Monday 30 October 2023

Alice Coates & John Platt at Shrewsbury


This is a very late alert about a timed sale by Hall's of Shrewsbury. It has been open for about two weeks and closes at 4pm on 31st October. Tomorrow is still not to late to snap up some very choice work bought by a surgeon from Hilary Chapman in 2003 and 2004. There is also an interest modern colour woodcut 'The sower' by John Petts and a wildly misconceived colour linocut by the irreproachable Gertrude Hermes.

There are six epic colour woodcuts by John Platt and a rare and sublime colour linocut by Alice Coates called The signpost. It is England at a crossroads and I am never sure whether it represents Staffordshire or Worcestershire though in a way it hardly matters. No one but Coates would have seen the West Midlands as a hothouse, half-French, half-Grosvenor, the signpost at the foot of the slope subtly lets us know the countryside near Handsworth had found its own poet who unfortunately did not stay the course. She is closest in feel to her great Scottish contemporary, Ian Cheyne, perhaps not surprising because she has Scottish ancestry herself. But her great love was botany and she went on to work at botanical illustration until arthritis forced her to stop. So if you can't buy the print, you can buy one of her books. 

I love Coates' work but I can only admire John Platt's. That said there is plenty to admire in this small but judicious collection of the complete range of his oeuvre. From the scintillating The goat stride to the late dark masterpiece 'Sails' to make the very best of this auction, you will have to buy all six. You may never again get the chance to pick up such a good range of what Platt could do.

I have to say my own personal favourites are his wide angle beach scenes. 'Pilchard boats, Cornwall' is an elegant tour-de-force from his middle period when he took note of everything he saw like a masterful surveyor of British leisure and life. Let no one tell you this dynamic vision originated with the colour linocutters of the Grosvenor School as some would have us believe; it originated here, with John Platt, and derived from sound schooling at the Royal College of Art.

I have never been a big fan of Platt's later work. He tended to take a good idea like a rock guitarist and then do it to death. I mean you either love Led Zep or you can take two or three minutes of them and I think it is something like that with Platt. He had done all those flitting swallows years before on the walls of All Saints at Leek and no amount of appealing to Hokusai could redeem. It is an exercise in aerial effect. 'Sails' on the other hand is hard to explain. Although it derives from his torn paper method which he used with students, he transformed the harbour at Brixham into a seascape of Germanic half-abstraction. 

Platt was very much a man of his time. While some modern artists wanted to expunge the narrative and literary elements from their work, others like Platt took the academic and literary and made it into a new form of modern art which disappeared from view at the outbreak of war and did not reappear until young artists like David Hockney were being trained in the sixties at the Royal College of Art.


Friday 27 October 2023

Four colour woodcuts by SG Boxsius at Leominster


I have been surprised on visits to Leominster recently how many antiques shops and centres you find there are. The overall effect is to make the place look tatty and temporary. In fact someone who lives nearby went as far as to describe Leominster as 'a hole'.  Readers from outside of the UK will not be aware that this has become standard practice here. This means Evesham is a hole and so is Hereford while Gloucester is merely 'depressing'. I could go on. All I can say is such people have never been anywhere near a real hole. 

Suffice to say, you would not find colour woodcuts by S.G Boxsius coming up for sale in a proper hole. Nor would Boxsius himself have gone anywhere near one. He spent the last days of his life in 1940 visiting Tenbury Wells just over the boundary in Worcestershire. How these four prints ended up in Herefordshire is another matter. They were all handed out as Christmas presents to employees and clients of British Belting and Asbestos from 1930 onwards. I thought I had covered this subject fairly well but as I have had an enquiry from a reader about the Leominster prints, I thought it was as well to try and clear up any remaining confusion.

The term 'the four seasons' came into use quite a few years ago and I can assure you all that the idea did exist but that Boxsius only produced Spring, Autumn and Winter. Summer was the work of John Hall Thorpe and was the only one of the four to be machine-printed (presumably by the art printers Bemrose of Derby). All three of the seasonal prints by Boxsius were printed by hand on fine paper and unlike the Hall Thorpe were only signed in the block and never in pencil below the image. Nevertheless, Autumn remains one of his very best and most rewarding pieces of work and is well worth buying. Winter also found Boxsius on top of his form with the scudding clouds being some of his most remarkable effects. As the notes on the back say they suggest further snow to come and emphasise how much atmospheric effects were a concern in his work.

Spring and Winter come with the original labels supplied by B, B & A attached to the back. My hunch is the notes are the work of William Giles. For all the elegance of the phrases he uses, Giles was both a knowledgeable and perceptive writer and worth attending to. The labels suggest the work was framed by the recipients back the thirties. All the images here are the ones on the auction house website. Its is always preferable to buy the prints unframed. Now and then, they even come up in their original calendar mounts though I only the containing Valencia one by Arthur Rigden Read.

This means there were at least three artists working on commission for B, B & A during the thirties, with Boxsius being the artist they work with most and most successfully. The fourth print in the sale is Early morning. Like the Read and Hall Thorpe images, this one was machine printed but is a better and more professional image than the other two. There were two further prints, both with titles straight from Giles. Evening afterglow is the least common of any of the series. In fact, the only one I have ever come across is the proof that I now own. I have certainly never seen it since. Mid-day (not to be confused with Noon-day) was sold quite a long time ago by Hilary Chapman and is again pretty rare.

One reason for buying any of the series is the fact that they are all woodcuts. Lino could be unsuitable for long print runs and wood may also have been easier for professional printers to work with. The first ones are the best but as you know almost anything by Boxsius is worth buying. It is a pity Minster decided to put all four in one lot. Presumably they expect the trade to buy while collectors will already have one or two of these themselves (as I do) and will regretfully have to let the others pass. I would have certainly considered bidding for Spring and it is going to be interesting to see what the lot fetches and who buys it.

Lot 371 comes up at Minster Auctions, Leominster, Herefordshire on 1st November, 2023.

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Ernest Watson & American linocut


The California Society of Printmakers were in the habit of not distinguishing between colour woodcut and colour linocut. Instead they referred to them collectively as colour block prints (and the same thing went for galleries like Brown Robertson in New York). This said quite a lot about the north American attitude towards colour print. I have always found many American prints to be more generic than the ones made by British contemporaries and it may help explain why, given the choice between a New Mexico idyll by Gustave Baumann, Watson's Misty morning and the stylish aplomb of Arthur Rigden Read's Cite de Carcassonne, the jury at the California Printmakers exhibition of 1926 gave the gold medal to Read, and this in a country where showmanship matters. Read simply beat the Americans at their own game. The question is why? It was not the first time and it was not to be the last.

In the first place, what the Minneapolis Institute of Art say about The explorers (top) (which they own) is worth taking into account. 'Ernest Watson spent his career exploring the limits of linoleum. In this strange scene he takes advantage of the medium's best attributes: its glass smooth surface, which allowed for even application of color; and its soft composition, which allowed for crisply detailed carving.' Now all of this can be true but what is ironic is an American reader who had bought a linocut by S.G. Boxsius wondered about the mottled surface of his print and you can only draw the conclusion that Boxsius did not think an 'even application of color' was always such a good thing. But without doubt it is in the distant details where Watson and Boxsius have so much in common. In other respects Watson's approach is more like Robert Howey or Oscar Droege and Minneapolis might have been closer to the mark if they had said that what linocut did best was 'effect'. But did Watson really make the best of lino as MIA suggest? Only compare the dynamic approach taken by Claude Flight and his students at the Grosvenor School and you can see an artist wanting to do something original with linocut.

It strikes me that a lot of what Watson did was not very different from the work some of his British contemporaries like E.A. Verpilleux, Eric Hesketh Hubbard or Howey were doing. The difference is Watson rarely depicted anywhere you could put a name to and even when he made a print of St Ives in Cornwall, the whole approach was too atmospheric for the place to matter. The plowman (above) is mainly an exercise in design, colour and brilliant and dramatic effect. No one would deny Watson's skill and seriousness, but it remains the work of a teacher whose job it was to impart a high level of skill to his students. This is true of teachers of fine art everywhere It doesn't matter where you go, their own work usually has the same problem. The real subject is skill. This is why the got the job in the first place. And this is why Watson is so fond of depicting workers. That is the way he saw himself I suspect.

Watson trained as a teacher of art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (where the colour woodcut artist, Arthur Wesley Dow, was a teacher). He was then taken on at the Pratt as a teacher of design, drawing, perspective and composition in 1908 and remained until 1928. He met Eva Auld while she was training and after the couple married, he set up a summer school at Monterey in Massachusetts. This meant he spent almost all of the year teaching and even when he left the Pratt, he became an art editor on a journal. For me, all that shows. He never gave either himself or his subjects a chance to develop. Only compare the work of Edna Boise Hopkins who was another student at the Pratt to see what a wonderful American colour print artist can achieve.

Eva Auld Watson deserves a post to herself but you will not be surprised to hear the couple worked together and it is not always obvious whether print is by Eva or Ernest. It was the same with Hesketh Hubbard who sometimes collaborated with Frank Whittington. The style slips between fine art and commercial, not surprising when you consider some of Watson's students would go on to become commercial artists themselves. It still didn't mean he had to adopt a commercial style himself. Obviously, like Verpilleux's woodcuts, they were designed to look good framed on the wall. It is worth adding Verpilleux was influenced early in his style and choice of subject matter by the American etcher, Joseph Pennell, because what it all seems to amount to is 'International colour print style'. All very well done but lacking the finesse that gives colour prints their allure.

The only Watson print I have ever seen in front of me was one for sale on the High St in Oxford. It was large, impressive and relatively expensive and I reluctantly left it behind. This only meant a visiting American could come along and take it back home. And why not? Americans have always thought far more of their own colour print artists than the British have when it comes to their own. Not only that. They also tend to think more or ours, too. So, I can say what I like about Watson. It will not put them off. And quite rightly so.