Tuesday 24 October 2017

The woodcut technique of James Alphege Brewer


In the last post I wondered about the technique that James Alphege Brewer used when he came to make his colour woodcuts. Since then, Ben Dunham has sent me other images I hadn't seen plus a label that says Brewer's print Lake Thirlmere and Helvellyn was printed by hand by the artist. Fortunately, there are other details of the print on the website where it was sold. You can judge for  yourself, but the conclusion I have come to was one I didn't really expect to make.

Another thing I suggested in the post was that Brewer knew the work of John Platt and possibly used his 1938 book to learn the technique. I also wonder whether Brewer may even have studied with him. Platt was working at Blackheath School of Art not that far from the subject of Brewer's impressive woodcut Pool of London (top). I don't want to detract from Brewer's achievement, but compare his print with Platt's Sails from 1933. Brewer's style and high colouring is more old-fashioned and similar to the kind of images of Newlyn and London Ethel Kirkpatrick was making in the 1890s. It still remains an accomplished piece of work and if you look at the two details below, from Lake Thirlmere and Helvellyn, you will begin to get an idea of how original Brewer could be when it came to making prints. It is very much like Allen Seaby's and also reminds me of  SG Boxsius' extemporised foliage in Autumn (the word Boxsius used himself).
Not only that, you will notice that Brewer used Japanese technique in areas of  Lake Thirlmere - there is obvious application of the medium by hand, which is similar to bokashi. The details are expressive even if the overall effect of the print is conventional. But then compare the details of Lake Como (The pergola) (second from bottom) and you see him taking a different, more impressionist approach. You will notice obvious signs in both of application of the ink by hand. That strongly suggests Brewer was using a watercolour medium in common with the majority of British colour woodcut artists at the time rather than the printer's ink used by most of the colour linocut artists. I also think you can see the way the ink has run to the edge of the block. I like the camouflage effect he achieved here very much, something that suggests wartime as well Platt's brown and green on Sails. Even more original is the use of shape in Mont Blanc (bottom).  No other colour woodcut artist was working in this way but it is similar to does Platt's way of building up images from pieces of tissue  laid over each other- one that he taught to his students.




  1. The opening pages of John Platt's book read like a siren call to Brewer, exactly describing his mood as an artist and his position as a successful commercial etcher in 1938, and offering the promise of a new creative adventure.

    I am struck by one sentence: "A work of art cannot exist without this emphasis of its character; it is the translation of the subject-matter into the language of the medium."

    This would have had great meaning for Brewer, whose artistic interests seem to have moved away from architecture in the middle 1930s toward more bucolic scenes.

    But even more striking, this prefigured the 1967 insight of the Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan: "The medium is the message."

  2. Another thing I noticed in Platt’s book:

    Towards the end, Platt writes that “The colour-woodcut depends, not on naturalistic representation, but on rhythmic coherence,” and warns: “Although gradations are so readily and beautifully produced in this medium, they should be used sparingly or the design will be weakened.”

    “Rhythmic coherence” perfectly describes the effect of "Mont Blanc" and perhaps "Lake Thirlmere (& Helvellyn)," "Lake Como (the Pergola)," and some of the other woodcuts, but Brewer’s claim to fame as an etcher was his “dab hand” at painting the inks directly onto the plate before each impression. I’m guessing this capability was hard for Brewer to resist and may explain in part the difference in approach between Brewer’s "The Pool of London" and Platt’s "Sails."

  3. Rhythm was one of Platt's concerns. You see it in various ways in his prints from the rhythm of a boats' structure as it is being built to the rhythms of work and children's play. He was sensitive to these things, noting the different ways that boats were moored according to different tidal patterns. His boats moored stern on to the quay at St Tropez expressed a good deal to him about the type of place it was but would be lost on many of us if we didn't have his explanation. 'The port of London' is a good example because the barges are at anchor in the middle of a tidal river (so far as I can see). For Platt that was all part of the coherence and would look for a view that would sum up a place. It's all thought-out.

    Brewer would have applied the medium by hand to the block as he had done to his plates. William Giles changed from wood to steel and back and I don't think it is at all easy to tell the difference. In the end they were all using the same basic techniques but the effects they gained were individual.

  4. I think that these works are very peculiar and not everyone can understand their depth and diversity, accomplishment of their college assignments that the author put into them.