Sunday, 13 September 2020

Edna Boies Hopkins: the Derbyshire connection

Back in 1908, the educationalist Samuel Clegg published a monograph about the American colour woodcut artist, Edna Boies Hopkins. This included an odd passage where he said he  regretted that her prints had not been made available 'for art school purposes'. In those days it was common practice for art students to study and copy the work of other people. Alphonse Legros taught his students at the Slade to distinguish between the hand of Raphael and the work of his two assistants. But this didn't make the remark any less odd, at least not till he wrote a second monograph about Allen Seaby who did make imperfect (and unsigned) proofs of his own prints available to schools at a reduced rate.

Boies Hopkins was a student of Arthur Wesley Dow, himself a well-known art educationalist by the time Clegg was publishing his monographs. Whether she made her own proofs available is another thing but British students did nevertheless make use of her work in a very direct way as you can see from the nicotianas below.

Clegg was headmaster of the new Long Eaton School and one of his school governors acquired four  recent prints by Boies Hopkins for the very purpose. I can't remember offhand whether Nicotianas (below, 1909) was one of them but judging by the children's work made only four years afterwards in 1913, it was. So, here were thirteen and fourteen-year old Derbyshire school children cutting and printing their own colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner with Boies Hopkins examples supplied for them to study by the school. 

But why use Boies Hopkins and not Seaby? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, Boies Hopkins concentrated on one image rather than make a complex picture and, secondly, although Boies Hopkins had gone to Japan in order to learn how to make a keyblock, by the time Clegg wrote his article, the keyblock was no more than a vestige in her work and often wasn't there at all. This all made the process of cutting and printing much easier for the children.

On of these lucky children was Edward Loxton Knight who went on to train at Nottingham School of Art where he specialised in commercial art. When I first wrote about Loxton Knight, I had no idea about the survival of this remarkable series of school prints but, as you can see The primrose-seller (1929) his first professional print, the Boies Hopkins lesson sunk in. It is not so much the flower subject that was like her as the overall tone, particularly the way the print was wiped in the same downward manner Boies Hopkins was using before the first war.

As you can see, Loxton Knight had learned to use a keyblock to define smaller shapes and to provide moulding for larger figures like his primrose-seller. Ironically, he didn't use the Japanese manner at all but printed all his blocks with poster colour, adapting the flat Japanese style to give the contemporary feel of commercial art of the period. But he certainly got away with it and, so far as I am concerned, this first print of his was the most satisfying he made along with The Nottingham Canal.

It is in the nature of commercial artists to make use of approximation to gain their effect. But there was another sleight of hand involved in The primrose-seller and one you could only be aware of if you know this location well. The primrose seller is standing on the north side of the market square in Nottingham where people were still selling flowers and newspapers when I grew up. The problem is from where the man is standing, it is impossible to see the spire of St Peter's church at the bottom of Wheeler Gate. It just looked better that way, that's all.

Gordon Clarke

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