Sunday 4 October 2020

A tale of two bridges


In 1915, the writer Walter Sparrow Shaw published 'A book of bridges' with illustrations in black-and-white and colour by Frank Brangwyn. Shaw was a great admirer of the work of Brangwyn in a world where the critical reaction to his work was more sceptical at home than it often was abroad. He and Brangwyn also had a fair amount in common. Shaw had been brought up in the Welsh town of Wrecsam but had been educated in England and at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, a background that must have appealed to Brangwyn whose mother was born in Brecon and whose father was born in England of Welsh parents. Brangwyn himself had been born in Bruges where he had lived until the age of nine when the family had gone to live in Shepherd's Bush in London.

So far, so similar. Brangwyn spent more time in his father's workshop and at the South Kensington Museum than he did at school and wangled an apprenticeship with William Morris. Shaw, on the other hand, was very well educated. Apart from the seven years he spent in Brussels, he had attended Chester College followed by  a stint at Newton Abbot College in south Devon. In the late 1870s he then studied for 15 months at the Slade School of Art under the exacting but multi-talented French artist, Alphonse Legros, before moving on to Brussels. This was exactly the kind of a person to recommend themselves to Brangwyn whose bravura style was always in need of sympathetic adjustment. What is astonishing is how many bridges Brangwyn was capable of and wherever he went there was a succession of dramatic arches and theatrical weather.

At face value, the black-and-white illustrations were woodcuts, but in reality were no more than the approximations of a man who could apparently turn his hand to anything but depended on others to do the work, a man who could criticise the art schools for doing nothing but turning out clever imitators but had no scruples about working with artists who had studied there. Enter Yoshijiro Urushibara, a man who followed the longest apprenticeship of anyone I can think of. At the time Shaw and Brangwyn were collaborating on 'A book of bridges', Urushibara was printing a large number of blocks mainly prepared by Sugasiki Hideaki for a reproduction of a copy of an ancient Chinese scroll painting Admonitions of the instructress by the C3/C4th artist,  Gu Kaizhi (below) . He then moved on to a short series of colour woodcuts of Stonehenge roughly based on a print by William Giles remarkable for all being so alike.

Brangwyn knew a good thing when he saw one and there followed a unique collaboration with Urushibara and the curator and writer, Laurence Binyon, on a superb portfolio of colour woodcuts simply called Bruges which Brangwyn designed and Urushibara cut and printed (below). Binyon had an intererest in Chinese and Japanese art for a long time and it was Binyon and the head of prints, Howard Colvin, who had recognised the significance of the Admonitions when it had been brought in to the British Museum a few years previously. Bruges was published in 1919 and Urushibara must have set to worked on Ruins of a Roman bridge soon after the portfolio was finished. The image had appeared in Shaw's but the success of the later image depended almost entirely on Urushibara's interpretation. His work, The Studio Magazine said, were translations of Brangwyn, though interpretation is more like it  and I would find it hard to believe that Urushibara hadn't chosen the image or the time of day. In the original,  there was no obvious time of day and the left hand side of the sky is filled with a shower of rain. In the Urushibara colour woodcut, it is a lucid twilight with a crescent moon hanging above the bridge.

This was the kind of imagery and symbolism that attracted western artists to the work of Japanese printmakers in the first place. On a simple level, the two bridges are images of collaboration, but the ruin in the foreground and the complete bridge seen beneath the single arch suggests the life Urushibara was leading in a way that would be natural for a Japanes artist Within you/without you is crude but it is something like that. Today Urushibara has a reputation for skillfulness but within that over-arching reputation there was more. He was also ambitious and would not have taken the job at the British Museum if it had not suited him and aside from the work with Hideaki and Binyon on the Gu Kaizhi he was asked to supervise a long-term project which involved the unrolling and conservation of scrolls excavated at Mogao in China by Sir Aurel Stein (until the Chinese government put a stop to his activities). Urushibara was not only a professional conservator, he had a professional interest in archaeology and the choice of subjects like the ruins of Stonehenge and the Roman bridge across the river Loire at Brives make sense.

In the original Brangwyn image, the new bridge seen through the one great arch of the old bridge is a neat visual trick. By casting moonlight on the far bridge and making it more prominent by emphasising the small islands in the river, Urushibara made the series of arches the focus of the image. All this came about only because Urushibara handled the colour and printing with such subtlety and care. Niot many artists could use only blues and greys to express the last light of the day and keep a print so varied and of such interest. It is not simply evocative, it suggests the sympathetic relations of one thing and another which no one looking through Shaw's book would have been concerned with.  I am not suggesting Brangwyn didn't understand all of this only that he was too restless a man to be so thoughtful. All too often western artists have concentrated on the means rather than the end of Japanese printmaking. Urushibara's real achievement was to put new energy and poetry into British colour print. As Giles said, all of us owe him a debt, a debt that was not only to do with technical things.

You only have to compare S.G, Boxsius' Houghton Bridge, Sussex (the smaller bridge above) to see the effect Urushibara's image-within-an-image had other artists during the 1920s. Phillip Needell's colour woodcut of the old bridge at Avignon was less subtle and had none of the understatement typical of Boxsius but bears in mind the grandeur (and overstatement) of Brangwyn's original idea. The interesting thing is that we would not have associated Boxsius or Needell with the Japanese school of printmaking but obviously neither of them were immune. Urushibara's version was not about the past because we search for more bridges in the print than we can find, no, the little bridges of Needell and Boxius only go to prove that Ruins of a Roman bridge looked forward to the future,