Sunday 31 October 2021

Elizabeth Colwell: Reading, Cornwall & Chicago


Never a good idea, but I had always believed for no special reason that Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing  published in Britain in 1916 was the first manual on the subject in English. I was wrong. A far less well-known American colour woodcut artist got there first. This was Elizabeth Colwell whose own book On the making of  woodblock colour prints came out in the United States in 1910. I have to say here that I don't think Colwell is in the first rank of America colour woodcutters not because she didn't have talent but she failed to throw off the method of making colour woodcuts she had learned from others.

                                                                                                 Annex Galleries

Colwell was born in Bronson, Michigan, in 1881, and trained at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago where she met the colour woodcut artist, B. J. O. Nordfeldt. He has a studio in the city's South Side district and it appears it was there was was introduced to a way of making colour woodcuts based on the Japanese method. What is unusual about all this is that Nordfeldt had worked for a friend of Fletcher's called Albert Herter who ran a family design business and after Nordfeldt had been to Paris to work on the firm's exhibit at the Paris Exposition in he went to Reading to take the class in colour woodcut that Fletcher was running at the Extension College there. What has to be said is that none of the were all that experienced as printmakers. Fletcher had made up the method as he went along  a few years previously and then tried to make everyone else keep to it. Ironically, in Reading Nordfeldt made friends with William Giles who at twenty-seven refused to take Fletcher's prescriptive approach on board and eventually went off to Sweden where Nordfeldt's family came from.

As for Colwell herself a biographical note published by the Art Institute says she also trained abroad and the only evidence of where she went is the print above, Cornwall coast, England, now in the Museum of Fin Arts at San Francisco. Friendships and connections between American and British artists between about 1897 and the first war are poorly understood but they did exist and they were a way that artists often learned how to make prints. Norma Bassett Hall's visit to Edinburgh in the twenties is well-documented but we have far less to go on with Nordfeldt, Colwell, Arthur Wesley Dow and Edna Boies Hopkins who almost certainly came to Britain too. Colwell's technique in the Cornwall print are in some ways exemplary. All the main elements are there - the depth of colour, the brushwork, the keyblock - but behind it all is the ghost of yet one more American artist and it is James MacNeill Whistler. The importance of tone and the arrangement of the image is more Whistler than Hiroshige. I was only looking at the strange blues in Whistler's Symphony in white number III on Friday in Birmingham and here they are again! You will also notice the Japanese fan the girl has let slip. (The other woman is Joanna Hiffernan who was Irish and lived with Whistler in London in the 1860s. Her father referred to the artist as 'mi son-in-law'.)

The difficulty is that all these early colour woodcuts can tend to look generic. You ask yourself whether it is Cornwall or Eagle Bay or Provincetown. Because what matters most is the mood. I constantly mix up the work of Colwell, Nordfeldt and sometimes Sidney Lee who also trained with Fletcher and worked at St. Ives. What holds them all together (and restricted them) was the method Fletcher insisted on teaching. His excuse was that colour woodcut method was good training for them. The unfortunate result were prints that were constricted by the keyblock, the artful application of ink and general lack of vigour. The artifice exemplified by Whistler's languorous young women lounging about in his Charlotte St. studio had become a burden by 1910 when Cowell was at her most prolific. Fitzrovia is not Chicago's South Side and that is that!

By now you may see my drift. They all of them (given half the chance) wandered from one art colony to another. It didn't matter whether it was the area around Fitzroy St. off Tottenham Court Road in London or St. Ives or the quartier latin, they met the same people and more importantly the same ideas. And the same assumptions too.


Sunday 24 October 2021

The colour woodcuts of Concord & Cavendish Morton


The colour woodcuts made together by the twin brothers, Concord and Cavendish Morton, in the early 1930s account for only a small part of their careers as artists but nevertheless were a diverting excursion into self-promotion master-minded (I assume) by their resourceful father. Cavendish senior had been an actor and set designer who had moved into the fashionable field of theatrical and portrait photography. Like so many people with artistic talent, he had firm but unusual views about education (at least so far as his two sons went) and instead of putting them through the usual rigmarole of private schools and famous universities, the boys were sent off to train with shipwrights, wheelwrights and colour grinders at the Royal Naval Dockyard and Camper & Nicholson shipyard at Portsmouth.

This had all been made possible after the family moved to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight in 1924 and following the stint at Portsmouth, the pair were sent off to help building a fishing boat on the foreshore at St. Ives. Nevertheless none of this helps to explain how the pair of then could produce a card of such originality as the one above made for Christmas 1929. At this point, they were both twenty-eight so Christmas cards could only have been a side-line but from what I can tell (and you must judge for yourself) the boys undertook a further period of apprenticeship. Below is what looks like their earliest colour woodcut. So far as I am aware there was no edition and the print may have only survived because it remained in the collection of Yoshijiro Urushibara and eventually came back to Britain from Japan when the collection was sold.

The woodcut depicts H.M.S. Victory off the fortified shore at Southsea with the great naval dockyard in the background to the left and Portsmouth to the right and so far as I am concerned this is the most telling of the half dozen or so colour woodcuts they produced. The Mortons went on to specialise in rhapsodies and although the later prints were all more competent than H.M.S. Victory, none had the same winning combination of elements. Seamanship, landscape and history together take this woodcut out of the commonplace and prove perhaps that father had been right when he had had his sons educated together in the way that he did. Readers will also understand that this neatly leads me into one of my pet topics, namely the extent of the effect Urushibara had on British colour print making. I think it was considerable and I strongly suspect the refined printing sense and sense of atmosphere depend largely on the Japanese artist.

Beyond that the trees in the foreground of Arreton Farm (top) have the broad muscularity we associate with Frank Brangwyn. More subtly, the partnership between Brangwyn and  Urushibara was repeated in the unique enterprise undertaken by the twins and unusually in 1932 the Graver Printers in Colour broke their own rules once again and allowed collaborative work to be exhibited at their annual show in London. Surprisingly, Catspaw, Cowes remains untraced to this day. The seafaring theme was continued with Scrapped. (The Emperor of India) which went into the collection at the British Museum. I have to been able to find an image of that print either so we are left with the landscapes they made between 1933 and 1938, including Medina valley (or Medina factory) (above) and Spring rhapsody (below).

Both prints depend heavily on a loose watercolour style that again puts me in mind of Urushibara's translations of Brangwyn' work. With the Mortons we should never let the detail get in the way of appreciating the overall tone and luminosity. I regret not buying one of their woodcuts I found for sale at Bath antiques market many years ago. Probably the price of £50 might have put me off but it was probably more the overall impression. Despite the stunts they got up to and despite having such a theatrical father, the pale colours and lack of focus was wrong for colour woodcut. It needed something bolder. On the other hand, when the Commodore Cinema was built at Ryde on the Isle of Wight in 1936, our two boys were engaged to provide a nautical touch to the decoration, including disguising the box-office as the stern of an eighteenth century battleship. Frankly, this sounds more to my liking than rhapsodies and coupled with the chance to have tea at a place in Southsea decorated by the irrepressible twins, it sounds to me like the perfect day out. Predictably I have seen neither. I have never discovered the name of the tea shop though I have visited Southsea and the Commodore stayed open until not that long ago. Whether the box-office was still afloat I cannot say. When you are next down that way, please try and find out. I get the feeling that decoration was what they did best.

Friday 15 October 2021

A colour woodcut of the Thames by Leslie Moffat Ward


If nothing else this fetching colour print by Leslie Moffat Ward  is further proof of what I said about him in the last post. The reader who sent it to me yesterday described it as a colour woodcut and that is what it looks like. This means that in addition to the list of  techniques I gave in the previous post we should add colour woodcut. Seeing the print also means I now have to go back on what I said only on Wednesday when I called the colour prints 'generic'. This enticing view of the river Thames conveys too much information about the Thames sailing barges and the riverside factories to be called generic although it does hover somewhere between illustration and fine art. You could never says that about about Ethel Kirkpatrick's view of the Isola San Giorgio at Venice (below).

Readers familiar with Kirkpatrick will know her series of prints of the Thames that often include the distinctive Thames sailing barges riding low in the water exactly like the ones you see in Ward's print. Ward made many etchings of the Thames over his long career but also produced the image of lighters and barges passing below London Bridge in lino (below). But there is a considerable difference between the evocative night time print so typical of him at his best and the descriptiveness of the London Bridge scene. Like so many of the linocuts it is very short on mood and atmosphere, not something you could accuse the main image of.

As I also suggested on Wednesday it was trickier to see what effect Ward himself had but I would say Thomas Todd Blaylock's colour woodcut views of Poole Harbour owe a lot to Ward's example. They are not as accomplished as the Ward print and without more research it hard to know exactly what was happening in the southern counties of England. It was not a school as such but they had a folksy appeal that was not found amongst the metropolitan artists associated with the Graver Printers.

If you have not identified another guest at the dinner, I would suggest one of them is Yoshijiro Urushibara. In my own view British colour woodcut took another course following the publication of Brangwyn and Urushibara's Bruges portfolio in 1919. As William Giles put it about Urushibara 'to all of us he has been of service'. From students at Birmingham to sophisticated decorative artists in Paris, Urushibara did the rounds and helped everyone to achieve subtle new effects and Ward's print is so different form his linocuts, I would find it hard to believe Urushibara wasn't stowed away somewhere.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

The colour linocuts of Leslie Moffat Ward


I was reminded of Leslie Moffat Ward's colour linocuts when a reader told me he had bought one. There are six that I know of and like all of Ward's work they vary in their appeal. This does not mean the best like Knowle Church, Dorset (above) are not worth having. Ward belonged to that small group of printmakers who were adept at both intalgio and relief print methods and was proficient when it came to etching, wood-engraving, lithography and lino. This was no mean feat but for all its bravura effects, his was a very settled art. He spent most of his life living in the Springbourne area of Bournemouth where he taught pictorial design at the college of art under its headmaster Thomas Todd Blaylock. Ward used to give me the impression that he was out on his own, intent on conveying a vision peculiar to himself like a Dorset Claughton Pellew. The fact he made colour linocut gives the lie to such an interpretation.. It does not carry the essential weight of tradition and had a modish triviality about it.

It goes without saying that Ward's linocuts are generic. None of them achieve the distinctive intensity of his etched work at its best. They were not pot-boilers, but they were a side-line, and collectors who belong to the exclusive cult of Isabel de B. Lockyer may have the feeling they have seen Knowle Church, Dorset somewhere before. And indeed they have. Knowle Church is De B. Lockyer's linocut Chateau de la Tour Vevey (1926) transposed to rural Dorset. Unfortunately for Ward the comparison with what what I take to be his source is telling. Lockyer had a chic nonchalance that was beyond him and her poster colours were applied with typical brilliance and originality. Her poplars are living flames; his Irish yews are worthy sentinels. What is good about the Ward, though, is the play of light from the right. This redeems the print as the subtle play of dark green and ochre does.

The Valley Farm (above) takes another alternative and adopts the manner of Robert Howey. Howey was another early exponent of colour linocut in Britain. With very limited means, Ward produced a subtle print that also reminds me of Hans and Leo Frank who exhibited here in the twenties. But the Ward has a firm sense of composition and drawing that marks out where his ability lies underneath the considerable surface attractiveness. Vineyard Farm (below) was made in two versions, one light brown, the other blue, and probably comes from later on when Ward was in full control of the medium. Some of the prints are cruder and depend heavily on compositional gambits that have very little to do with the linocut medium.

It is worth putting up one example (below) if only to show just how much Ward worked at his linocut technique. He was much better in this respect than his friend and associate, Eric Hesketh Hubbard, who was based in the New Forest. Vineyard Farm  shows how much a well-trained artist could achieve with lino. The farmhouse sits firmly on its hillside and is remote from the flat effects of Hesketh Hubbard's buildings. There is always something satisfying and intriguing about Ward and if you do spot the obvious loans from his fellow artists, you then need to to ask yourself how many ideas they took from him.

Monday 11 October 2021

'S. G. Boxsius from the Roof' : a prospectus for a new book & two new images


As artists of lesser standing and with less appeal than S.G. Boxsius have had small books published about them in recent years, I thought it was time Boxsius had one to himself more or less. This should be enough to please some readers at least although it would not be necessary or possible to devote a book to Boxsius on his own. There is not enough material out there about any of these artists to write a book about them. But as Boxsius was doing something new when he began making linocuts, a book would provide the chance to include linocut contemporaries of his like Isabel de B. Lockyer, Chica MacNab and Robert Howey. It would also be an opportunity to tell the true story of how the whole linocut trip took off well in the corrective fashion of Boxsius himself  before the Grosvenor School opened its illustrious doors in Pimlico.

In order to pull this off, I need help from readers. The number of prints by Boxsius in American and British museum collections can be counted on ten fingers. This is not very many for someone who produced at least thirty-five prints between about 1928 and 1938. But collectors have been taking an interest since the 1980s when Alan Guest identified Boxsius as one of the best practitioners. This means that the majority of his prints are in private collections in both the U.S. and Britain and I do need any readers willing to have their own images photographed for inclusion in the book to come forward. Without loans, this will not get off the ground. 

In the mean time, I include two prints you may not have seen and a better image of London from the roof than the small one you will have. (It is the same print I would think but in larger format). At the very top of the post is one of Boxsius' classic holiday images, By the quay, Looe from 1937. Presumably it shows 'Waterwitch' having her hull painted or caulked. The ship had already appeared in his work in 1934. Indeed there are times when he appeared to be short of new ideas. In other respects, he looked at his subject the way a sculptor does, turning it round to view it from all sides. Some of you will know the photograph of him working on a large tankard at Camden School of Art. There is also another photo of him surrounded by classical casts in the art room at Bolt Court. These are both telling photographs.

But not content with re-using images of his own, Boxsius often made productive use of the ideas of other artists. Ruins at Walberswick from 1931 (second from the top) depends on Eric Slater's The land-gate, Winchelsea from about 1926 (third from top) and the colour woodcuts of Cornwall that Sidney Lee made about 1905. (For readers who do not know the country, Looe is in Cornwall).  Nothing shows the corrective temper of the man better. In this respect, Boxsius was also a link between the old school colour woodcutters of the pre-war period and the new school linocut artists of the twenties. You can decide for yourself on the relative merits of the two prints by Boxsius and Slater. But you should know by now that there is more to Boxsius than meets the eye and there is a second more surprising source for his print in the shape of Elizabeth Keith's East Gate, Seoul by moonlight made in about 1920 (above). All this only goes to show how aware Boxsius was and how much he could absorb. Ruins at Walberswick isn't Boxsius at his best. That said, at this stage in the proceedings I will probably buy anything by him I can lay my hands on.

Sorry to say I have mislaid some of the email address of readers who I know own work by Boxsius. Anyone who can help though can contact me (Gordon Clarke) at the usual e mail I can then send them a check list of Boxsius prints.

Tuesday 5 October 2021

'Etched in memory, the elevated art of J. Alphege Brewer' by Benjamin S. Dunham


The kind of colour etchings that James Alphege Brewer made from about 1912 onwards were never popular with able British artists until the sixties and seventies when printmakers like Graham Clarke made small prints of rural subjects. Interestingly enough, both Clarke and Brewer concentrated on architectural subjects that conveyed a sense of the past. Because of the nature of the technique, it is difficult to achieve the bright colours that many modern artists like to use, but the moody and atmospheric tones typical of colour etching suited the evocative style used by Brewer and Clarke.

As late as the 1920s there was also a strong prejudice against any kind of colour print. Sir Frank Short, head of printmaking at the Royal College of Art until about 1930, considered them inadmissible and this may be one reason why Brewer sold so many of his prints in the United States. Beyond that, when Kenneth Guichard published British etchers 1850 - 1940 in 1977 as the print collecting revival took off, Brewer was found on the infamous list of also-rans he included. This all means that Ben Dunham's new book, Etched in memory, fills a gap in the growing list of monographs devoted to British printmakers working between 1900 and 1945.

The format is more generous than the other softbacks about artists such as Allen Seaby and Eric Slater, the reproduction quality is good and the number of illustrations numerous. Ben and his wife have been serious collectors of Brewer's work for some years but in common with so many of the artists of the period Brewer has not been at all easy to research. Consequently, a good deal of the book is concerned with the prints themselves and what happened to them. One of the most interesting aspects to the book is how many of the subjects were French and how many prints were sold in the U.S. This was a big market and showed how commercially-minded Brewer was. It also meant Brewer had to maintain exacting standards. American standards are high and there was generally nothing second rate about the complex production of the prints. To understand more, you need to buy the book. This may not seem an obvious purchase for readers of Modern Printmakers but I discovered much about the period that was new to me and Ben Dunham's book deserves a place on your bookshelf alongside the books about the more fashionable artists Modern Printmakers concerns itself with out of habit.

One of the disadvantages that many Americans face when writing about modern British printmaking is the lack of books about individual artists. As we all know, colour woodcut is taken more seriously in the States than it is here. This means that it is often difficult for writers to fit their chosen artist into a proper context and, despite this new and useful publication, Brewer remains something of an anomaly. It is easy enough to see where he fits in with the trend towards conversion to the Roman Catholic church and the interest in the past shown by a Catholic artist like F.L.M. Griggs, but little is known about what happened. Even when Brewer took up colour woodcut about 1938, the methods he used have never been clear - not to me, at least. The book includes is a short section on the woodcuts (mainly written by myself) with seven invaluable illustrations of the colour woodcuts he made.

As for the detail, I was intrigued by the way Brewer's colour etchings of Bruges and Malines in Belgium made about 1916 reminded me of the Brangwyn and Urushibara's Bruges portfolio of 1919 and I finished the book certain that here were further sources for that redoubtable portfolio. This was perhaps clinched by the fact that a British mezzotint artist, S. Arlent Edwards, lived in Bruges throughout the entire four-year period of German occupation. This is the value of studies like this one. As we read them, we all begin to make connections we would never have made on our own.

Etched in memory is published by Peacock Press at Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, and is available from Amazon Books and ABE at just under £20 in the U.K. and from Amazon at $25 in the United States.