Thursday, 24 March 2016

Arthur Wesley Dow: lost chances along Ipswich River

 I begin to wonder what exactly was in Arthur Wesley Dow's mind when he made his first colour woodcuts in Massachusetts early in the 1890s. (The photograph shows Dow with a guitar seated on a wheelbarrow with his brother). Over the years he has gained a reputation as the first artist in the United States to make them and although this is true, scholars and academics are in the bad habit of giving such events as 'the first American colour woodcuts' a meaning they never had at the time. It's called art history.

That said, this would not be Modern Printmakers without a little bit of history of our own. Dow was not the first person to make modern colour woodcuts. The honour, such as it is, goes to Auguste Lepere in Paris. He came up with two or three rather peculiar and misconceived works starting just before Dow and was followed by Henri Riviere who had the bright idea of a making a portfolio of woodcuts, which all included one view or other of the brand-new Eiffel Tower in imitation of Hokusai's 100 views of Mount Fuji. But Riviere soon realised his project was too ambitious and he scaled back and most of the prints in the series became lithographs.

Wisely, Dow made much smaller prints than Riviere and also made prints that didn't depend on a famous location. Instead he chose the river bank of his home town of Ipswich and, I believe, the north shore at Boston. It was a deliberate choice because he had come to the conclusion that the representation of a subject was less important than manner of representation. Beyond that he also produced variants of the same print, often radically different ways of using the same blocks. These were called 'lost chances' by his colleague and  friend, Ernest Fenellosa who was a curator of oriental art at the Museum of Fine Art at Boston.

Dow had come back to the U.S. in 1887  after training in Paris and later said, 'An experience of five years in the French Schools left me thoroughly dissatisfied with academic theory' and he went on to say, 'in a search for something more vital I began a comparative study of the art of all nations and epochs'. But this was not an idea he had to himself. Oscar Wilde was more subtle when he said, 'All beautiful things belong to the same era' and what Dow was doing was taking up the study of aesthetics and as he read and looked he came into contact with Fenellosa at M.F.A. and both began to work together and eventually Dow became an assistant curator for a time.

But this is not what artists generally do and in some ways the small prints you see here are what you might call teaching examples. At the time young craftsmen and artists were sent to museums and galleries to copy work and what Dow was doing was making a synthesis of the work he had himself studied to suggest a way forward beyond that kind of sterile reproduction. The next step  was to start giving lectures and then to teach. But again, this was nothing new. His model was the English artist and theorist, John Ruskin, and it was education that drove men like Ruskin forwards, the education of the working-class, the education of craftsmen and of artists. But then Ruskin had a great and practical follower in William Morris. Fenellosa and Dow were variants, lost chances, if you like. You can see that Dow also took photographs of many of the same places. Like the prints, they are impressions, the Ipswich River and its boats and buildings and bridges are depicted tonally and then in colour. It could be anywhere; it didn't matter.

Fenellosa was a scholar and teacher while Dow was true to the nineties in the way he combined making art and coming up with a theory of art education. But it was all very different from what was happening in England in the Arts and Crafts at the time where the emphasis was placed on doing and the way people learned by doing proper work. All this helps to explain what I think these early prints by Dow are really about and why it was that British artists like John Platt, Ian Cheyne and Arthur Rigden Read from about 1920 onwards could send prints to the U.S. and win the prizes. Dow hadn't liked French academic theory and went on to replace it with theory of his own. It was left to Dow's students like Edna Boies Hopkins to make the really good prints. When Dow began to draw on the Japanese example and make colour woodcuts in his own way, he could have had no idea what would follow. Looking at this work is like following his footprints as he works his way along the shore. It is not so much they are variants, they are tentative, with nothing final about them.

The colour images are from Herschel and Adler's exemplary website so many thanks to them. The photographs come from the distinguished collection at M.F.A. Boston. Please don't sue.


Monday, 21 March 2016

Claughton Pellew at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery


This weekend an exhibition of paintings and wood-engravings by the glorious and original Claughton Pellew opens in the Colman Project Space at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. I'm not sure how big this is going to be but Norwich also have a fine collection of watercolours, including their famous John Sell Cotmans, and you might be able to squeeze in the Sainsbury collection at the university, too.


Pellew received the Modern Printmakers treatment in March 2011, so you can always read it for my own opinions. You will also get the low-down on his gradual rehabilitation by various enthusiasts, all of whom owe a debt to Anne Stevens whose personal collection became the basis for the position Pellew now holds as one of the most admired and best loved of all the many British wood-engravers.


The show opens on 26th March and now ends in January, 2017, so there is plenty of time to see it.


Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The embroiderers


Now and again I come across an image of a woman sewing or doing embroidery or one that shows her work-basket or what might be some of her work and I wonder what happened to it all.  It's common enough in England to find the kind of tablecloths or tea cosies embroidered with silk or woollen flowers that were made to sell at church sales but fine embroidery is another thing. The watercolour portrait of Daisy Tuff drawn by S. G. Boxsius about 1916 even shows what might be two of the Pitman Craft series lying flat on the second shelf of the bookcase. But what happened to her work? I'm not certain that Daisy Tuff ever did any fine embroidery but she was an art teacher at the time the portrait was made (it's only a small section of a large watercolour) and they had far more practical skills than any art teacher would have today.

The basic story modern fine embroidery goes back to the 1860s. Once Jane Morris and her husband, William Morris, had rented Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, she set about doing work like the bedcover you can see on the oak bedstead, above. She and her sister then handed on their skills to Jane's younger daughter, May, who eventually made the hangings to go round the bed. At the age of twenty-three, May was placed in charge of the embroidery department of Morris and Co and in 1896 supervised the embroidery class at the new Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.

I suppose it is always possible that Frank Morley Fletcher's wife, Dolly, trained under May Morris (above) while Frank was teaching his class at the Central School. She certainly had an embroidery class of her own while they were living in Edinburgh but that is all that I know. And it isn't much. 

Men tended not to do embroidery but only make designs. J.H. Dearle who designed many of the floral backgrounds for Edward Burne Jones' tapestries, designed the screen. William Morris also produced designs for embroidery so he obviously understood what the craft involved, hardly surprising, really.

Phillips Needell was more attentive, which I suppose you would be if you had that kind of a name and I assume the woman shown doing embroidery in his colour woodcut is his wife, Anne, but I can't be sure. One thing you may have already noticed here is how commonly orangey terracotta was teamed up with blue-greens and turquoise. I certainly haven't chosen these examples deliberately. You only have to look at the colour of Daisy Tuff's dress and compare the section of  Boxsius's Seaside, below, with its chic use of a warm and cool combination.

As colours they were used not only by Arts and Crafts practitioners. They came to us by way of Iranian art and it was a commonplace of European orientalists to use the colours to suggest the East but as a colour combination with style, it goes right back to ancient Egypt, that mother of style.

Arthur Rigden Read being the artist he was and having a wife well occupied with her own work, suggested all kinds of crafts in his colour woodcuts. I think they must be Kathleen Rigden Reads embroidery wools and work-basket in the window in May morning. I should think, if you look hard enough, there may be other examples. These are just a few that have struck as I've looked through pictures and what have you. Hopefully, now, someone will turn up some of the work itself. Because I tell you now I know it's out there and certainly in the United States.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Leslie Moffat Ward: news from nearby


Leslie Moffat Ward could travel as far as he liked to find fresh subjects but the farther he went, so far as I am concerned, the less he often gained by going there. In fact, unless he kept to the Isle of Purbeck, he almost always fell short of what he did best. There were exceptions but, even so, the Cotswolds or the Sussex Downs, can be quite a lot like Dorset in their massiveness. So, this post will not provide anything comprehensive but will take a look at what I like best about him. That said, turning up his best work hasn't been straightforward. His quaint and telling night-scenes seem to unavailable anywhere online. It is beyond me.

He moved to Bournemouth as a child and spent his adult life working as a teacher at the school of art right from its opening in 1913 until his retirement in 1955. Some of the time Thomas Todd Blaylock was headmaster and following his own early retirement after the war, turned out some outlandishly colourful colour woodcuts. Ward was more restrained and more distinctive. He also worked well within the British landscape tradition and I find it difficult to understand why his work remains such a minority or even local enthusiasm, especially when his irresistible etching A mile to Worth Matravers (1932) can be seen illustrated in Kenneth Guichard's well-known  British Etchers 1850 - 1940. But there you are. Stuff happens.

In common with Samuel Palmer, the naïve vision tends to make people assume the work itself may be lacking in sophistication. But as with Palmer, the effect of the art was achieved by a rigorously original approach to technique and respect for the work of other artists. I can see those two cows in the foreground of Near Bradle, Dorset (1951) in Salomon van Ruysdael, ingenious but nevertheless well-observed moo-cows. Ward goes in for pattern-making, too, but never overdoes it, and no one could ever call him decorative; he selects with care, his crooked road in A mile to Worth Matravers is what helps make the print and it is exaggerated but light, shade and the effects of weather all soften the effect.

The Isle of Purbeck for readers out of the UK lies south-west of Bournemouth and is partly surrounded by the English Channel and the large inlet of Poole Harbour. It isn't somewhere I know but Dorset is one of the most distinctive counties in Britain and Ward obviously responded to the place in a way he did to nowhere else. So, there is no point anyone saying (as they have tried to do quite recently) that Ward had some kind of breadth just because he depicted the Pool of London, say, or the Lake District or Ronda. Making big claims for your own enthusiasms doesn't actually help the artist much and I don't want readers to miss the point of Ward. In terms of style (especially given those art deco sycamores) it is hard to believe there could be twenty years between the first two prints ion the post but there are subtle differences between them. The second is a work of maturity made when the artist was sixty-three and was deploying a range of skills and displaying a depth of vision that wasn't there before. There is an academic tinge there, too, but hardly a surprise given his background as a teacher. But he had the job because he had the skills. For instance, he was well-able to simplify form in the way he did in The condemned dwelling. It gives the print the naïve impact it has. But in the later work, to use the wonderful phrase by the French artist, Paul Serusier, he was searching out the greys; there are no extremes of shadow and dazzling light of the kind you can see in The long man of the Downs (above). He has a terrific sense of tone, so delicate and discriminating he can approach an etching like a watercolour. Beyond that, the perspective is beautifully rendered. Like a Chinese brush drawing, it reads upwards but also makes use of recession in the Western manner, (both more obvious in The long man of the downs).

The way he works the surface with so many marks gives everything that typical sense of solidity. It's a paradox but this is what true visionary art entails. He was also enquiring. You only have to look at the way he looks into the ruined dwelling or explores the nooks and valleys of the uplands. There is nothing vaporous about Ward. Even his clouds are muscular - especially his clouds! And I think his idea of the countryside is a true one - the ruined houses, the bent figures with their cattle or tools, each farm with its own incline and huddle of trees. You only get that sense of place when you know somewhere well enough. He is like S.G. Boxsius in the way he takes you round but Ward's tour is better-informed. It is what Oliver Rackham once called 'social countryside', a country of paths and lanes which everyone from cowmen to ramblers makes use of. It is of course diminutive but then you can't have everything.

Ward also took an architect's pleasure in neat new roads and houses and well-placed trees. State schools like Bournemouth taught a broader range of practical skills than they do today, including the bascis of geometry and architecture. What Ward summons up is that kind of diversity, there are social shades of meaning of the kind you find similar designer-artists like Eric Ravilious. It is a world of focus and workmanship and the applied arts as well as the imagination. The more you look, the more you understand.


Saturday, 5 March 2016

A footnote about Malcolm Salaman & Arthur Briscoe

There was a mention recently (in the post about Shinsui Ito and his 'Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Keith) of some etchings by the British artist, Arthur Briscoe. Briscoe only had his first six prints published in April, 1925, when he was fifty-one or fifty-two, so if what Walter Phillips says is accurate, he must have been at Malcolm Salaman's flat in the first half of that year because he returned to Canada in the June.

It's interesting for this reason. The visit possibly adds some history to a single print, perhaps not that uncommon because artists would inscribe individual prints often enough and make them easy to identify. Presumably Briscoe or his publisher, Harold Dickens, had provided Salaman with some review proofs prior to publication. There may also have been a trial proof of  Clewlines and buntlines among them. It was published in October later that year but Briscoe inscribed the proof  'To Malcolm Salaman'. As well he might. Salaman was the grand old man of British print (and you may be able to get some clue of this is Ernest Lumsden's own portrait published only one year later) and it was within his power, as Phillips acknowledged, to make the career of an artist he took to.

Briscoe had his own three-ton cutter, which he sailed along the Essex coast near the little port of Maldon, but in 1922 he had joined the crew of a Polish training ship, the Lvov, and sailed on her from Rotherhithe to Genoa. (You can see the ship being towed from Birkenhead where Briscoe was born and with the Liver Building on the Pierhead at Liverpool, behind. The ship was originally launched at Birkenhead in 1869.) The drawings he made during the voyage provided the basis for the first of his distinctive maritime etchings. Someone possibly had a good idea because the etchings came out when the market was at his most profitable. Etchings were already going for enormous prices and when Briscoe had a first print show of twenty-seven etchings at the Lefevre Gallery in October, 1926, it sold out. But times change and less than thirty years afterwards, an etching by Briscoe went for only two quid. Yes, and I am sure you have guessed the one it was. It was inscribed 'To Malcolm Salaman' and I wonder who owns it now.

The information about the ups and downs of Briscoe's prices and some other details comes from Kenneth Guichard British Etchers 1850 - 1940. So far as the ups go, Clewlines and buntlines is currently for sale at New England Art Exchange for $950. The Capstan (again from 1926 and showing cadets working on the Lvov) is available from the Allinson Gallery for $1,950.