Wednesday, 31 October 2012

This week on ebay

I remember going through a pile of things that had belonged to an friend who had died and his executor (who was standing over me) saying, 'There's nothing much in there.' Nothing much turned out to be a woodcut by Ohara Koson and ... well, I took it away with me. And that probably sums up my attitude towards acquiring prints by Koson. Paying a round ten quid at an antiques centre seems about right.

I know very little about Japanese workshop practice but the image you see here lies on the paper in almost the same way as the one for sale on British ebay, so I assume they were printed at the corner of the sheet. The one coming up also has a brown mark which the seller tells me is from old mounting.

That said, I did ponder whether to post this image or not, but good sense tells me that even if the seller hasn't identified the artist as Koson, potential buyers will. I shall stick to beach-combing.
But ebay does have bargains and as it stands this wood-engraving by the British artist Leslie Benenson could well be one. By and large great enthusiasm for wood-engraving is some way behind me. Nor am I a great enthusiast for Benenson's work but that didn't stop me buying her fine Leaping stag from the same seller last week even if there is light damage round the edges of the mount. (You can see the same effect here). Her skill is beyond doubt and at £14.99 you would have a craftsmanlike and satisfying print. I think as much as anything, I just liked the woodland image. But I also noticed all the last four prints I've bought feature animals. So much for judgement. I have a zoo.

There's nothing of the sauve professional about the colour woodcuts by the Scots artist, Margaret Romanes, nor do they come up the way work by Benenson does. Now this is odd, because she is reckoned to have made about 500 of them. The story goes she first saw 'Japanese prints' (as she called them) in the window of a gallery in her home-town of Edinburgh after the first war, and her own prints generally have bird or flower subjects. How satisfying these are, I wouldn't like to say. As one of my readers says, if he paid £125 (and that's the asking price for the Romanes) he wouldn't enjoy it. In this instance, I don't think I would either.

Moving on from the mundane, we come to the iconic - an over-used term but here I think it is apt. Max Kurzweil made this image of his wife in 1903, which makes it one of the earliest of accomplished European colour woodcuts in the modern decorative manner. The snag of course is the sad condition. The seller on German ebay has been wise enough to start off bidding at one humble euro. All the same, someone has sensibly put in a bid. Whoever it is, they will enjoy it more than they would the Romanes, I will tell you that for free.


Last, but far from least, a John Dory by Meryl Watts. In the early 1930s, Watts made some super prints. She also made some peculiar ones. I think I would place this one in the second category. It's an unhappy amalgam of terracotta and turquoise (never my personal favourite) and the cutting on the seabed is banal. I often think once she left the fatherly influence of John Platt behind her, she went astray. All the same, she has acquired something like the mystique that artists associated with the Grosvenor School now have. The style is instantly recognisable. Is that the reason why?

Monday, 22 October 2012

Kenneth Broad: the information act

Of all the British artists who ever made a colour woodcut, Kenneth Broad is the most informative (and I say this in the face of fairly strong opposition from the likes of Allen Seaby and Ethel Kirkpatrick). I couldn't find a better example to show you what I mean than this photographic study of Broad at work in the fields. It's the architect-artist on default setting: the use of strict perspective, the interest in contemporary dress, the almost anonymous face, the trees - all these things find their way into his small masterpiece The New Fair, Mitcham and I would find it hard to believe that Broad hadn't posed the photo himself, probably for his wife Mary to take, simply because there is a similar photograph taken from the other side - you can just see his painting clobber beyond the stool, including his Army small pack ( a very blokish touch).

Broad's prints are often like Hogarth's. They tell you alot. The photo is equaly calculating: not only is this what he looks like (more or less) it also shows what he is painting, and where the subject stands; it says he sketches outdoors and sits well back from his subject. On many of his crowded scenes there is empty space in the foreground where Broad has set up his collapsible easel and stool and set to work. He isn't avoiding the crowd; he only wants to get it all in. There is the same wide view in A Sussex Farm (see Kenneth Broad Town & country) even though there are only clothes without people in that woodcut.

Both prints date from 1925 and The New Fair, Mitcham almost certainly comes second because he couldn't have made the print before 12th August, 1925. That was the day Mitcham Fair opened at its new site on Three Kings Piece. It was less Broad's job to imagine than to record and he would have been there to see for himself. He had already made a print of Mitcham Fair at its old site in the town in about 1922 and, if nothing else, the move to a new site offered Broad the chance to tackle the subject again. This second print shows exactly what kind of person he was. It is a considerable improvement on the earlier work. Some time in 1922, he hit his stride and by the December of 1925 all of the prints were for sale at his one-man show at the Macrae Gallery on Fulham Road in London. This was something unusual in itself. A Sussex Farm also found its way to the Seventh International Printmakers Exhibition at the Los Angelese Museum the following spring. But the Mitcham Fair print is as typical of Broad as you can get. Even so, the two prints hang together in my mind.


The image on my previous post is probably more faithful, but the one you see here comes from Broad's own collection, and may well be the exhibition copy he used at the Macrae. (It's 5/150). I don't care whether Edward Loxton Knight's print Goose Fair, Nottingham, which came up on ebay recently, is more obviously attractive and displays more flair, I think Broad is better. It is more interesting and more skilled. Broad sits firmly on his stool inside the craft tradition. He spent some of his spare time poking around the tidal gravel banks along the river Thames, collecting worked flint tools. That was the kind of craft he liked - the durable. The same went for his collection of old forged iron. Broad's work is also durable. The New Fair, Mitcham also pre-dates the Loxton Knight by three years and it's certainly interesting that Knight used much the same organisation for his print. With Broad it is: foreground, crowd, striped tents, then sky while Knight has: foreground, fair, suburb, sky. The use of the shapes of trees and smoke to link the areas is striking in Knight's woodcut but what Broad uses to divide up and also connect the picture vertically is original and more difficult. I mean those red and white posts of his.


If Knight loaned Broad's idea, then Broad I would think was in hock to a great master he would have seen in the National Gallery - take a look at Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano.  Why the striped posts were there in his print, I still have no idea. I mean, I don't know what purpriose they had in reality.  He also uses them in Mitcham Fair and he obviously likes them alot. They attract him but he also makes use of them, they are jusrt as much found-objects as the flint axeheads. Knight ends up, as he he so often does, looking like a maker of patterns. Broad's approach is more vigorous and more objective, not perhaps qualities we necessarily associate with colour woodcut. But the striped posts are useful in another way. From very early on, including in the first Mitcham Fair woodcut, Broad had a strong liking for red and bright pinks. Of all his work, though, The New Fair, Mitcham is his most subtle effort with dark red. In the print below, he rather overdoes it.


But for Kenneth Broad, August arrives in two different ways. Completely unlike A Sussex Farm, the colour scheme for the fairground is largely unrealistic. That first print does without a keyblock and so softens everything to gain the effect of an early summer morning. In the second print, only the clothes tell you it is August; the sky says it's November. Taking two such complementary but very different approaches to the same time of year shows just how modern Broad was in his approach. In Sussex, he expresses summer, but at Mitcham it is analysed.

The architect in him is never far away but in the second Mitcham print, it is very close. The intensity of the use of the keyblock for the crowd make all the people interlock like the structures that his own bees made. (He had eight hives at his house in Rotherfield). And he's interested in some of the most temporary structures people make for themselves. He thinks outside the box. The tents and vans are fairly obvious. More thoughtful and waggish is the pram the young nanny has left behind her. The curves carefully echo the roofing to the traction engine.


I couldn't resist adding this photo taken by the colour woodcut artist, Mercie Lack, of the archaeologists at work on the Sutton Hoo burial site in the 1930s. Like Broad, Lack and her partner were also keen amateur archaeologists as well as exprimenters with early colour print photography. But she appproaches her subject here with as much of a surveyor's eye as Broad does in The New Fair, Mitcham. He cheerfully adapts the stripey posts to make giant surveyors poles out of them, no an obvious humourist, but as with many things in Broad, humour is there if you look. The only reason artists like Broad remain under-rated and misunderstood is because no one knows their work. Prints lie in boxes in print rooms. Broad, for better or for worse, also threw in his lot with the colour woodcut crowd. As an artist, he may have seen himself as a watercolourist, first and foremost, but his prints provide his most original contribution and in the end he has found himself keeping company with everyone from William Giles to John Hall Thorpe. It limits the way we look at him and for someone as much an individual as Kenneth Broad, it just means that we miss out in the end.

But there is still more. Overlooking the whole human project at Mitcham, we also find Broad the botanist at work. The feathery tree taking up a quarter of the image is one of the black poplars that grow on the common. I'm not sure whether it is a native or hybrid black poplar, but I assume that Broad knew what it was. He was too well-informed not to. There are also trees on The Forest at Nottingham but they are plane, lime and oak and look nothing at all like the elegant creatures in Knight's work. Broad is more subtle by far. In describing, he also suggests. The poetry, like the axeheads, is half-buried.

I want to add that informativeness runs in the Broad family because I am deeply grateful for all the help and information given me by the artist's grandson, David Broad. Without him and his sister, Nicola, there would be almost nothing.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Bror Nordfeldt & colour woodcut

Of all the artists who made colour woodcuts, Bror Nordfeldt is the best to play spot-the-influence with. The ironic thing is this: in a period of only about ten years he came up with a style of woodcut that was his own. With his use of fine muted greys and blues and pensive figures, he described a special country - the lost land of memory.

In 1894, at the age of fourteen, he had been taken with his parents from rural southern Sweden to go and live in the great American city of Chicago. The Swedish community there had their own newspaper and he found work as a typesetter. True to the time, he studied art as he worked, in his case at the Art Institute in Chicago, before moving on to the Herter brothers interior decoration business in New York City. This led directly to the the first of his moves back to Europe. In 1900 the firm were to display a mural at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and he was taken as an assistant by Albert Herter, to help with the work of installation.

Herter knew Paris. He had been a student at the Academie Julien where he had made friends with the British artist Frank Morley Fletcher, and there is something almost predestined about the way that Nordfeldt left the Herters and stayed on in Europe. First he enrolled himself at Herter's old academy and next moved on to Britain, to study with Herter's old friend.


Or, so they say. By 1900, Nordfeldt could have studied with Fletcher at a number of places. In a way, it doesn't really matter where. The precision keyblock and flat planes of colour he makes use of in The spinning wheel looks alot more like Sydney Lee than Fletcher. So far as I can see Fletcher taught the selective, expressive cutting that is typical of his best work. You only have to look at the other people he worked with. Mabel Royds, Ethel Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Christie Brown, Allen Seaby all follow on from Fletcher in their own way. The spinning wheel is an odd mix of Fletcher's print Reading (no, not the place), John Dixon Batten, Lee, Mary Cassat and French realism (and probably lots of other things, as well). The facts are that Batten, Lee, Fletcher, Royds and Brown were already artists and were far from being merely students. Nordfeldt arrived in England when the word was spreading and they were learning from one another.


The word went down as far as Cornwall. I don't want to imply that any of these sea-scapes are Cornish. He is well outside of the British topographical tradition and never identifies the scene, but true to form he seems to have picked up something else in Cornwall: another artist's name (he sandwiched it between the ones he already had).. Julius Olsson may well have sounded Swedish, but he came from Islington and moved down to Cornwall in the 1880s, became an expert yachtsman, and set up a school of painting at St Ives. He had one great subject: waves. I'm assuming Nordfeldt took Lee's example and went down to St Ives, where he studied with Olsson, and was impressed enough to put their names together.


From Cornwall and England, he moved on to the coast of western Sweden, but by 1903, the year he made The long wave, he was back at home in Chicago where colour woodcut would have been a novelty. Arthur Wesley Dow was the only other artist making them in the US at that time, and he was way out on the east coast (see his post). Like Dow, Nordfeldt began to teach the technique. One of his students, Mary Colwell, also appears to have worked in Cornwall. You can see her Cornish coast below. Her early work is quite alot like her teacher's.

And there is more of the Olsson effect on colour woocut with Lee's The bay, St Ives (bottom). If my own mixed feelings about Nordfeldt and his work have come through in this post, I will also say that, if nothing else, the addition of these two last prints do suggest one more thing: Nordfeldt saw more than waves in Olsson, he recognised the surging vision.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

How prints start: Helen Stevenson, William Giles, Ursula Fookes

Early on in 1929, Helen Stevenson had four of her colour woodcuts on show at the Bromhead Gallery in Cork Street, London. At the time she was probably many miles to the north, in Scotland, where she was an art mistress. Her subjects were also there, in her much-loved land of Argyll and on the gallery wall beside The coal boat was the work of one of her teachers at Edinburgh College of Art.


Mabel Royd's Boat builders showed by how much the student had gone her own way. Royds' India was the one she remembered from her sketch-books but her boat-builders take up poses as though they were still in the life-class at the Slade where she herself had been a student.

Like Royds, Stevenson worked from watercolour drawings, but her figures are almost always incidents, there to give scale and interest. The wider interest for her was the landscape and we are lucky that one of her watercolours survives to show her sorting her subject out.


The coal boat shows one of the many small vessels that delivered coal to yards and distilleries along the western coast of Scotland. This one is anchored in the stony shallows of Brodick Bay on the Isle of Arran, with the wooded northern shore and the lower slopes of Goatfell shown beyond the boat. (Goatfell was the subject of another woodcut. The conifer planatations that can be seen in the photograph obviously were not there when Stevenson painted the view. It's interesting how much care she took over the skyline.)


I think Stevenson wouldn't have considered the sketch any  more than a working drawing, even though she inscribed it to the writer and art historian Georg Brochner a few months after the exhibition had been held. (Ironically, the drawing cost someone four times what the woodcut cost me, even though the print is more satisfying by far). With the print she had made a fairly radical departure and depended largely on shades of brown and the Japanese technique of bokashi (the application by hand of the pigment to the block). I suspect she was already well aware of what the effect would be when she drew the boat. The sketch is what she needed to remind her of the details of boat, clouds and shoreline. She hardly departs from those details, apart from making the stony foreshore more prominent, but what the print gains is an overall control of tone, which the drawing lacks. It is slightly odd, but Stevenson often made colours prominent in this way, most notably with the startling blue in The hen wife. (See her post). By the time she made Gylen Castle, Kerrara the green of the machair, the coastal grassland, is as sumptuous as a late print by Mabel Royds.

This brings us to another type of pasture, the one grazed by William Giles. Where Stevenson makes use of a brush, Giles takes up a pencil. Obviously, I can only make use of any preliminary work that survives so we only see a part of the process, but Giles' main interest first off (notable for a great colour printer) is in form. I like the play-off here between the flock of sheep and the herd of stones and the way he comes to a decision about the scope of the image. It looks as if he only brought in tone after that, with this striking use of a sepia wash.

Even more astonishing was the care taken by his contemporary, Elizabeth Christie Brown, who made many proofs without colour, or with very little. The uncoloured colour woodcut, below, may still be rather genre, but it is genre of the kind that Degas or Seurat just might have made. And it may well be Largs harbour in Ayrshire, but it is seen through a telescope that once belonged to Corot.

Fascinating that both Giles and Brown show how much cross-over there was between early C20th colour woodcutters and artists who only made aquatints and etchings. One way or another, Brown and Giles find the image by building it up in states, the way an etcher would, and colour comes last. In some ways, it wasn't always integral and personally I like the preparatory work by both Brown and Giles very much - alot more than I do the watercolour by Stevenson (and I am a fan of hers). The conception is as different as the final effect.

But as the Bromhead Gallery were showing woodblock prints like Stevenson's the Redfern nearby was showing artists as young as Stevenson but less the teacher training - if, that is, you don't include the Grosvenor School. Very little is know about the formal training Ursula Fookes had apart from atttending Claude Flight's weekly class at the Grosvenor in thetwenties. How far she worked in front of the subject, like the other artists here, is hard to say, but by the time she came to make her design for Washing line in the wind (below) a process of radical selection had taken place.

You only have to take one look at this and know you can ignore most of what Claude Flight had to say about the woodblock method.(And all of it was negative). His style of printmaking required just as much careful planning, as we can see from the intersecting planes and the notations Fookes had to make. It's also fairly obvious from the coloured proof that she had to try out different schemes because the proof is different from the plan, and for all the apparent pzazz, the linocut is no more spontaneous than a woodblock print. William Lethaby years before had made the point that relief printmaking was an excellent form of training because it made the student plan. He avoided any art talk as far as he could. He probably knew the art would take care of itself.


I need to credit Annex Galleries at Santa Rosa, California, for their image of the coal-boat, and also John Shillito for the loan of his Mabel Royds print and preparatory drawings. Many thanks.