Saturday 10 October 2015

The road to the isles: Norma Bassett Hall in the Highlands


Colour woodcut is more of an industry in Germany and the United States than it is here in Britain (where it remains in the shadow of the modish contrivances of the Grosvenor School). This even comes out on Modern Printmakers which now has fewer British readers than American and German ones. There have been a fair number of books published in the US, mainly about individual artists, including William Seltzer Rice, Walter Phillips, Edna Boies Hopkins and Arthur Wesley Dow. Alongside this there are learned articles by Nancy Green from Harvard. All to the good but lacking in any real knowledge of what was happening in Europe, surprising because a number of these Canadian and American artists became friends of British artists and Boies Hopkins even visited Britain before the first war. But what do American scholars know about that?

It is not the same kind of blank with Norma Bassett Hall. We have some details but they only make us want to know what really went off. Over at The Linosaurus, Gerrie Caspers made a reference to Rice's trip to Scotland. This was something I knew nothing about but it immediately struck me as significant. And you only have to compare Hall's A Highland Croft (above) and Rice's Cottage, Melrose, Scotland (below) to see why.
They all pinched ideas from one another as artists always do. As Alphonse Legros used to tell his students at the Slade, 'If you're going to rob anyone, rob the rich'. What strikes me about Hall is the way she assiduously made use of other artists and the way she went about it. She and her husband made a small book of linocuts together before she discovered Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing and began making colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner. But this was hardly novel and going all the way to Edinburgh to work with Mabel Royds seems an odd thing to do by itself. Admittedly, her husband Arthur William Hall also studied etching with Royd's husband E.S. Lumsden who had just published an important book on the technique. But I think it's the way the story has been told (and re-told) that has made it seem more important than it was. Who knows? Because we know so little about it all.
The Halls arrived in Glasgow in June, 1925, and went over to meet the Lumsdens in Edinburgh. Then in August, they went on a trip to Skye by way of Crianlarich. Apparently while on Skye they stayed for about a week at Portree and then over a number of years, Hall made four colour woodcuts of Highland scenes, including Portree Bay (top)  and A croft at Crianlarich (1929 - 1930). Unfortunately, I can't seem to find an image of A croft at Crianlarich and the one above is Cottage on Skye which she made as late as 1940. But it was Gerrie who discovered that Rice had made a woodcut called Aberfoyle, Scotland and, as it happens, Aberfoyle and Crianlarich are only about twenty miles or so from one another.

Hall was a magpie. You only need to look at the work Helen Stevenson was doing by the time Hall visited Scotland, especially The hen wife (1924) to see where some of Hall's ideas for A Highland Croft (1927-1928) came from. Not only that, there are some obvious similarities between Hall's print and Kenneth Broad's A Sussex Farm (1925) exhibited at Los Angeles in February, 1926. But her borrowing worked because  the colour woodcuts she made in the States based on the trip to Scotland are the best things she ever did, certainly a lot more lively than the woodcuts that drew their inspiration from trips to France. Hall was a rather repetitive and unoriginal artist as you can see from the basic sameness of the buildings and their similarities to the work of Rice (who had cabin-fever) but as an American she could ignore the British conception of things and made the Highlands look like a cross between the Rocky Mountains and Pont Aven. OK, it's easy enough for a European like myself to snigger but by comparison, Rice looks merely craftsmanlike. The question is, though, was he there as well?


  1. Very nice Charles, thanks. The search, the story and the studying continues. Wouldn't it be nice to trace and track down with the help of readers on both sides of the ocean combined that Rice Zinnias and Aberfoyle print and also to find out what mill (and why) Elisabeth Molyneaux (also misspelled Molyncaux in literature) depicted ?

    1. I wondered whether 'Zinnias and Aberfoyle' might be one print rather than one. Either way, it shouldn't be too difficult to track down. But it does surprise me there is no record of Rice visiting Scotland.

    2. You are right: it is one print, with this title. No doubt a picture and the answer and explanation about Rice' visit to Scotland will sooner or later come to us. I feel honored giving you food for thought.

  2. By and large American colour woodcut artists were more prolific than their British counterparts and you are quite right when you mention the downside to all that. The British also had watercolours to sell and I think they might have been surprised to see how much attention we now pay to their colour woodcuts.

    As for Scotland, as you well know, it is a difficult area to research. We also need to get things into perspective because it was not the Scots so much who discovered the Isles and Highlands as a tremendous subject for colour woodcut as William Giles who worked alongside Ada Shrimpton on Jura in 1922. But it was Arabella Rankin who made the best and most original contribution and she was in full spate by 1924 and given the choice between a Rankin at her best and a Rice or Bassett Hall, you would probably go for Rankin every time. This is not to rubbish the Americans, because we love their best work, but only to suggest some of them knew something was afoot in Britain. After all they had had the example of Platt taking the gold medal for 'The giant stride' at Los Angeles in 1922, hadn't they?

    Oh, and thank you for the appreciation.

  3. Well, congratulations on that one. You were always very assiduous in your collecting (as one has to be). I am envious. Her work is very hard to come by. Fortunately York Brunton's 'Owls' is sitting beside me wrapped in tissue as I write!