Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Walter Phillips' 'Rundle'

Here at last is your chance to own a Walter Phillips colour woodcut without breaking the bank. It's up for sale on UK ebay for another eight days and stands at £51 though I doubt it will stay there longer.

I hasten to add this is not the image used on ebay but one I have edited from elsewhere. I am certain it will look alot better when you see it and if I hadn't been going away I might have considered it myself. Phillips is quite masterly though whether he actually learned how to make colour woodcuts on his own and without reference to Frank Morley Fletcher as he once claimed is another matter. He was brought up in Britain but first moved to South Africa for a couple of years before settling in Winnepeg where he led the colour woodcut movement.

But there is nothing very British about him and our loss was Canada's gain.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Christmas holidays 2011

The patchwork quilt by Mabel Royds comes with best wishes from me to all readers for a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. I shall be away from Wednesday untill 28th January so there will be no posts untill early February. A special thanks to all the people who have sent in information and images like this one. I looked forward to a renewed effort on the colour woodcut front during 2012.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Bruges by night: Frank Brangwyn & Yoshijiro Urushibara

Many years ago I was on a visit to Leed Gallery of Art with a friend (who had trained at the Royal College of Art in the Hockney days) and he began to mock the technique used by Frank Brangwyn (1867 - 1956). 'He puts black lines round everything,' he said. When I pointed out that van Gogh had done the same, he only replied, 'That was different.'  Well, Brangwyn was different and that's for sure.

He was born in the old Belgian city of Bruges where his father worked on church architecture. After an early childhood spent there, he went back to Britain and was sent to copy things at the old Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and received precious little in the way of formal education. Eventually, he was taken on at William Morris's workshops in Walthamstow so his background was to some extent a practical one, in the arts and crafts tradition.

He may have left Bruges but Bruges did not leave him and at some point during the first war, with Belgium overrun by the German army, he had the idea of translating designs of the city where he had spent his childhood into colour woodcut and the folio he produced with the Japanese woodblock maker Yoshijiro Urushibara (1888 - 1953) turned out to be one of the most personal responses to the terrible events of that war.

The mere choice of the medium was a very interesting one. It shows to what extent colour woodcut was regarded as belonging to the arts and crafts movement by an artist who had after all initially trained under the aegis of the great man himself. More than that the project exemplified the arts and crafts approach to co-operation and their attempt to break down barriers beween disciplines. The woodcuts acted as illustrations to six poems by the writer and scholar, Laurence Binyon. Now, untill 1915 Binyon had been head of the new sub department of oriental prints and drawings at the British Museum where Urushibra had been working as a conservator of prints and scrolls since 1912. Binyon was given leave to volunteer as an orderly in military hospitals so he was the only one of the three men with experience of the war. He returned to the museum in 1918 and this symptomatic folio itself was published the following year.

Symptomatic because I wonder whether Brangwyn already realised that he was going out of fashion, a process that would end in the derision of the sixties. It did happen; he became unfashionable in the way that Augustus John did. He didn't have a good war, as they say, and I think colour woodcut looked sufficiently stylish for him to make a come-back. He had caused outrage in both this country and Germany when he produced a propaganda poster showing a terrified German soldier about to be bayonetted. So much so Kaiser Wilhelm had vowed to have his head. These night pieces of Bruges are about as far as you can get from the eighty war posters he produced in all.

Different and yet not so unlike the posters that designers in the arts and crafts mould like F Gregory Brown were starting to make. Brangwyn approached almost everything he touched with bravura. What Urushibara finally offered him was subtlety.

Before he came to Europe, Urushibara had worked at the publisher Shimbi Shoin who specialised
in fine reproductions of Japanese woodblock prints so he was ideally suited not just to interpret Brangwyn's work but to get a very good likeness. What he added was the kind of trance effect we were later to see when he made prints like Moonlight, Bournemouth.

What is so utterly remarkable about the work of the Japanese artist was the way in which he was able to be true to both Brangwyn and to himself. I know this sounds like an allusion to what we as Westerners see as oriental self-effacement but I am not sure what other term we can use when faced with what to us is a strange displacement of the ego.

I've not really said anything about the individual prints as I would usually do. Perhaps this is because there is only one print and this is also the Urushibara effect. He brings everything together into an overall mood; the differences between these lamplit, evening images is less than what they have in common. I don't think I could really judge without seeing all of them together alongside the poems by Binyon and I still haven't read those nor have I come across all the images in a format suitable for the blog. So, this post must be as partial as Brangwyn was himself.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Sydney Lee: colour woodcuts

Sydney Lee (1866 - 1949) is the kind of artist who often interests me because they don't seem to quite fit in with the general pattern of things. And I always find there's something almost maladroit about his work, which seems to go with the individualist trend. He was brought up in Prestwich in Manchester and went to the school of art there (where I think Walter Crane was principal) and then made the move that was almost inevitable for people of his generation: he went to Paris. He trained at Colarossi's and once back in England, he became a habitue of art colonies in true European style: Walberswick, Staithes and, as you can see here, St Ives, in Cornwall.

The Sloop Inn shows a public house that was popular with artists. How much time he spent there, I do not know but he dud spend alot of time in St Ives in the mid/late 1890s. This print dates from 1904, a very early date for a British colour woodcut of this kind. Teaching of the Japanese method had only begun seven years before he made this print, so this places Lee at the start of the colour woodcut movement, along with Royds, Seaby and Giles. He was certainly no slouch.

As images go, it is classic Lee: a night scene that gives him the opportunity to make use of muted colours. It looks pretty straightforward, but the perspective is handled with subtlty. Nothing is aloowed to disrupt the intriguing mood. And I am quite sure, looking at this and other colour prints by Lee, that his skill and lyricism was recognised by Sylvan Boxsius who used the same combination of blues and pale orange light for his linocut Winter over twenty-five years later. (I think Boxsius also adapted Lee's print of Whitby - and improved on it, as you have to do).

Boatbuilding, St Ives certainly lets us know he knew the work of Henri Riviere. There is a similar naive draughtsmanship which comes across as more sophisticated in the Frenchman than it does here. All the same there is a lovely balance of tone and colours and no sign of his favourite colour - blue. This was also a subject that another artist also tackled.(See The definitive Ethel Kirkpatrick). She would certainly have known Lee through their mutual visits to St Ives and also as habitues of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Kirkpatrick took part in the first student exhibition after the founding of the school in 1897 and I strongly suspect that both Kirkpatrick and Lee attended Frank Morley Fletcher's trailblazing classes there. Fletcher moved on to Edinburgh in 1907, fatefully handing the class over to Lee. He continued to teach colour woodcut in the Japanese manner but by the time Noel Rooke took over from Lee a few years later, the class was set to become the crucible for modern British wood-engraving and Lee himself is primarily known as wood-engraver today. Like Emil Orlik and LH Jungnickel, Lee gave up making colour woodcuts after only a few years and by the time the Society of Graver Printers in Colour came into being in 1909, Lee was not amongst the founding members.

The image above also looks to me like one of his earliest. If it's by far the most French of the prints and not the kind of image many colour woodcutters would go on to make, it also suggests he knew the pictures of young men that Henry Scott Tuke was painting in Falmouth . It doesn't quite work as image for the medium in much the same way that John Dixon Batten's choice of subject may strike us now asn inappropriate. But this onlt shows that both artists were not prepared to simply follow Japanese conventions. Interestingly, both went on to other things soon afterwards. The use of blue here also reminiscent of early Batten and I wonder whether the figure of the half-submerged boy had found its way into the woodcut from Seurat's Bathers, Asnieres in the National Gallery. Needless to say I am deeply grateful to Robert Meyrick who sent me this fascinating print. (All three belong to him and anyone who missed the two St Ives images at auction in Germany earlier this year will probably never get the chance again). Mabel Royds was the only colour woodcut artist who went on to tackle male figure subjects with any seriousness and this woodcut of Lee's is as rare as any of them get.


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Robert Gibbings: early colour woodcuts

Robert Gibbings (1889 - 1958) came from the Irish city of Cork and if Retreat from Serbia, 1916 (above) doesn't look very much like the Venice of the West, I am pretty sure his interest in bridges comes at least in part from the memorable limestone bridges that cross the river Lee there. After making very little headway as a medical student in his home city, he persuaded his father to subsidise lessons with a local painter before taking off to London and the Slade School in 1912. Two years later he volunteered for the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Commissioned at the rank of lieutenant, he was shot in the neck leading his men against Ottoman defences during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. He drew on the time he spent recuperating, first in Salonica and then Malta to produce a small group of eloquent and unusual little colour prints - as eloquent and unusual as the man himself.

In January, 1916, he had opened the pages of a British illustrated newspaper to find a series of photographs showing first the disastrous retreat of the Serbian army through Albania, followed by more photographs of Britsh transports at anchor at Salonica. These ships had arrived as a relief force but too late, the intention being also to hold Salonica if they could not capture Constantinople. Gibbings had seen the slaughter and later read of the withdrawal from the Gallipoli Peninsula. Now, there was a powerful photo of yet another wholesale withdrawal. He merely cropped the photo and cut the images from chestnut planks. The result was as simple as it is sedcutive. We look at this print today and think, 'What is happening here?' Now you know. [The photo comes from ebay.]

He sailed from Salonica in the hospital ship you see here in Shipboard, the Llandovery castle,1918. As it happens this is a wood engraving. Gibbings had also enrolled in the etching class at the Central School but at the suggestion of Noel Rooke, he tried wood-engraving instead. The same dramatic use of keyblock and shadow is there but used with greater sophistication. What we see on the decks of the Llandovery Castle is the tedium that can effect troops; what we see in The retreat from Serbia is the way imagination can override a lack experience and produce a haunting work of distillation. Each of the images here somehow slips free of the mundane.

There is also a sophisticated interest in structure and light and shadow in the print. Gibbings was well able to ring the changes between the finesse of engraving and the more direct expressiveness of woodcut. Evening at Gaza, 1918, manages to combine the two. (He spent a month in Alexandria I think before the Gallipoli landings). Here he uses the simple silhouette and keyblock with a gradation of one colour on a second block. This is as far away from the Japanese method as you can get and when these works were praised in 1919, there was an immediate response from William Seaby. All the same, it has the glamour we require of the best colour woodcuts. Even so, by the time he used the method for the lst time in Albert Bridge, Chelsea, 1919, he was already tiring of its obvious limitations. He had outgrown colour woodcut as he had outgrown Cork. Here is the Irishman, full of immediacy, restlessness and flair.