Friday 22 March 2024

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.


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