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.