Friday 25 June 2021

John Hall Thorpe & Bemrose and Sons

As some of you will know, John Hall Thorpe training was in commercial work in Sydney where he was on the staff of two newspapers before he moved to Britain in  He had already made a few etching whilst in Australia and did not exhibit any colour woodcuts until the end of the first war. But when he did, these prints were important in the revival of colour woodcut in the 1920s. As you may also know, Hall Thorpe never printed his own work and acknowledged the printing was done under his supervision.  This meant he was unable to exhibit with the Graver Printers though he gained by having much larger editions to sell. If he went to a commercial printer (and I think be did) he was also limited by the numbers and subtlety of the colours he used. But if you look carefully at his prints, what stands out is how successful his economy of means was.

William Bemrose (or Bemrose and Sons as it became) certainly worked with Hall Thorpe on prints like Summer (top) which was published in 1929. Bemrose set up in Derby as a maker of railway timetables in 1826 and naturally worked with the Midland Railway whose main base was at Derby Station (destroyed by British Rail). The fine engraving below of the station was made by them in 1840 and you will be pleased to know the memorable clock tower to the left remains unmolested 180 years later. Features like the tower were typical of the Midland's serious attitude to public architecture. John Ruskin was appalled by their plans to drive the main line through from Matlock to Chinley but no one seeing the grandeur of the remote viaduct over the Derwent at Monsall Dale could fail to be impressed.

The firm did everything. This poster for the Midland's excursion to Newcastle races from Sheffield is typical though not the most amusing. Readers who are also railway buffs will notice that by the seventies, the Midland were a market leader and had done away with 2nd class, much to the consternation of other operators. The Midland took a modern, integrated approach to rail travel and whether it was commercial vigour, engineering expertise or style, for a time they were in the vanguard. George Stephenson did work for them, but they also understood the appeal of stylishness and how far everything from stations and publicity to refreshments could promote the railways as a pleasurable and sophisticated form of travel. From Leicester London Road to Nottingham Midland, surviving stations are confident and original and some small stations like Matlock Bath in Derbyshire and Collingham, Nottinghamshire, were remarkable if not sublime. Everyone played their part, including businesses with expertise like Bemrose.

Bemrose's son, William, became interested in applied art and wrote a book on wood-carving but the firm evidently had the ability to produce fine prints by 1840.  As you see from the 1902 advertisement  (second from top) colour block had become prominent in the specialist work they undertook. You will also note by then they had premises at Snow Hill in east central London. By the 1930s, they were printing off everything from colour railway posters to brochures for L.M.S. With classic overkill, Matlock was promoted not only as our own Switzerland but as a metropolis of hydropathy. (Matlock Bath station was designed to look like a chalet - wood was another feature of Midland designs). 

Readers will know from the previous post that Bemrose worked with Arthur Rigden Read on Valencia. But notice the similarity between the block capitals used in Hall Thorpe's Summer and S.G. Boxsius' Evening afterglow (below). I suspect this masterly woodcut from about 1936 was printed by Bemrose. Certainly if Boxsius had printed it himself, he would have signed it in pencil. (I know it isn't signed because I own it). What Boxsius, Read and Hall Thorpe all had in common is knowledge of the print trade. I cannot be sure that Bemrose printed any of Hall Thorpe's other woodcuts, but someone had to and, as you see from the standard of all the prints and posters here, Bemrose knew what they were about.

But I need to add a footnote about letterpress of the kind used by Bemrose in the C19th. In 1916, Robert Gibbings made the initial proofs for his first colour woodcut, Retreat from Serbia, on the letterpress kept at his father's rectory in County Cork. (See the post about Gibbings). Both Hall Thorpe and Gibbings had studios in Fulham in London towards the end of the war. Gibbings installed an Albion press at his and I believe Hall Thorpe's attitude to making prints owes something at least to Gibbing's resourcefulness. Gibbings showed it was possible make colour woodcuts good enough for the V&A to buy them without using the laborious Japanese method. The V&A may never have paid for any of Hall Thorpe's prints but he made sure they had some all the same.

Sunday 20 June 2021

Arthur Rigden Read's 'Valencia'


As there is a copy of this print for sale which people may have seen, I wanted to explain exactly what it is. The print suggests like nothing else he made how much broader Read's approach to making colour woodcuts than any of his contemporaries. I remember seeing it first many years ago in a shop in Camden Passage in Islington and being bewildered. I certainly didn't buy it because I had a very limited idea at the time what a British colour woodcut was partly because I had seen so few of them and partly because I had only even seen Read's Venetian shawl and which I owned by then. But this print was different and I now know why. 

So far as I am aware, Read never had any formal training apart from the instruction he received at the School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography at Bolt Court just off Fleet Street in London. The locality says everything. Most of the boys intended to enter the London print-trade and while he lived in London Read worked as a writer and publisher's illustrator. Beyond that Bolt Court (as it was always called) had a considerable effect on Read's attitude to making prints and, as I said, it is nowhere more evident than in Valencia.

Amongst other things, the boys at Bolt Court were trained in reproductive techniques. The idea was to reproduce the feel of the original work and Read was proficient enough as water-colourist by then for other boys to use his watercolours as a basis for their own lithographic reproductions. Once Read began making colour woodcuts about 1920, he not only gave his attention in particular to pattern and texture, he went out of his way to depict effects like the sheen of silk or the dirt on a chimney sweep's face. It was this approach that helped make him so original. Unfortunately, when he came to to make Valencia in 1933, the way the blocks were printed off defeated him.

Read took the idea for Valencia from Edouard Manet's Lola de Valence. Manet had painted this in 1862 while Lola was performing in Paris as a member of a troupe  of dancers.  It may be a coincidence but Lola de Valence went into the collection of the Louvre in 1912 at the time that Read was training at Bolt Court. He probably also saw it at the Louvre, where it stayed until it was moved to the Jeu de Paume in 1947. Admittedly, it is only the title that makes it plain that Read decided on Manet as his victim this time round though the flowered skirt and the edging of Lola's own shawl obviously provided Read with his main leads. But you have to start somewhere and Read may or may not have known that Manet adapted the pose from Francisco Goya's full length portrait of the Duchess of Alba. Read decided against against that appraoch and instead we have a portrait that emphasises the shawl covered with camellias. Alphonse Legros used to tell his students at the Slade that if they were going to rob anyone, they should rob the rich and not the poor. Artists certainly do not get any richer than Manet. Nothing if not ambitious, Read's image itself falls flat mainly because it was printed on the press at the art printer Bemrose in Derby (this is why none of the images are signed in pencil). Read's flair for texture, which relieved the flat designs he often made, was impossible to reproduce and no amount of busy detail could save the image from looking unappealing. Basically, it is the face that let's it down because the fringes and the flowers are all well executed. And having said this much, I  must add that once I got a second opportunity to buy it at a reasonable price, I did so. But you would need to be a serious collector of Read (or writing a book about colour woodcut) to lay out even fairly serious money ie £250, on Valencia. 

Friday 18 June 2021

A Christmas card by Laurence Bell


This is all starting to look like an end-of-term report. I have finally dug out my Christmas card designed by Laurence Bell for his publisher, Burlington Fine Arts. The most important aspect to all this is not so much the brightly-coloured print as the spelling of his Christian name and what it says on the inside page (below). Firstly, in my opinion, this is the way the signature reads: a, u, r, e. It is easy enough to read 'w' but here we have contemporary printed evidence that all of us appear to have been spelling the name wrongly. 

Secondly, this does not mean that all Bell's prints were coloured by hand but it does suggest why so many are so bright. It is up to readers to decide for themselves because the card is the only work I have seen by Bell. But if you look closely, it should be obvious whether or not he has used pigment and where the colour overlaps the keyblock.

The card provides one further clue in the way linocut was spelt. In 1923, Allen Seaby always wrote linoleum cut and never used the short form 'lino'. Claude Flight did and in 1927 went out of his way to spell it Lino-Cut in the title of his book - not sure why but then I could say that about so many things Flight wrote. I will have to check earlier spellings!

There are at east three readers who own work by Bell and they may be able to detect signs of hand-colouring on some of their own prints. Either leave your comment below or send it on to me. The advantage to leaving comments in the box is that they stay with the relevant post. Either way, between us we have made some progress.

Thursday 17 June 2021

Laurence Bell: new information & prints


Since I put up the post about Laurence Bell recently, a number of readers have written to me, including one who sent this print from his collection today. The subject is the place de Verdun at Genay near Lyon.

The main information is that Bell described himself as an engraver living at 13a Heath St, Hampstead. The only exhibition records given were for two watercolours shown at the Glasgow Institute in 1921 and 1922. This isn't much to go on but it far more than we had previously and I would think that this must be the right person.

I have included his view of the Porta Capuana in Naples done before the houses and the upper structure were removed. They were certainly there in the earlier part of the C20th as you can see from this intriguing photograph which appears to show the street under water. Also included is one of the etchings. This is in the style of Alphonse Legros who taught at the Slade School of Art until 1893. Whether Bell was a student there is another matter but it certainly maintains the links with France.

Sunday 13 June 2021

William Giles 'Midsummer Night': the story so far

I would like to dedicate another post to Midsummer night first exhibited in 1912 by William Giles. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, there is the sheer unforgettable impact of the method Giles dreamed up for the print. It was not simply a matter of the image being a work of the imagination; the whole process involved inventiveness at such an astonishing level, I find it hard to credit Giles gave his work so much care and attention. When Mabel Royd's husband, E.S. Lumsden, made his sympathetic portrait of Giles in 1921 (below) he decided to depict him with the tools of his trade, emphasing the artist-craftsman distracted from his work rather than a portrait that suggested traits of the personality of the sitter. It was the same dedication and power of concentration that his friend, Walter Phillips, noticed when they went out on a sketching trip around the same time Lumsden made his portrait. Phillips had left Giles sketching in front of a tree only to find him still there in front of the same tree when he went back hours later.

It perhaps goes without saying that Giles work is stylised and lack spontaneity. It can also be a touch hackneyed. As one of the curator's said at the V&A when we were looking at Midsummer night, it was typical of the era (not his exact words). What is astonishing is the intricacy of the branches of the tree and the way depiction is so intense it begins to look like fantasy. There as an occult side to Giles. Here was a man for whom the ancient places of Britain and the phases of the sun and moon had a strong meaning but a man who also held back and always kept his occult tendencies in check. How he did this is another thing and it leads on to the second remarkable aspect of this print.

In 1899, the French dealer, Goupil, held an exhibition at their London gallery of some diminutive but sensational etchings and aquatints by Theodore Roussel who lived at Parson's Green in west London. Eight years later, Goupil came up with the idea of an exhibiting society of printmakers with Roussel as nominal leader and then about two years after the exhibitions started, Roussel began making colour versions of the metal plates he had shown at Goupil in 1899. More to the point, in 1912 he exhibited Summer night at Abingdon with the Graver Printers. Whether it was was this print that gave Giles the idea for Midsummer night is hard to say exactly, but I tend to think it did simply because until that point Giles had never made a metal plate. I also tend to think Roussel and Giles were working in collaboration. Both artists were used to this. Roussel had worked closely with James MacNeill Whistler till inevitably they fell out and Giles had worked in collaboration with Allen Seaby in their final year at Reading School of Art. Abingdon is also in Berkshire where Giles came from and Giles had also studied in Paris in the late nineties before he returned to do that final year alongside Seaby.

In other respects, Giles and Roussel were unalike. Roussel was an artist in the great French tradition - objective, detached, given to formal experiment but with an inwardness and delicacy that marks out so much of French C18th and C19th art. In my view, the example he set for Yoshijiro Urushibara with the colour version of L'agonie des fleurs (above from about 1912) was more important that any of the designs he adapted from Brangwyn. It may not seem obvious now but Roussel was full of ideas, which he expressed in a series of prints where both spontaneity and subtle allusions to the art of the past were keynotes. Meanwhile Giles described himself as an art worker but followed the traditions of the British romantic movement, most notably William Blake who had been the last person to make artist's prints in colour in the 1820s.

For Roussel, printmaking was a subsidiary art he could use to explore new ideas, as French artists had been doing since Edouard Manet began making etchings in the 1860s. For Giles, it was an end in itself and if Roussel had class, Giles had appeal and I think you can see from these few examples how far each artist learned to modify their approach from the other. Roussel's Moonrise in the New Forest, 1914, (above)  is  case in point. It would not have been possible for him to make a print of such luminosity and depth of colour without the example of Giles. Too much emphasis has been placed on the importance of the Japanese manner of printmaking to these artists. Method and styles owned just as much to French art although in the end it is the sympathetic dialogue between them that provides the most interest. Take for instance, Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown's French landscape, By the lake, from much the same time  (below) to judge how far this period of creativity came out of the rapport that existed between them.

Midsummer night is the only print that I know of from the period to ever come out in three editions. The first was published in 1912 and the second was brought out by the dealer and publisher, Bromhead, whose gallery had become home to the Graver Printers in Colour after Goupil closed its London base during the war. Following the appearance of a third and final edition in 1922, Giles consigned the plates to the Print Room of the V&A for the use of students, along with six successive proofs like the one below. This meant that no-one could publish a further edition, all very well but strictly once he had fulfilled one edition, a second should not have appeared let alone a third. But artists like Giles needed to make a living so you can hardly blame him. It is also possible that the third edition came out only in the U.S. Generally, this was accepted practice. Frank Morley Fletcher issued a second edition of 100 of Meadowsweet after he had moved to California but it was not fulfilled (number 43 I think was inscribed to Seaby) and after the success of Goose Fair in 1929 and 1930, Edward Loxton Knight bought out a second edition in the States. There were also a second edition of at least one linocut by Cyril Power in Australia but the lino gave out before that could be completed.

Sunday 6 June 2021

The mystery of Laurence Bell


A few years ago, a reader did a lot of research into a young artist called Lawrence Bell who trained at the Bushey School of Art in Hertfordshire. Since then other documents have appeared online  suggesting that this Lawrence Bell died in France in 1916. This leaves me no nearer to saying anything very useful about this intriguing maker of colour linocuts. (see later post for the correct spelling of his name). It doesn't help that there have also been persistent rumours for some while now that Bell was Canadian although without anyone coming up with any evidence, so I think we have to ignore that. What we are left with are the prints themselves and, as work keeps appearing on the market and finding its way onto the internet, there is now far more to go on than there was five or ten years ago.

The only dated print I know of is Winter where Bell added '36' after his signature. This makes Bell look like one of the late-comers to the colour print scene. James Milner was another. A retired teacher, he returned to colour woodcut in the thirties. Norah Pearse was yet another. Both have had posts here on Modern Printmakers. Bell has not been so fortunate despite lobbying on his behalf by loyal readers who are also avid collectors of his work. But here readers have a considerable advantage over Modern Printmakers because I own only one example, a small card I managed to pick up cheaply on ebay. The point is that this was enough to confirm the general consensus that Bell used lino and oil-based inks. It also strikes me that he may have made use of a press. This was nothing unusual. Robert Gibbings and John Hall Thorpe did the same from about 1916 onwards. Nevertheless, I think all these factors suggest someone who was prolific during the thirties when he made twenty or more colour prints in addition to etchings and watercolours.

What is unusual is how many of Bell's subjects like Kirstenbosch in Cape Province (above, top), can be identified. Another place he visited was Chateau Gaillard in Normandy and there is at least one print of Naples. But most prints depict south-east England where so many artists worked and whose subjects helped to make their prints saleable. The Mermaid Inn at Rye in Sussex (second from top) stands out as Bell at his most vigorous. It is fairly obvious to me that other subjects are the Kent and Sussex churches and the local Romanies. The churches are too distinctive  to be anywhere else while the travelling folk were favourite subjects of Arthur Rigden Read who also exhibited at Rye. Identifiable subjects were always easier to sell and while the old streets of Rye and sturdy churches of Kent provided likeable subjects, his publisher was firmly based at Burlington Gardens off Bond Street in London. The Fine Arts Publishing Company were an established business had been publishing photogravure work since the C19th and this is why I tend to think the prints were printed on a press. They are certainly relatively common otherwise readers would not be telling me they had found yet another.

I wish I could say more. Despite a reputation for including trees of the Clarice Cliff variety in almost all his prints if he could manage it, Bell's best work is rugged, autumnal and enduring. Perhaps not surprising then that anyone would claim he was Canadian. There is a sense of the pioneering outdoors in Bell. His land is a land of log-cabins and his big-scale inns and small-scale churches look as though they belong in the Rockies more than rural Sussex where inns and old churches are all the same size. That kind of wayward originality made him very much a man of his time and if the prints have a deliberate generic appeal, no one could ever accuse Bell of being bland and inoffensive. So you wonder how it could be that such an artist now is more or less anonymous.