Wednesday, 2 August 2017

A cosmopolitan show at the Hasse Gallery, Leeds, in 1929


One notable thing about the British colour print movement (and I'm including colour etching and linocut) is how many artists from other countries were included and how far British artists were ready to learn from them. Only look at the narrow-mindedness of  etcher, David Bone, chairman of the Society of Twelve. Founded in 1904,  Alphonse Legros, who had become a British subject, was a founder member, but Bone objected to Lucien Pissarro's membership simply because he hadn't. By contrast the Society of Graver Printers (officially founded in 1909) included the Irishman, E.L. Lawrenson and was determinedly Anglo-French. It later branched out into Japan, Austria and Germany. Then recall the Australian contribution to woodcut and linocut in the 1920s.


What is very striking about the exhibition of coloured woodcuts held at the Hasse Gallery in Leeds in 1929 was that not one of the artists whose work was on show had been born in the United Kingdom (not even Frank Brangwyn, who was born in Bruges). This probably says two things. The Hasse family came from German Moravian stock (the sect not the region) and had been settled in England and Ireland  since the C19th, but presumably had maintained business connections with Austria and Germany. Leeds was a large and prosperous city and the gallery appeared to have shown the artists they believed would sell. What is extraordinary to me is that I had two of the prints sold by Hasse in my own collection (one was sold by me only recently) and I assume that was how they came to be in Newark and Sheffield where I bought them in the first place.

What I must warn you is this: I have not seen a catalogue of this show, only a review in the Yorkshire Post, which gave the titles of a limited number of prints. Urushibara's Dahlias comes first because I have come to like its eccentric earthiness, but Messina after an earthquake after a drawing by Brangwyn was certainly in the show (and is shown below). A friend of mine used to have the Urushibara on his wall over the television, so you couldn't miss it, and it was one of the very first British colour woodcuts (and I claim Urushibara for the British School) I came to know well. I will also admit that at the time I was disappointed with it. What  I wanted from a colour woodcut was that sense of outlandish period glamour while I thought Dahlias was a sombre and pernickety study in maroon and grey.


Nowadays, it would appeal far more than Brangwyn's deliberations. I mean, the Brangwyn isn't bad but it isn't a print, it's Henry IV Part One, (enter Falstaff right). I can no longer take his theatricality very seriously. Nor can I be sure that John Hall Thorpe's print you see here was in the show. What was a sale was Piccadilly Circus, an early woodcut I dislike so much, I won't so much as look at it unless I really have to, which fortunately doesn't happen often.


Again, I can't say the Ilse Koch-Amberg (second from the top) was in the show but a flower print by her would be fairly certain, I would think. What you could have bought was M.E.Phillip's Macaw  (and it  might have been a good idea if you had). I have never been a great fan of Phillips and this is the first time he has appeared on Modern Printmakers. At Leeds I don't know how much it was, but it is currently for sale in New York if  you have a mind-bending $4000 and more to spend. Cardinal birds was there, as well, but would not have been such a wise investment.

Inscribing their work in English - even dubious English - presumably helped the artists to sell their work. Engelbert Lap's After the rain would also have gone into my collection if I had found it in Sheffield that day because, all in all, I think it's one of his most appealing print. But then, Lap was consistent in a military way and I am not surprised to find him in league with either Hall Thorpe or Urushibara. All three had an easily recognisable professional manner, though Urushibara was by far the most versatile. None had been trained as artists in the first place but Dahlias is more than a decorative print. It still speaks across cultures, the way he handles space is poetic and not merely formal.


Another print for sale was Helene Mass' Reflections. The one I own has no inscription apart from 'H Mass' and I only properly identified the artist years later using an old Antwerp auction-house catalogue  that was stuffed with colour woodcuts and was an invaluable resource, but, sadly, was removed from the internet some years ago.  Without it, I doubt either Art & the Aesthete or Modern Printmakers would have ever got going. Anyway, without knowing anything about the artist, the Mass was on obvious thing to buy, one that made best use of the medium, and I have always been surprised that generally none of the other prints I have seen by her have ever been so good.


  1. I think your criticism of the Messina print is a fair one. The composition is akin to a stage design for an opera, and the woodblock medium doesn't particularly enhance the design (and this applies to certain other Brangwyn-Urushibara collaborations I could name as well). In contrast, however, Brangwyn's Bruges portfolio designs are mostly about light and shadow, and I think Urushibara's technical proficiency in the medium meaningfully enhances Brangwyn's Bruges designs.

    I've never been particularly enamored with floral prints in general, but I've always found Urushibara's florals to be rather off-putting. Part of it is that he made so many of them that I quickly become bored by the repetition. But it's largely because I can't connect with them. I find them emotionally cold, as if there's a plexiglass barrier between me and the print. I don't experience any joy, or sadness, or humor. They're academic renderings, technically proficient, expertly printed, and sterile. I won't claim that Thorpe's floral print is a masterpiece, but at least it engages me in a way that Urushibara's Dahlias does not.

  2. What did the earthquake at Messina mean to Brangwyn? The occupation of Bruges meant a great deal. If you also look at Brangwyn's war work as a whole, from the illustrations for 'Belgium' to the propaganda posters, it shows a man whose response was complex.

  3. According to the catalog, the earthquake occurred in December 1908 and 84,000 people died. In 1909 Brangwyn visited his friend Robert Hawthorne Kitson in Taormina, Sicily and for some reason produced a series of drawings illustrating the devastation which were subsequently exhibited at The Fine Art Society in 1910. Whether it was done to increase public awareness of the event, to specifically raise money for relief, or just to historically document the event, I can't say. Brangwyn does seem to have been fascinated by ruins, as shown by his depictions of the Devil's Bridge in Switzerland and the Ruins of a Roman Bridge on the Loire.