Sunday, 17 April 2016

The colour linocuts of Norah Pearse


A copy of Exeter School of Art magazine with a lithograph on the front by Norah Pearse came up for sale on ebay a few weeks ago.Sadly, I missed it. Not that it was much good (the drawing was haphazard)  but The cloakroom had a St. Trinian's sense of anarchy and fun typical of Pearse. (See note below) The girls were larking about in gym-slips and it reminded me what kind of institution an art school in the 1930s really was. It was a school; the students were in their teens. Nor were they there to train as artists. The whole idea was to send them off later for a year's teacher training, a fact that goes some way to explaining why it is that so many of them were skilful  enough to make good prints but were often hopeless when it came to drawing.

As for linocut, it had been promoted as suitable for use by children in Vienna long before it arrived in Britain. It didn't make the break-through here until the 'Children's Art Exhibition' was held was held in London in 1921. Allen Seaby must have gone to see it because he was writing about linocut for educational purposes soon afterwards. Claude Flight's much more famous book Lino-Cut followed in 1927). Lino isn't very durable but it is easy to manipulate and, as Flight never tired of saying, it was simple enough to achieve a sense of being modern. Whether or not this makes Pearse's Seals worth £200 is another thing, but after seeing St. Trinian's, I think I would pause for thought before I coughed up. But I did buy in the Cotswolds (above) and I'm glad I did.

Splash shows part of the sea-front at Exmouth in Devon very near to where I had a bed-sit type of flat in the mid-seventies, so, for all her ways, I must take Norah's side. (She came from Exmouth and she appeals). What should be obvious by now is that Pearse was aware of London trends (and exhibited with the Graver Printers) and had what Clive Christie would always call 'an aesthetic'. The subdued tones of the prints are very thirties just as much as the observation of social life. What is interesting is the way Pearse moves easily between the social life of seals and tigers and even trees and the everyday activities of human beings. She also makes good use of the free line that linocut so readily allows without going in for the kind of pattern-making that followers of Flight tended to adopt after a stint with him at the Grosvenor School.

Ladies surfing (above) reminds me of the more vigorous approach taken by Julia Mavrogordato whose work she would have known. This image has turned up since the post was written and it is obvious to me that Pearse not only had a linocut style all of her own but an approach to subject matter that is unlike anyone else. Images of people enjoying themselves was a thirties thing but I suspect many artists steered clear in case they came across as slight or sentimental.

Where she does depart from Flight and all of them is in her use of perspective. She was more modern in her subject matter than in her manner. Of tigers, watched by children has the Pearse sense of humour, the unpredictability of the tigers matched by the kiddies beyond the bars. I have no doubt she knew the linocuts of Norbertine Bresslern Roth but again she goes her own way and this is why she interests me. Look at the way she plays off the tiger-stripes and the bars, and the effects she gains with patches of light and shadow. The anecdotal humour shouldn't detract from the complicated arrangement of the print. It wasn't that easy to get all the figures right and she wisely limited herself as always to a narrow range of colour. And again it works.  Picasso it isn't but nice it is and it's a shame this is the only image available. At least we now have a better idea of what she could do.

As for St. Trinian's School, it first appeared in a British film in 1954, based on the work of the cartoonist, Ronald Searle, and with an eccentric headmistress played by the character actor, Alistair Sim. Some very wayward schoolgirls indeed were a great part of the success of the film and I always found it hilarious. It went on to become part of a series of five. Go to YouTube and behave!

And thanks to Gerrie Caspers at The Linosaurus for sorting out the lithograph from Exter.



  1. Surprising prints and printmaker. Thanks for introducing her. I like the Cotswolds print, but the seals, composition wise, I like best.

  2. I know what you mean. I liked the seals as soon as I saw them the other day. She's different, isn't she? Irish background, with a name like that and the sense of humour?

  3. For those readers who may not familiar with the St. Trinian's films, the first one in the series is called "The Belles of St. Trinian's." If one merely searches for "St. Trinian's" on Youtube, there's a good chance one will pull up the 2007 semi-remake, which has already spawned one sequel with another one in development, that has Rupert Everett in essentially what was the Alastair Sim role(s).

  4. Darrel, I must say I am intrigued to discover you are such a knowledgeable fan of St. Trinian's. Who would have thought an American would have had the faintest idea?

  5. I'm a big fan of post-War English comedies of the late forties and fifties. Some are acknowledged classics on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly those with Alec Guiness (e.g., The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, etc.) But I also adore some of the lesser known titles like Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore, The Titfield Thunderbolt, Wee Geordie, and Genevieve. They're chock full of great character actors like Joyce Grenfell, Stanley Holloway, Raymond Huntley, Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson, Barbara Murray, Hermione Baddeley, Terry-Thomas, etc.