Saturday 12 December 2020

Road to the isles: Helen G Stevenson & Norma Bassett Hall


On 16th June, 1925, the American artist, Norma Bassett Hall arrived in Glasgow after sailing by ship from the United States with her husband, Arthur William Hall. The Halls immediately travelled on to Edinburgh to meet Mabel Royds and Ernest Lumsden who had respectively distinguished themselves as a colour woodcut artist and an etcher. Lumsden's The art of etching had only just been published in London and Philadelphia and since 1919 Royds was had been working on a series of woodcuts of India that remain unique in modern British printmaking to this day.

It goes without saying the Halls believed they had something to gain by coming so far and that Edinburgh might be an important staging-post in their common journey as artists. During their honeymoon in 1922, the Halls had put together Some prints of Cannon Beach  in book form. (I was under the impression these were linocuts though Jody Patterson in her book about Bassett Hall only describes them as block prints.) While William concentrated on etching after that, Bassett Hall read Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing and began making colour woodcuts in the way that he described.

This is the story that has been told about the journey, but looking at it with a dash of scepticism and a good deal of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the young artist from Oregon and the unconventional upper class Englishwoman might have in common apart from an interest in colour woodcut. Royds had attended at least three art schools, she had relatives living variously in manor houses in Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire, Allington Hall in West Derby, Liverpool, and a castle in Co. Louth, she had travelled widely, she was on the staff at Edinburgh College of Art, she had lived in Paris, she belonged to a fairly bohemian circle of friends and, more decisively, she had no interest in landscape or in depicting the country she had lived in for nearly twenty years. Hall, on the other hand, came from the backwoods and could tell a mean story by way of mountains, trails and trees. Or at least that is what she began to do once she and Arthur had taken the road to the isles.

In mid-August the Halls spent a week at Portree on the Isle of Skye and going by prints that she made after their return to the United States like A Highland croft (below, 1927 - 28) and Croft at Crianlarich (sixth image down, 1928 -29) they stopped off in Perthshire on the way to Skye. Hall made only four Highland prints, the other two being Portree Bay (seventh image down 1929) and Cottage in Skye (eighth down, 1941 - 42).  All of them prominently feature crofts like the ruined one above in Lochranza (1927) but none of them include a lonely tower. Highland redoubts, like the one in Lochranza, were prominent in the work of Helen Stevenson who understood that a ruin and a castle so often meant clearance of people from the land and emigration.

When the Halls arrived in Scotland, Stevenson had been teaching art for three years and had exhibited probably no more than half a dozen colour woodcuts. During her first year as a student on the applied art section at Edinburgh College of Art, the designer Charles Paine was head of the department, John Platt took over one year later but no two artists could be less alike than Stevenson and Platt, something that makes the common ground between Stevenson and Bassett Hall more intriguing. Only compare Stevenson's frazzled keyblock and over-printing for the thatch in The hen-wife (second from the top) and Bassett Hall's use of the same techniques in Croft at Crianlarich  and you will see what I mean. And it doesn't stop there. The way Stevenson handled the light and shade on the tree behind the croft is repeated by Bassett Hall. It is always possible that the woman looking down at her hens in Croft at Crianlarich is the same person as Stevenson's hen-wife. No one knows. The fact remains Bassett Hall learned more from Stevenson than she did from Royds.

As a reader has only just commented in an email, Bassett Hall's work could be flat, but her Scottish subjects brought out the best in her and I think the Highland prints are the best things she made. They had an intensity and drama that was beyond the means of Stevenson who would not have had the gable-end of the cottage echoed by the mountain peaks. Stevenson was true to what she saw around her; Hall turned the hen-wife into a frontiers-woman and the Highlands into the Rockie Mountains, substituting a feeling for place with an uplifting message. Hall could be samey. There were too many shacks, too many trails, too many mountains and after a while you are not sure whether she is in Oregon or Provence.  There are not just too many different places, there are too many influences, including the engravings of Noel Rooke and the colour woodcut arches of Elizabeth York Brunton.

This is something you could never say about Stevenson. From early on, the Appin Peninsula, Argyll and its islands were the main focus of her work. England appears only once in Bamburgh Castle and Edinburgh twice in Edinburgh Castle  and Braid Burn. The burn was not far from her home in Morningside, but nearness didn't make it into a better print. Both were some of the weakest things she ever did. In this respect, she is the Highland Boxsius, a holiday artist who needed to get away from her job as an art teacher. Boxsius was a Londoner and occasionally depicted London with sensitivity. Stevenson reinvented herself in Argyll. She took what she had learned about poster design, illustration and stained glass from Paine and Platt, and turned it to good advantage. This was exactly the kind of training Hall never had and that no amount of visiting Edinburgh or the Central School or St. Paul de Vence would quite make up for. Her only consolation was the Highlands and her Highland guide.

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