Thursday 29 December 2022

On holiday with Helen Stevenson


Like S.G. Boxsius, Helen Stevenson was one of those artists who did her best work after visiting somewhere on holiday. This is not meant to imply that she was in some way an amateur, but like Boxsius, she had a job as a teacher of art and the places she made the subjects for her colour woodcuts were far-removed from the place where she worked. But then Edinburgh was not a colour-woodcut place. It appears only once in the work of Mabel Royds and once in John  Platt (Murrayfield presumably). Stevenson looked westwards, to the braes, glens and lochs of Argyll and the Isle of Arran, off its southern coast. 

In Brodick Bay (top) was exhibited with the Graver Printers in London in 1930, following The coal boat (above) in early 1929. As both prints depict locations on Arran, she presumably visited the island in 1928. What is striking about the later print is how much more accomplished it is. Perhaps Stevenson realised there was not enough happening in The coal boat and went looking for ideas from another source. If anything, by comparison, In Brodick Bay has too much to say for itself.  

Brodick is the main town on the island and the place where the ferry arrives and most of the hotels are located, so it made an obvious and convenient subject. And notice how carefully she was followed by Boxsius in Bowsprits (1933), The Waterwitch (1934) and The bargeman (above). It was in Boxsius' approach to copy and expand (and improve on). More to the point is what he ignores (or misses). In Brodick Bay has an unmistakeable reference to the work of Hokusai in the stylised use of Prussian blue. The Boxsius way is almost always more art deco than Stevenson, his wife is a modern wife, engaging with the locals. Stevenson's characters are only absorbed in what they are doing. She has left the self-consciousness of Comiston Drive (where she lived) behind her.

In Brodick Bay  works on two levels (if not three). There is the sense of scale achieved by using larger and smaller boats and the complexity of human life set against the bare fell across the bay. What artists like Stevenson and Boxsius rarely achieved was the very different visual take on life summarised by Hokusai in his comic view of shipwreck from 36 views of Mount Fuji, c 1830 - 1832 (above). Note how the Scottish artist emphasises the foreground and relates it to the background where she leaves us to compare Goatfell with Mount Fuji, if we so wish. The Japanese artist, meanwhile, has no foreground to speak of and gives the mountain an area to itself. The outlandish scale is made to suggest his boat is an Ark come aground, or a sea-monster. For him, Fuji is both in the immediate foreground and superior to everything else.