Wednesday 27 March 2024

The official guide to Agnes Reeve

When Agnes Reeve decided on a series of colour woodcuts taking London monuments both old and new for its subject, it was obviously not an original idea. Many such prints had been made before. They had even been made using colour woodcut by Emile Verpeilleux before the first war while John Hall Thorpe had covered Piccadilly Circus. What was different was the way she included modern buildings like the new home of the B.B.C. at Broadcasting House in Marylebone and Shell Mex House, which were both built in a chunky manner in 1932. What she also displayed was a new-found confidence and skill that had been lacking in what she had made previously.

I could be wrong when I assume her colour woodcuts of Somerton and Lavenham in Suffolk were older work. Certainly they were nowhere near as good as the London series and neither were exhibited with the Graver Printers.  Fortunately for her current reputation none of them appear to be online any longer and I am going to leave it that way. I had forgotten I had a file on her and it contains some prints not up to the standard of the ones here. The odd thing is there were none of the better prints in my file except for the image of Tower Bridge (above). This means that work has been appearing in very recent years though as Scholten says in their sales chat, it must be rare because the editions are relatively small. Piccadilly Circus, 1934 (above) is thirty and Hyde Park Corner is only ten. It did not make all that much sense to do that though she was was not alone. Isabel de B. Lockyer did the same and may have wanted buyers to believe they were members of an exclusive club.

But as you all know, colour woodcut collecting remains a club to this day. How she became a bona fide colour woodcut artist is another matter. She may have taken lessons with someone like Urushibara or used Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock Printing. The places where she trained, including the Royal Academy Schools, the Slade and the Ros Byam Shaw School were not the kinds of places she would have come across colour relief printing and by and large the style and scope of her work is as conventional as her subject matter. Even so, the image of Tower Bridge (above and courtesy of Annex Galleries) is a accomplished both as a colour woodcut and a composition. It makes use of an unusual view from the Surrey Commercial Docks side at Rotherhithe, but the title may have been assumed by Annex because there is nothing on the print and no record of such a title. The cranes look awkward but the lighters in the left foreground are not only well drawn, they betray familiarity with Urushibara's work. All the prints here employ the strict Japanese manner but this one captures the subdued sentiment of so many of the best Japanese prints. 

The series may begin with Westminster in 1931 and go on to St James Park Station, evening and Warwick Street in 1932, The Thames from Horseferry Steps (1933) Piccadilly Circus (1934) London Bridge (1935) and reaches Hyde Park Corner in 1938. The colour woodcuts then come to an end as so many of them do. Reeve turned to colour linocut  after the war, but I have never seen any. I had intended to call this post ' Collector's corner' but that struck me as dismissive. Nevertheless, I do want to suggest what collectors ought to be looking out for (and will hopefully find before Scholten do). I reckon there are at least fourteen London subjects. The list I have from Alan Guest is based on Graver Printers catalogues, but even there is incomplete though it is still better informed than anyone else and includes In Majorca (1934) and Dalmatian Harbour (1938). 

I suspect if she was not already making colour linocuts herself, she was already influenced by them. Though not on Alan's list, Broadcasting House (top) must have been made after 1932 (when building work was completed) and by then colour linocut was being widely exhibited with the touring shows of the Exhibition of British Linocut. The print has the strong use of pattern and a close-up viewpoint you would associate with Grosvenor School work and, although Piccadilly Circus relies heavily on the use of a keyblock, the massing and rigid patterning are both Grosvenor conventions. The Graver Printers refer to her variously as 'Agnes Reeve', 'Mrs Norman Reeve' and 'Mrs Agnes Reeve', but that probably says more about them than it does about the artist and I believe she signed her work 'A. Reeve'. If you know better, let me know and, obviously, I will be disappointed if I now do not receive an email telling me 'I have one of Trafalgar Square I found in Oxfam.'

Friday 22 March 2024

The ones that got away: Eli Marsden Wilson at Scarborough

I was only told about the recent sale at Scarborough after it had taken place, but included was a mahogany artist's cabinet and contents (below) that once belonged to Eli Marsden Wilson (it went for £3,100) as well as a some very fine atmospheric mezzotints and very likeable bookplates by him. Wilson is not an obvious artist for Modern Printmakers and the name didn't really register when it was used, but my readers are a canny lot and one way or another, nothing much passes them by, so I decided to check Eli Marsden Wilson out.

Wilson trained at Wakefield School of Art where he won a place to the Royal College of Art and studied intalgio printmaking under Sir Frank Short (and was presumably a fellow student of William Giles and S.G. Boxsius). Short had revived the use of mezzotint at a time when many old techniques like enamelling and painting in tempera were being rediscovered and introduced the technique to Wilson. For many years, Wilson made etchings and mezzotints, but after the market for them collapsed, he turned his hand to other things, including painting, designing dioramas for the Natural History Museum (bottom) and designing stamps. This is what an art school training did for you. Walter Crane may have described the Royal College as a mill for teachers, but it provided Wilson with the means to make a living, even when the etching boom came to a sudden end.

I do not know when he was making mezzotints, but it was presumably prior to 1929. What I do know is it takes an artist of considerable dedication and skill to pull it off. Some of the best mezzotints were made in the c18th. I used to look at them when they were going for next-to-nothing in my local saleroom. The subtle effects it is capable of as a medium has also attracted contemporary Japanese printmakers, but like copper engraving, it may be too difficult for many artists. Wilson came right at the end of the reproductive tradition that had once had mezzotint and steel engraving as two of its mainstays and between them Short and Wilson helped reintroduce mezzotint as a way of making original prints.

You will find many artists using demanding techniques just as Wilson did on ebay in Austria and Germany. The format they use is often small and subtle, but many are worth buying simply because they are unfashionable. It is all very well going on about colour woodcuts, but quite often unfashionable artists were better trained and this can make their work particularly rewarding. Wilson is no exception and if you missed out on last week's sale (as I did), do not give in to despair. Modern Printmakers likes to keep its ear to the ground and I have it on good authority a few of those delightful Wilson mezzotints will soon be back on sale.

The experimental Mr Batten: John Dixon Batten & British colour woodcut


John Dixon Batten's father, John Winterton Batten (above) had wanted him to be a lawyer and, like many of the young men of the time, including Frank Morley Fletcher, Batten went along with his father's plans for him. He gained a degree in law from Trinity College, Cambridge, was called to the Bar and promptly gave it up for a course at the Slade School. There he encountered the debonair Frenchman, Alphonse Legros, who was professor of fine art. Legros believed he had wasted his life teaching young artists but Batten's approach to art depended on the example set by Legros. Unlike Mabel Royds who had studied at Chester before she went to the Slade, the school and Legros was all Batten had to go on. It was probably enough because from engraving on cornelian to theatre design, Legros had a broad range of skills he could impart to the students and his attitude to colour was obviously one of them.


The role Legros played in preparing the way for British colour woodcut has never been considered except on Modern Printmakers. A good deal has been made of the example of Japanese ukiyo'e prints but far less of the influence of European artists. When Walter Crane went to Rome with Legros, he was astonished his friend spent all his time there copying the corner of a fresco by Raphael. As it happens, I recently come back from Florence where Masaccio and Masolino's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are undergoing their second modern restoration (above). I told the guide it was like Prada and she said, 'Prada want to come here and look at these colours'. But it was not only colour. Legros had looked so carefully at the Raphael cartoons in the V&A, it could show students like Batten the difference between Raphael's hand and those of his two assistants.


What this amounted to was a serious interest in graphic design and colour and both played a part of what Batten did in The centaur. This was made in 1921 twenty-two years after The tiger (below) the first print he made more or less independently of Frank Morley Fletcher. Batten had a great admiration for the work of Hokusai and was not beyond pinching good ideas from him like his hobyahs, but what he borrowed was always translated into a European idiom and what is best about European tradition is here. It may not be to contemporary taste but Batten was simply being true to the central tenets like perspective, realism, the nude and respect for past art but providing students with a practical way of making colour prints. 

He knew what a struggle it had been for Fletcher and himself. It also knew how easy it was to be led astray. By 1921, the post war revival of colour woodcut had begun and new artists on the scene like Frank Brangwyn and Yoshijiro Urushibara were heavily influenced by Japanese style and subject matter and Batten had never believed that was the way to go. Nor was he alone. Mabel Royds had never showed any interest but more canny artists like Ian Cheyne went to Japan for  sense of chic. It was all in the interpretation. The centaur was made that year in two versions, one using four blocks and suitable, he said, for a portfolio or illustration and a second with six blocks like the one above and suitable to be framed and hung on the wall where it would need more impact. He was trying to be open-minded and suggest there was considerable potential for printmakers as the New Year card designed for his parents suggests.


Another development that mattered to Batten was the growing reaction of important traditionalists like the etcher, Sir Frank Short. (The shadowed valley 1927, above). Short had been put in charge of the etching class at the Royal College of Art in 1891 two years before Batten began to try out colour woodblock (below) and, as he was there until 1926, remained very influential and was able to uphold what he saw as a tradition that went all the way back to Mantegna, Durer and Rembrandt. The problem was this view of tradition was partial. Italian and German artists had made colour woodcuts well before Rembrandt was working and W.R. Lethaby went so far as the suggest colour print had been introduced to Japan from Europe. So far as he was concerned, it was all down to method and as Fletcher had written in 1916, 'Batten... had attempted, and partially succeeded in making, a print from wood and metal blocks with colour mixed with glycerine and dextrine... As the Japanese method seemed to promise greater advantage and simplicity, we began experiments together... ' and the rest is history. Fletcher not only became a proponent of Japanese colour but of Japanese style and was as unrelenting as Short.


Monday 18 March 2024

Three drawings by Mabel Royds


I heard more today about what happened to the large collection of work by Mabel Royds that was left in her studio following her death in 1941. I have to say I was surprised by the variety but what you see here are three of the drawings sold by her daughter, Marjorie Barton, many years ago.  Despite that, Goldmark at Uppingham in Rutland still have drawings for sale. These three are amongst them and they probably represent some of the best drawings left you can still buy.

But Goldmark is not all there is to it. Those of you who cannot leave ebay alone will also know that there are more drawings there being sold by a long-time Royds dealer in Nottinghamshire. It may sound incredible but all the drawings you see here and the ones on ebay were part of the same horde that Marjorie Barton sold about 1984 when interest in colour woodcut was taking off.

Royds is not for the faint-hearted and I decided against using one of the Goldmark here in case e-blogger slapped a warning on Modern Printmakers. She was a great colourist as we all know, vibrant, subtle, uncompromising. She also had a powerful drawing style which increased in drama as art deco took hold. She was possibly the first woman to make male nudes (more or less) and I suspect this has not always helped some of the Indian prints to sell.

Anyway, you can buy any of these for less than you will pay for a print. If you can find one, that is.

Further information about S.G. Boxsius 'Spring'


I had always believed that S.G. Boxsius never dated any of his prints but I found out today that I was wrong. A reader generously gave me his spare copy of his calendar image, Spring (above) which I posted about not long ago. I showed him my own proofs of Autumn and Winter which he printed on a fine tissue. (See below) Spring on the other hand is printed on heavy wove and I said it looked as though he used heavier and less expensive paper for another year. It turned out I was right because after my visitor left, I had another look at my new Spring and discovered a faint '1932' underneath his signature.

Saturday 2 March 2024

E mail for Modern Printmakers



I needed an excuse to post Hugo Henneberg's colour linocut Dalmatia. It had not been online all that long when I came across it and is one of the few colour prints he made that was not part of the portfolio of prints.  Mainly, though, I wanted occasional readers to know my email address has changed from the one that appears in older comments to and they can write to me, Gordon Clarke, for information or with any information about artists who I have written about or even ones I have not.