Here's a nice irony. Even the colour woodcutters went down to the west of Cornwall and made prints even though the idea behind the colonies of artists at Newlyn and St Ives was to work outdoors in front of the subject. What had attracted artists was the opportunity to paint marine landscape, not something taught in the academic schools. Unfortunately, the artists didn't prove as tough as the fisherman they liked to paint and it wasn't untill the completion of the railway line between London Paddington and Penzance in 1859 that they were able to undertake the remarkable journey between Exeter and Cornwall. In the 1880s that they began to up easels in Pont Aven and Concarneau in Brittainy and move to West Penwith where they found wonderful light, cheap lodgings and incomprehensible subjects.
Above HM Brock's woodcut-looking poster for 'The Pirates of Penzance' (first performed in New York in 1879), there is a real woodcut by the British artist Sidney Lee (1866 - 1949). I will say now that I have bought prints by Lee in the past and the only work by him that I would now buy are his few-and-far-between colour woodcuts. This one must be earlyish so far as printmakers go in Cornwall and, even better, is one I'd never come across before. It may not be the first wave; it's nice but is it plein air? I don't believe Lee was a painter ( I don't think he could draw very well) and I have no idea how he went about making The bay, St Ives. It may have been something he worked up in the studio some time after a trip to Cornwall. But he was there and obviously made visual notes in front of the subject.
Much the same could be said for Cornwall coast by Elizabeth Colwell (1881 - 1954). The main thing here is that Colwell was from the US so this isn't just some parochial British thing we're dealing with. Although British artists had drifted from Brittainy to Cornwall, they had continued to exhibit in the Paris salons, gaining an international reputation for a remote Cornish port. There is also more of an attempt in Colwell to capture some effect of the light though frankly not that much. It's also more Japanese and nuanced than anything the hapless Lee could manage. It took an artist who we know had worked in France to actually put together the idiom of colour woodcut and the ethos of plein air and make a success of it. This artist was the redoubtable Ethel Kirkpatrick (1870 - 1941).
Now, readers will know that I have banged on about Kirkpatrick more than once before and I will tell them frankly that I have by no means finished with her. But with Summer we have a new and scintillating woodcut. And one that shows exactly what kind of artist I think she was. I cannot say hand on heart that this is a Cornish view but I believe these are Cornish luggers. This isn't a mere decorative work. Just like her view of Mousehole (see The definitive Ethel Kirkpatrick, December 2010) this is a descriptive work capturing the intense and shadowless light of summer as if she were actually there making the woodcut in front of the subject. This would depend on two things: good sketches and a good memory.
Less of a success but no less interesting is this woodcut of the jetty at Lamorna Cove. Lamorna is some miles west of Mousehole (and was a well-known hang-out of the painter Samuel Lamorna Birch). Now this we can date to 1916 because it was the print Frank Morley Fletcher (1866 - 1950) used as an exemplar in the first edition of Woodblock Printing. A contemporary of Lee and Kirkpatrick, we know Fletcher took the lead in his interpretation of Japanese woodblock and that both the other two artists must have followed his example - Lee, as I've said, occasionally, Kirkpatrick with a passion. But it's the Cornish connection that is so striking and unexpected. I don't think he ever did any other work down there and so far as I know there is no documentation of an FMF trip to Cornwall. By 1916 he was working in Edinburgh, a very long was from Lamorna in those days. But I assume this small print does reflect his own brush with plein air.
We are always on firmer ground with the artists of the 1920s and John Platt is no exception. By 1921, when he made The jetty, Sennen Cove, he was head of applied art at Edinburgh College of Art while Morley Fletcher was principal. I think this firms up the Cornish connection and, as it happens, Sennen is another few miles along the coast from Lamorna. He also produced 'The Irish Lady', Land's End (below) in 1922 and Mullion Cove on the Lizard peninsula. He also made a print Brixham Town, in Devon as it happens but it looks more like St Tropez, and was still painting in Cornwall during the second war though plein air was definitely out the window by then. Platt moved from job to job as principal of colleges of art, often part time so he could print and paint. Meticulous and with great craftsmanship, I think I'd still rather have something a bit smudged.
With this 1927 linocut Mousehole in Cornwall by Ernest Watson (1889 - 1964) we are quite some way from the Colwell approach and utterly remote from Kirkpatrick. Like Colwell, he was an American but came to Cornwall in the 1920s when the impetus had gone out landscape painting. Lee and Kirkpatrick had also moved on from Cornwall and began to make visits to the artists colony at Walberswick in Suffolk (alot handier for London) and where Lee also made one of his rare colour woodcuts. The dullness of Watson's surface only goes to show how the earliest printmakers working in Cornwall really were using their imaginations and expressing something of what they saw. (And if anyone is at all skeptical about the Kirkpatrick/Cornwall connection, please compare the luggers in Ronald Lampitt's 1936 poster for the Great Western and in Platt's view of Sennen Cove with the fishing boats in Summer!)