Saturday, 11 June 2016

In with the new: Mabel Royds & Alphonse Legros


It is a very curious thing to discover (or at least to believe you have discovered) one of the sources of a print you have studied with care. The print I mean is Mabel Royd's colour woodcut Choirboys (below). According to the Scottish National Gallery she made the print as early as 1898 and by my reckoning, it must be her first. Nothing very much is certain about the first colour woodcuts made in Britain but one thing we do know is that John Dixon Batten made his first independent woodcut The tiger in the first class held at the Central School of Arts & Crafts 1897 - 1898. The date suggests to me that Royds made her own woodcut during or after attending the class but what has surprised me is a link between Alphonse Legros, who was Batten's teacher at the Slade School of Art, and Royds (also a student there but after Legros had retired).


I owe this discovery (if that is what it is) to a post published a few days ago on the Charles Ricketts & Charles Shannon blog The subject is the appearance at auction in Rome of two wood-engravings by Charles Ricketts after drawings by Legros. I must admit I had no idea that Ricketts had made these until today, possibly just as well, because as soon as I saw Une messe macabre (top), a third engraving Ricketts had made after Legros, I was struck by a resemblance to Royds' Choirboys. I can hardly believe it is coincidental the prints were included in 'The first exhibition of original wood-engravings' held at the Dutch Gallery in Bruton St. in 1898 and I think Royds must have visited this exhibition.

In 1898, British colour woodcut was finding its way. Batten had published Frank Morley's Fletcher's important print, Meadowsweet, in 1897.With Allen Seaby, Royds was Fletcher's most important follower and she may have adopted the Japanese method of making colour woodcuts with expertise and panache but the style of Japanese prints was not for her and Choirboys owes a great deal to the recent manner adopted by William Nicholson for coloured wood-engravings like H.M. The Queen (1897), below. But it was a Nicholson who had attended the life-class at the Slade and who employed conventional perspective.

Royds was the daughter of a Church of England rector and I believe her first woodcut shows the choir singing in her grandfather's church in Bedfordshire. But she turned Legros' macabre drawing round completely. The figures not only look right, to the future, her theme attends to life and not to its end. I am suggesting noting more than this, that Royds took an idea from Legros, as Ricketts had done, and turned it neatly on its head. As Legros himself used to tell his students, 'If you going to rob anyone, rob the rich'. Legros may not be to everyone's taste today but he was a very fine academic draughtsman and contemporaries as different as Edgar Degas and Lord Leighton admired his work and hung it in their homes.

But Legros had been rather forgotten by the nineties and there had been a concerted effort, led by William Rothenstein (another of his students) to bring about a revival. So, it is doubly interesting to find Ricketts working on ideas by Legros as well. What is more the Dutch Gallery, who showed the Rickett's engravings in 1898, had an exhibition of work by Royds' mentor, Walter Sickert, in 1894. (It has also been said that Royds and Sickert were lovers during her time in Paris). All of which goes to show there is still more research needed on what is already a well-researched period!

Finally, for anyone who wants to follow up some of these ideas elsewhere on the blog, there are three posts you could look at, one about Legros in the nineties another about Nicholson and his influence on Royds and other artists and most intriguingly one about a colour woodcut caricature of Laurence Binyon made by Edmund Dulac and owned by Ricketts

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