Saturday, 27 February 2016

Walter Phillips 'Winter woodcuts'

Walter Phillips was one of those in between artists who it takes some while to discover the kind of art that suits them. He has been claimed by the Canadians as one of their own, reasonably enough because he produced the work he is known for while in Canada (and the National Gallery were buying his woodcuts within only a few years of them being made). But I am not sure Canada does him much justice by this claim. His father came from a Welsh nonconformist background and in common with all Methodist ministers he went from place to place as a preacher in the manner of John Wesley (and as Christ had done before John Wesley) so the artist had a portable childhood and I am sorry to have to tell the National Gallery of Canada this but Phillips, in common with so many other artists, came from nowhere and what you see here are his pictures of nowhere.

He did receive some art training on the way and, once he finally settled for a time at school in Worcestershire, he was sent for a number of afternoons a week to Birmingham School of Art. Five years in South Africa followed, not the obvious place to go as a would-be artist, and when he returned to Britain without having made enough money to go on with his training at one of the ateliers in Paris, he settled down to life as a teacher of art in Salisbury and then got married. Canada came next but only for a while. After ten years in the country, he was back with his wife and children in England and, according to Phillips, it was only because the children missed Canada that the Phillips went back to Winnipeg. For Winnipeg it was he came from.

But in between something had happened. Phillips had gone through a process of self-creation of a kind that isn't uncommon. What is more unusual is the way Phillips provided us with the documents describing what happened although what he said has to be handled with caution and, in the end, the true facts about those troublesome years of self-discovery in Canada are hard to make out because the more concise Phillips is about his predicament, the more confusing it becomes. Just like Canada, Phillips makes claims that always leaves me feeling dubious.

He presented himself as a woodcut pioneer and I suppose in some ways what he said was true. There wasn't much in the way of woodcut in Canada at the time but claiming he had never seen any work by any of the Japanese landscape masters when he began to make woodcuts, takes some believing. He disliked etching, we know that; his fastidiousness comes across loud and clear when he describes the smell and mess of the process but how he stumbled on woodblock is impossible to make out. Again he claimed that he remembered a helpful article written by Allen Seaby but unfortunately that particular article came out three years after he began his own exploration of woodcut and it would have been very little use when it came to making woodcuts properly. He talked about trying different kinds of paper and emphasised his resourcefulness by saying he once tried printing on lavatory paper before he tried a piece of old hosho paper he had lying around. Yet how did that paper get there?

But what he made was different and unlike any of the colour prints being made in England around about 1916. He is most like Seaby (and Seaby admired what Phillips was doing) but Seaby kept to subject and in the end he is much more like the rather abstract German artist Paul Leschhorn or the designer-artists of Vienna. What Phillips did discover for himself was a sense of space in Canada. Ironically, his winter woodcuts are very small and as soon as I saw one for the first time in front of me, (it was The lily, the one at the top of the post), that was what I liked. Phillips wasn't trying quite so hard and it came across as natural - notes, in fact, from a small island.

Winter woodcuts came out as a portfolio of prints in 1936. He had already produced three other portfolios. It was one way of recycling work. Snow bank (second from the top) had been sent out as a Christmas card in 1923, with Phillips making a note that an edition of 100 had been made, while The lily was sent out as a Christmas card in 1925 (and Seaby received one). Like William Giles, Phillips could be quite free and easy with his editions. At least one of Giles prints came out in three different editions but then both Phillips and Giles could sell them. They were also friends, hardly surprising. Not only that, it was Giles who provided the connection with the old country and, paradoxically, who introduced him to the refined practice of Japan.

But then Phillips' memory played all kinds of tricks with time. He was aware of his isolation. Back in Canada, he recalled the time he had spent in London, how informed and cosmopolitan it was compared with Winnipeg. There was Salaman's flat with the heaps and heaps of prints, the atmospheric studios of Chelsea that were dedicated to art. But you only have to look at the small prints here to see how he manoeuvres and the way space and perspective are malleable. In the end, Phillips wasn't very bothered about facts What is so wintry about Pom-pom dahlias you might ask? It is the irregularity that is so appealing. The blocks he used are never square; there is give-and-take about these images. The lily is there because it was sent out at Christmas. Winter woodcuts is no more about a season than the prints are about a place.

I should have added that these images are from the Loch Gallery, Winnipeg, and my thanks are due to them. They had the complete portfolio for sale but it is now sold.


  1. A wonderful posting Charles, and you have gotten to the heart of many of the inconsistencies and selective seizures of amnesia of Phillips.

    His fanciful fabrications are all par for the course since he was so desperate to be taken seriously in Canada. Phillips railed relentlessly against the national obsession with Group of Seven artists, mostly because it meant he wasn't selling. Many of his trips abroad were also done in fits of pique and it wasn't until post WWII that Phillips started to get the "recognition" he craved...and by recognition I mean, art being purchased. Canada and their national gallery fairly gasps in excitement and delirium over Phillips works. Having seen his paintings and prints, I can clearly see that his constant railing against the rather sclerotic and unchanging core of Canadian art worked out nicely...for him.

    He denied that he had ever studied woodblock printmaking but it was through Urushibara's son that it was clear he did. Anything Phillips said was fanciful or self serving. As for his printmaking, he is one of those interesting ones. When he was good, he was very good, but when he was mediocre, he was chocolate box at best. As far as his paintings, which were not the core of your posting...I would only say, muddled.

    However, I would like to say a huge bravo to you for actually cutting through the Canadian art world pandering to the Phillips name and also Phillips himself and his fractured stories. I feel you do a great service to the people who DID actually help him, and of course to the idea that Phillips himself has had a lovely time making his own pedigree up, facts be damned. So, bravo.

  2. Thanks for that, Clive, I really appreciate it. I can see you have given your fellow countryman even more thought than I have and it's rewarding to see that we are both thinking much the same thing. I have been slow to warm to Phillips but now I can see through the crap, I'm getting there. Grazie tanto. Charles

  3. Charles - Are you familiar with this on-line catalogue raisonne for Phillips?

  4. As you've quite rightly brought it up, it's worth explaining what I have done.

    Roger Boulet has two sites online and I use the older one.

    Boulet has done a very good job and I have used him for early biography and chronology of prints but with Phillips it is very necessary to go back to original sources, which I have done from about 1915 onwards. What I say here about Phillips and colour woodcut is not based on Boulet and may also use sources Boulet doesn't. The images are also not from Boulet but from the Loch Gallery, Winnipeg.

    Canadian and American writers are unfamiliar with the British scene and are often vague or unreliable when they refer to it.

    1. I assume that whatever you post is based on personal research, and I wasn't expressing an opinion about the accuracy of Boulet's biography of Phillips (since that's outside of my area of expertise). But I have found that site convenient for images, titles, and dates.

  5. Thank you for making the blog public again. It was heartbreaking to see it closed off, and it is a joy to see it available once again. But then I can understand it when some schmuck decides to rip your work off. The internet can be a particularly disgusting place sometimes.

  6. Thanks for that. I hope I can live up to your expectations. It's always great to get feedback and support from readers such as yourself. Haji