In 1907, the National Gallery in London acquired Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's Marsh at Arleux (below). The picture had been painted in Artois in 1871 during the revolutionary period of the Paris Commune. Many artists had left the city and moved to the Pas-de-Calais and continued to paint whatever they saw there. But Corot's picture is strange, lacking in detail, laden with atmosphere and with a deliberate lack of finish. There is a sense of dislocation and foreboding that looks forwards to modern art. Corot is not an artist I would associate with an image, pure and simple, but it does show exactly why French artists had so much to learn from colour woodcut artists like Hiroshige to whom the meaningful image was naturally a part of what they did.
By the lake (at the top) by E.C.A. Brown was first exhibited (so far as I know) in February, 1911, and shows one of the lakes at the village of Camiers in the Pas-de-Calais where she lived with her husband. The couple moved backwards and forwards between France and accommodation in London and while I do not know whether Brown saw Corot's picture newly-arrived at the National Gallery, you will agree, her woodcut takes so much from Corot, it is uncanny. The picture was given to the Gallery by Mrs Edwin Edwards. She and her husband had made strong links with French artists, including Henri Fantin Latour and Alphonse Legros, as well as Whistler, who had been close to Theodore Roussel, and it is always possible that all these artists had already seen the Corot.n at their home.
Brown knew Charles Bartlett who went to work in Tokyo with the publisher Shazaburo Wantanabe and, as Modern Prinmakers said some while back, used Georges Seurat's A Sunday afternoon on the Grande Jatte as a basis for his colour woodcut Silk merchants, India. What you see here is the first time a British colour woodcut artist made direct use of modern French art rather than a Japanese ukiyo-e woodcut. Roussel's Moonrise from the river made in London (where he lived) in 1914 is an interesting variation. The mood has changed again to something far more neutral. There is more I could say, but what you can see here is the beginning of Urushibara's work with Frank Brangwyn and this is why.
All of these artists - Corot (above and below), Fantin-Latour, Whistler, Legros and Roussel - made prints and all of them, apart from Corot, knew London and some of the artists working there. For Corot what mattered most in a picture was what he called himself 'the value of tone' - and he meant the tone of the overall picture, so it made particular sense for him to produce etchings because he could explore and use tonal value in a new way. Corot was remarkably diverse in the things he did. Despite the basic similarity of the subjects, The dreamer (made in 1854 but not printed until 1921), is very different in approach - basically a type of northern expressionism, if you like - from his etching, Near Rome (1866) He was a translator and an interpreter and that would make him interesting to other artists.
One of them was Brown. By the lake was not the only print she made that drew on Corot. With others, it is just less obvious, but I think it is still there and the French art historian and critic, Gabriel Mourey, who saw Brown's prints when they were first being exhibited in Paris, said the same thing: 'the countryside between Montreuil-sur-Mer and Etretat is the countryside of Cazin and Corot'. Corot was based at Arras in 1871, but he and his biographer-friend rented a house at Arleux 30 km to the east during July and August, where Corot made a prompt return to the scratchy technique of the first etching.
There are two points here. The importance of French art to the first British colour woodcut artists like Brown hasn't been talked about. It has been very easy to discuss the importance of Japan simply because so little is known about what they were doing and what the artists were actually thinking and doing (and because some of the people doing the writing knew more about C19th Japanese colour woodcut than they did about C19th French etching). The fact that Brown and her friends and colleagues were using the Japanese method is almost beside the point; her husband's prints were mainly colour etchings and as she was the better printer, she printed at least one of them herself (above). And what she achieved there was a sense of tone; it was already an interpretation of Thomas Brown's work because he was never as subtle as that.
Urushibara's main contribution to Frank Brangwyn's Bruges portfolio (1919), above, was its tone. This wasn't a by-product of being very clever when it came to making prints. As The Studio said in 1920, he was translating Brangwyn and to me, at least, that is what Corot was doing, and what Brown did, when she printed her husband's fishing fleet at Etaples. She was a co-artist on that print and signed it on the left. This was where Urushibara's work with Brangwyn began; this was the environment Urushibara came into when he arrived in London in 1910. People talk as if he were some kind of boy-genius who has arrived from the wilds of Tokyo and did it all by magic. Urushibara was in Paris over the winter and where By the lake, as well as Roussel's etchings, was exhibited and I would think it likely that he saw all of them, along with other colour woodcuts by British artists, simply because his French colleagues were interested, too. So, I am not saying he began by studying Corot etchings; there was no need to, he was surrounded by people who had.