have come to expect from good modern prints. Royds' woodcut was masterly in a more obvious way. The use of western conventions - the sense of light and space and the study of the human figure - are plainly obvious. Less apparent is the subtle use of double framing to enhance the intimacy of the scene and her constant sense of crowded space was perhaps never bettered than it was here. Giles' print is of course superb printmaking. No British artist, before or since, did it quite like him. Beyond that, the imagination was at work. It's those quirky white railings that give away how fascinated he was by what he saw but the way he re-imagined those things. If Royds synthesised then as someone once said about Giles, he transposes his feelings.



  1. Thanks, Clive. And I think what you say about York Brunton's prints being given away as gifts must be right.

    I also agree about Royds being contrived. The Indian figures studies are the worst for this but she did make some wonderfully natural prints at that time (like her ducks) before she let loose on the flowers which of course everyone quite rightly loves.

    Having done some more mugging up since I posted this, I am fairly certain that the York Brunton print shows Rothenburg. There are vineyards around the town and Carl Thiemann who exhibited with EYB and Giles in London in the twenties also worked in Rothenburg between about 1912 to 1918. There is on obvious visual conversation taking place between Thiemann and Giles and Hans Frank with the bird prints before the war but it's finding the damned evidence!

  2. I agree with you about York Brunton and her prints but she was exhibiting them for sale as well just as Kirkpatrick did. Her owl print came up on British ebay about 18 months ago (and slipped through the net) and it was unsigned as I suspect they all were. It was definitely not meant for exhibition.

    Yes, contrived is the word for Royds and is specially true of the Indian period although at the time she also made some very natural-looking prints like 'Ducks' which I like a lot more. But she was never Seaby, no! Giles had an interesting phrase for her, that she knew her own mind (words to the that effect, anyway) and I think she must have realised she lacked spontaneity, hence the celebrated late prints.

    I have done some mugging up and am fairly sure the town in the background of the York Brunton is Rothenburg. The town is surrounded by vineyards and the pergola obviously has a vine. Thiemann also worked there between 1912 and 1918 at least and of course exhibited alongside EYB and Giles in London in the twenties. Giles must have known Hans Frank and Thiemann personally because they were invited to exhibit with the Graver Printers. There was also a visual conversation going on between the three of them before the war, or so it seems to me. But finding the evidence is the problem!

  3. Well, thanks for the additional if inconvenient information there, Clive! So, what we do know now is that there wer two editions of 'Owls', one unsigned... shame, really.