Monday 29 November 2021

Robert Howey, north & south

Of all the British artists I have written about, Robert Howey is about the only one I can think of who kept a base at his home in the northern town of West Hartlepool but managed to have a career as a professional artist who had a dealer in London and exhibited across the country. At the age of twenty-five, he st up in business as a show-card artist and designer at premises in Hartlepool. This was in 1925. I do not know how long that the business lasted but four years later he helped make a decisive  contribution to the way the public was introduced to colour linocut. By then,  he had a dealer in London who was publishing his prints and held a show of them in Chelsea in 1929. More importantly, at the end of June the Gray Art Gallery in West Hartlepool became the first municipal gallery to hold an exhibition of colour linocuts and when the thirty prints moved to Sunderland, Howey was present to give demonstrations of the technique.

Sunderland is now celebrated for being one of the most successful of the venues of the first tour of the Exhibition of British Linocut that had opened at the Redfern Gallery in London within days of Howey's Sunderland show opening in the north. Being a public gallery, Sunderland was keen to count numbers of visitors. In all, there were 10,629 and when British Linocut closed at the same venue, Claude Flight was pleased to boast about the 12,000 visitors that exhibition had had. Generally, it has been assumed that Flight was the main organiser of these tours - and this may well be the case. But frankly, given the success Howey had both in London and in the north, we need to consider how much help he had, particularly from provincial curators and Howey himself.

No-one seems to have asked how it was that Flight and the Redfern between them had such a good base in the north. The first exhibition visited Blackpool, Carlisle and Gateshead before reaching Sunderland. It then went on to Darlington - and it is a very surprising list. The last three towns were at the heart of the development of the railways and the industrial expansion of the C19th. Thy were hardly Chelsea or Kensington. Someone had had a brain-wave and clearly the idea appealed to Flight who had declared the democratic nature of colour linocut in emulation of the same claim made for colour woodcut by Frank Morley Fletcher. If this was all hocus-pocus, it hardly matters, The tours continued for another nine years.

By now you will have gained some idea of the style of Howey's own linocut. Nothing at all like the prints made by the artists who had studied with Flight at the Grosvenor School. Many of them have more in common with European artists like Helen Tupke Grande, Leo Frank and Carl Rotky who exhibited alongside him in the 1930s. Only the spire of the church beyond the staithes in the print third from the top lets us know it is Hartlepool rather than Martigues or Bordighera. When he depicts summer (above) the emphasis is on form and decoration not sentiment and for all the evocativeness of the rider in the shadow of the elm tree, the flat forms and broken shadows could be German. You need to remind yourself that the summer image with its rich intensity isn't a lost print by Helen Mass.

Here is an artist who has learned to copy the styles of other artists at a provincial English school of art in about 1916 or 1917. When it came to watercolour, it was often J.M.W. Turner he turned to. With the prints, the simplification he used betrayed his work as a commercial artist and when you have the linocuts in front of you, there is little of the fine effects you would expect from a good artist's print and they are unexciting. Everything depends on design and image. This does not mean he is not worth buying. The fact that I was disappointed by the one print I bought, does not mean I do not admire the images you see her for their brevity and sense of style. But West Hartlepool and Gateshead were never going to be Vienna or Trieste. The engineers of northern England changed the world forever. What they did not do was change art and what you see in Howey is an ability to learn and adapt styles, but styles whose energy had run out many years before.

Saturday 20 November 2021

The colour linocuts of Norbertine von Bresslern Roth


Over the years, the linocuts of Norbertine von Bresslern Roth have received scant attention on Modern Printmakers. There are various reasons for this, none of them very good ones, especially as her print of wolves walking down through a snowy forest (below) is one of the most memorable images I own. Even though she studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts before the first war, she was essentially a designer and she had more in common with the modern artists and other designers who taught at the School of Arts and Crafts and, appropriately enough, she exhibited with the Vienna Secession in 1916 where so many of those same people had begun exhibiting before the war.

The colour linocuts she began making about 1920 owe almost all of their style to woodcut artists like Hans Frank, Walther Klemm and, most notably, to L.H. Jungnickel (who has featured widely and deservedly on my blog).  Jungnickel was responsible for the head of a snarling lion from 1903 and this set the tone for a lot of what Bresslern Roth did. Nor were the grouping of animals, which she is famous for, her own idea. Jungnickel not only led the way led the way to the Vienna Tiergarten, it was him who identified the parrots terrorising the sedate drawing-rooms of the city and made colour woodcuts of such vivid candour they have never been bettered. Bresslern Roth ignored humour and character but did give us very well-made prints that were clearly meant to attract attention on the same drawing room walls. This brings her well into line with what British artists were doing from about 1912 onwards. What she offered were professional prints from an identifiable series. William Nicholson and John Hall Thorpe had similar brands as did Gustave Bauman in the U.S. 

The importance of the formula to her becomes evident when she tried another genre, one problem being the genres were difficult to pin down. The best example are the prints she made after a visit to North Africa in 1928. How could it be that a country like Tunisia could turn out to be so bland? Perhaps she had only pretended to go  and went to a fancy dress party at the zoo instead. With their lurking camels, shaggy shelters and bundled women, they all remind me of banal versions of The Nativity (if you do want me to name the genre). An artist goes to North Africa for the blistering light and although it is apparent in the print above, you only need to consider what Henri Matisse did with Tangier to see how feeble Bresslern Roth could be once she was out of her comfort zone. Even Elizabeth Keith, a far less talented artist than Roth, rendered China and Korea with real character. With Roth you suspect a gaggle of Tunisians had one day wandered up the Hohe Warte in Vienna and squatted in the shade of one of  the villas designed by Josef Hoffman for his artist friends. Just look at the jazzy decoration in the background! Easy of course to mock, harder to get it right. And get it right, she quite often did.

Saturday 13 November 2021

Hilary Chapman's 'John Edgar Platt, master of the colour woodcut' for sale.

In 2018, Hilary Chapman bought out John Edgar Platt, master of the colour woodcut as an updated version of a book about Platt's colour woodcuts she had published way back in 1999 and which had long been unavailable. The present book is now available from Pallant House in Chichester at half price and is worth £6.25 of anybody's money. At the last count, there were about 140 copies left - and sensible people are buying two.

The format is larger than the first book so the illustrations are larger and there are far more in colour. Whether the new book did Platt any more justice is another thing. Like the old one (and like the Urushibara I talked about in the previous post) this is a catalogue with an introductory essay. To be honest, I have not re-read them. Chapman is content to give some biography and some information about colour woodcut in the Japanese manner without providing much context. 

To my own mind so many of these little books are lost opportunities to provide insight about the way the artist worked and also perceptive commentary. Praising technical skill simply isn't enough. There is no comparison with work he did in other media, for instance, and you only have to compare The scrum with Platt's design for stained glass at All Saints, Leek, to see how academic he could be. The approach is all too literal and safe. The book also misses two more aspects to The scrum: it obviously represents a Scotland/England game at Murrayfield and the person to the left of the main figure is an ironic portrait of one of Platt's contemporaries. All I will say is that he is an artist. Can you supply the name?

Thursday 11 November 2021

Yoshijiro Urushibara visits Kew Gardens

Quite a few years ago, someone had a blog where they identified at least some of the vases Yoshijiro Urushibara made use of in his flower prints. It was not a pottery I was familiar with, I don't remember what it was called and for some reason the blogger has since removed the post. But this said a lot about the reproductive training Urushibara had received with the firm of Shimbi Shoin he worked for in Tokyo. He had not only to reproduce the work of artists to a high standard in colour woodcut, he was also been trained to imitate their styles. But this was not unique to the workshops of Japan. Frank Brangwyn once complained that British arts schools did nothing but train clever imitators. On a more subtle level, when George Moore tactlessly described Edgar Degas as 'a revolutionary painter', Degas response was, 'We are tradition'. And it is that French 'we' that is so important once we begin to try and assess the work of Urushibara with any seriousness because in the current age of pick 'n' mix pronouns, Ursuhibara was certainly in the plural.

I wilfully misrepresenting what Degas meant when he referred to himself in the first person plural. In common with other British artists, Urushibara spent a fair amount of of time to-ing and fro-ing between London and Paris where the people he knew were artists in the French decorative tradition. London itself was home to other French artists, notably Theodore Roussel who was president of the Graver Printers in Colour. It was Roussel who had begun making prints of vases of flowers in the 1890s and who exhibited colour versions of them when the Graver Printers had their first exhibitions, I am saying this all over again because not everyone who actually reads what I say was convinced the first time.

 Far from being copyist, the best of Urushibara's flower prints like Chrysanthemums (above) an early tour-de-force from 1922, drew on both modern French decorative art and the Japanese tradition of bird and flowers prints they called kacho-e  This print not only depicts a vase of orange spider chrysanthemums, it suggests November. The icy atmosphere, the frosty table, the frozen dribbles of glaze are all chosen with the care of a very sensitive practitioner where the interior of his studio is transformed into a wintry garden. At the time, Urushibara's work on Brangwyn's drawings were aptly described as 'translations'. When it came to his own original work, the sense of transformation was greater. Everywhere the power of suggestion is at work, notably in the vase itself. This has turned into a tuber, lifted from the earth ready for storing in the greenhouse. With this print, everything is turned around. The studio has become a landscape, what was contained in the earth has become a container.

Peonies made about three years later in c 1925 works in a similar way but in two versions, the one above and the well-known aniline blue version. I like the way the table suggests the earth in the blue version but I prefer this one mainly because Urushibara gets closer to engraving and the way the decoration on the vase suggests a garden more clearly. You can also seen i this print why modern Japanese printmakers have adopted the  European difficult technique of mezzotint. This was widely used in ritaon by professional engravers reproducing paintings or designs by fine artists in much the same way craftsmen at Shimbi Shoin did. One strength of mezzotint is that is allows for fine gradations of tone, which makes it very suggestive of atmosphere.

Different rules apply in Japanese fine art because the sensibility is a different one. Take Dahlias (above). A friend once had the pale version on loan for a number of years and had it hanging above his television so I came to know it very well. (It was also the way I came to recognise Urushibara's signature). Unfortunately, the edition was probably only twenty so it is now very uncommon. This may be because dark prints like this were less popular. Nevertheless, this is another personal favourite and suggests exactly the way Urushibara's sensibility worked. Which modern British artist would combine montbretia, dahlias and chestnut leaves or would have used two receptacles instead of one so he could place the larger vase off-centre?

Unless you own a copy of Hilary Chapman's Yoshijiro Urushibara, you will probably not have seen the darker version because this is the first time it has appeared online. Despite all its obvious faults, Hilary's book is worth buying (and was reviewed on Modern Printmakers in 2017 when it first came out). I have had to take a photo of the reproduction in the book, not ideal because the light reflects off the glossy paper. I have included an illustration of the pale version, too, so you can decided for yourself which you like best. Either way, I would buy the one that turned up first and then the other one when it turned up afterwards. If only.

Hilary Chapman & Libby Horner Yoshijiro Urushibara, a Japanese printmaker in London is available in softback in the UK on Abe for £52 and on Amazon Books for £56.