Friday, 27 May 2016

Five proofs by Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown


I am here to make amends today - very belated amends. Five years ago I put up a post about the colour woodcut proofs you see here using an attribution by a dealer on British ebay (where the prints were for sale). I have known for a long time that they were not by Thomas Austen Brown, as they dealer believed, but by his wife, Lizzie Brown. I did say this later on but people still keep picking up the original post and I am off to delete it right now. The Browns had a studio at Camiers near Etaples in northern France in the early years of C20th and all the prints show different aspects of the village and surrounding countryside. (There is a post about the work their friend, William Lee Hankey, did at the village at In the proof of  Autumn owned by the British Museum, there are some of the red-tiled cottages in the background. The first proof may be unsigned, but I think it is the better image, simpler and fresher. You can compare the BM print, below.

Brown very much belonged to the early experimental phase of British colour woodcut print, alongside artists as diverse as Mabel Royds, Ethel Kirkpatrick, Sidney Lee, Edith Dawson, Allen Seaby, Mabel Lee Hankey and her husband. This is one reason why the proofs differ. Like Seaby, she cut and printed as she went along. Unlike him, she also sometimes added colour as the print progressed so the signature (or lack of it) does nor necessarily mean the prints are  definitive, just that she is satisfied with it. I would certainly think the top print is the later version. You can see how far the image has been reduced to essentials and the way the colours work in harmony. Some iof the blocks have also been removed or re-cut and, all in all, you can see how much was was clarifying her ideas as she worked at the print. She would have first studied colour woodcut under Frank Morley Fletcher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and together these two prints are perfect examples of what was happening amongst Arts and Crafts practitioners at the time. It was not just a matter of 'trial and error' as the School Principal, W.E. Lethaby put it, 'but re-trial and re-error'. I am sure you can see what he meant. The lower proof has all the twilit sentiment of a genre picture; the top print is altogether tougher.

This is where she differs from here teacher and also sometimes from Seaby. he believed at the time that colour woodcut was suited to certain times of day like twilight and it was the twilit mood that was prominent in Fletcher's first colour woodcut, Meadowsweet and Kirkpatrick's early print, The full moon. I tend to think that Brown's approach was more subtle. In one print, the woman is driving her two cows home at the end of the day. In the other, there is not time of day apparent. What did interest her, though, was the lives of working women and children, so the time of day plays an important part in the print. I don't think she is ever merely decorative. As with Royds, it is the lives of the people that matter. The shepherd with his flock is a case in point. Here she is using the rather dark colours of the British Museum Autumn, a tone that brings out a genre complexion which is never quite satisfactory. The girl with the geese may be cute but the design and the colours are unsentimental and concern themselves solely with what is there and not with mood. In this, she was unusual for the time.

What also is worth looking at in Brown's work is her tendency towards abstraction. It would be easy to notice the genre imagery and miss the way she was gradually simplifying the shapes she was using. The roadsides, the shapes of the trees and the rooftops, are all moving in a modern direction. She is never as obviously in debt to William Nicholson as Royds is, but I think his example lies behind the fencing and the boldness of the goose print.

I wish, though, I had been bolder myself and bought these last prints, which I like very much. Since the auction, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking Lizzie Brown over and come to appreciate more exactly what she was doing and what she achieved. My favourites may not be here but these two remain eloquent for all their imperfections. The use of line and recession is the work of an artist of the utmost delicacy and the more she simplifies, the more she draws you in. There is still a hint of staginess in the looming trees and a touch of William Blake in the resting flock, but she pins the moment down, I don't think I ever doubt that what I am seeing isn't real. As for the print below, I think the colours used are exquisite and almost no-one used the keyblock with such tact or as so expressively apart from Royds. It has almost nothing at all in common with her Japanese predecessors. There is no hint of ukiyo-e stylisation; she only takes the medium and uses it to great advantage. I am not saying she hadn't looked at the Japanese masters; I am just saying she didn't try to let us know she had. She simply uses light to tell her tale. Nor is it the light of the past or of other cultures. This is the light of the present, of the simple pleasure we take in life..


  1. Are there known dates for these prints? When was she active as a printmaker?

  2. A good question, Darrel, and I'm glad you asked it.

    Brown never dated her prints so there are mainly only exhibition dates to go on and those are few and far between. She would have learned the technique in about 1898 and was a founder member of the Society of Graver Printers about 1908. The first exhibition dates I know of are Paris, 1910, and London, 1911, and some of these prints were exhibited then. I would have to look in my files to say exactly which prints we have rough dates for. The V&A have quite a few proofs but offhand I also don't remember when they were deposited but it would almost certainly have been by the artist herself. I will check.