Sunday, 29 May 2016

Edgar Degas: monotypes at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to 24th July


Camille Pissarro once described the monotypes made by Edgar Degas in the 1870s as 'a bit slovenly and askew'. Even so, he would also perhaps have known that Degas was held in such high regard by his contemporaries in Paris that other customers would stand as he entered the café he used. Unlike any of the artists featured in the previous exhibition notice, Degas was a great modern master and his monotypes found him pushing the boundaries of modern graphic art about as far as it would go, hence Pissarro's comment.

Monotype essentially involves drawing in ink on a metal plate and passing that through a press. As a result only one image is normally possible. Easy enough to do, in the hands of Degas, the result were often astonishing. He has already made very striking etchings like the self-portrait of 1857, above and  and utterly magnificent drawings like the one below and I include these because there is clearly a relationship between all the different graphic art he made.

The show also includes other graphic work but as I haven't seen it, I can only give readers a hint at what they might see if they are fortunate enough to be in New York this spring and summer. Although he stands very much in the grand tradition of European art, his monotypes sometimes broke with tradition and added colour even if the tone is actually sepia. But that is hardly the point because it is the overall tone that counts.

Thanks also to Darrel Karl who has seen the show and has added a very good account of Degas' working methods in the Comments section.

A radical view: modern British prints 1914 to 1964, Osborne Samuel, London, untill 5th June


I am afraid you only have a week to see this exhibition now but if you are in London, it will be well worth seeing, so get yourself down to Bruton St sharpish. Putting Gordon Samuel's claims for the prints they sell aside, this show offers a fair old view of the kind of innovative prints being made in Britain during the mid C20th. But trying to make out, as Samuel does, that it is possible to discern a radical approach to printmaking over this very long period is, frankly, tosh. Just take a look at the diversity of the images here, including Sybil Andrews' boisterous The windmill (1933), top, and Terry Frost's sweet-natured lithograph, Blue moon (1964), below.

There is everything from Grosvenor School do-it-yourself to the kind of tasteful art school sophistication that was churned out by the cartload during the sixties and seventies. More interesting, in some ways, are the early colour woodcuts made by Edward Wadsworth, such as Brown drama (1914 - 1917), below. Wadsworth trained in Munich about 1912 where he must have learned to make colour woodcut. There was absolutely no attempt on his part to suggest the medium and the cutting is so exact, they are often described as engravings. Wadsworth thought so little of them in the end, when he left London for Sussex after the first war, he put the blocks on a bonfire and burnt the whole lot of them.

In between you have a whole range of things like Edward Bawden's schematic Leadenhall market (1967) and Ivon Hitchen's one and only hand-drawn lithograph, Flowers (1938). Whether you can describe The school-room (1938), below, as in any way radical depends on whether you regard a pastiche of Henri Matisse and Eduard Vuillard as ground-breaking rather than attractive. There is also the chance to see Lill Tschudi's Sailors in the flesh rather than reproduced by Modern Printmakers alongside lots of rather bloke-ish lithographs by some not very entertaining, pseudo-modern Brits.
The complete catalogue in available online and well-worth a look, especially if you are not very familiar with British post-war output. Just click on London Original Print Fair and scroll down a bit to the catalogue. But be warned, you need to be deft:

Friday, 27 May 2016

Five proofs by Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown


I am here to make amends today - very belated amends. Five years ago I put up a post about the colour woodcut proofs you see here using an attribution by a dealer on British ebay (where the prints were for sale). I have known for a long time that they were not by Thomas Austen Brown, as they dealer believed, but by his wife, Lizzie Brown. I did say this later on but people still keep picking up the original post and I am off to delete it right now. The Browns had a studio at Camiers near Etaples in northern France in the early years of C20th and all the prints show different aspects of the village and surrounding countryside. (There is a post about the work their friend, William Lee Hankey, did at the village at In the proof of  Autumn owned by the British Museum, there are some of the red-tiled cottages in the background. The first proof may be unsigned, but I think it is the better image, simpler and fresher. You can compare the BM print, below.

Brown very much belonged to the early experimental phase of British colour woodcut print, alongside artists as diverse as Mabel Royds, Ethel Kirkpatrick, Sidney Lee, Edith Dawson, Allen Seaby, Mabel Lee Hankey and her husband. This is one reason why the proofs differ. Like Seaby, she cut and printed as she went along. Unlike him, she also sometimes added colour as the print progressed so the signature (or lack of it) does nor necessarily mean the prints are  definitive, just that she is satisfied with it. I would certainly think the top print is the later version. You can see how far the image has been reduced to essentials and the way the colours work in harmony. Some iof the blocks have also been removed or re-cut and, all in all, you can see how much was was clarifying her ideas as she worked at the print. She would have first studied colour woodcut under Frank Morley Fletcher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and together these two prints are perfect examples of what was happening amongst Arts and Crafts practitioners at the time. It was not just a matter of 'trial and error' as the School Principal, W.E. Lethaby put it, 'but re-trial and re-error'. I am sure you can see what he meant. The lower proof has all the twilit sentiment of a genre picture; the top print is altogether tougher.

This is where she differs from here teacher and also sometimes from Seaby. he believed at the time that colour woodcut was suited to certain times of day like twilight and it was the twilit mood that was prominent in Fletcher's first colour woodcut, Meadowsweet and Kirkpatrick's early print, The full moon. I tend to think that Brown's approach was more subtle. In one print, the woman is driving her two cows home at the end of the day. In the other, there is not time of day apparent. What did interest her, though, was the lives of working women and children, so the time of day plays an important part in the print. I don't think she is ever merely decorative. As with Royds, it is the lives of the people that matter. The shepherd with his flock is a case in point. Here she is using the rather dark colours of the British Museum Autumn, a tone that brings out a genre complexion which is never quite satisfactory. The girl with the geese may be cute but the design and the colours are unsentimental and concern themselves solely with what is there and not with mood. In this, she was unusual for the time.

What also is worth looking at in Brown's work is her tendency towards abstraction. It would be easy to notice the genre imagery and miss the way she was gradually simplifying the shapes she was using. The roadsides, the shapes of the trees and the rooftops, are all moving in a modern direction. She is never as obviously in debt to William Nicholson as Royds is, but I think his example lies behind the fencing and the boldness of the goose print.

I wish, though, I had been bolder myself and bought these last prints, which I like very much. Since the auction, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking Lizzie Brown over and come to appreciate more exactly what she was doing and what she achieved. My favourites may not be here but these two remain eloquent for all their imperfections. The use of line and recession is the work of an artist of the utmost delicacy and the more she simplifies, the more she draws you in. There is still a hint of staginess in the looming trees and a touch of William Blake in the resting flock, but she pins the moment down, I don't think I ever doubt that what I am seeing isn't real. As for the print below, I think the colours used are exquisite and almost no-one used the keyblock with such tact or as so expressively apart from Royds. It has almost nothing at all in common with her Japanese predecessors. There is no hint of ukiyo-e stylisation; she only takes the medium and uses it to great advantage. I am not saying she hadn't looked at the Japanese masters; I am just saying she didn't try to let us know she had. She simply uses light to tell her tale. Nor is it the light of the past or of other cultures. This is the light of the present, of the simple pleasure we take in life..

Sunday, 22 May 2016

To Tangier with Ethel Kirkpatrick


Some months ago a reader sent me this new image of Ethel Kirkpatrick's The orange seller. I had only seen it in a catalogue before and was very glad of the opportunity to make yet another claim for Modern Printmakers' to have the final word on Kirkpatrick. That aside, I think it also goes some way to give more of an idea of her range. I have no absolute proof but I think she was showing here a part of the casbah at Tangier. The orange seller's clothes are right for the period (by about 1910) while the palm leaf baskets behind him are typical of Morocco.
Anyway, here she is, far from the dull skies over London or the limpid dawn over the Venice lagoon. For a change she tackles the stunning light of Tangier. Not everybody has taken to it; Francis Bacon complained. Others adopted an orange-seller to give their image local colour, all the time moaning about the white walls. Kirkpatrick turned that to her advantage and let the astonishing light from the sea speak for itself. Just look at the way it bounces off the building beyond those signature mauve shadows. Fifty years or so later, the British playwright. Joe Orton, noticed the same kind of light. 'The town lay spread beneath us, and the bay and the mountains in the distance, a soft almost purple light covered the whole scene.' And while it would be easy to mock Orton for seeing Tangier through a Hendrix haze, he went on to describe the way life was enhanced by the light as if one were living in a painting by someone French and famous. (He was more than a touch naïve.)

Eugene Delacroix was French and very famous and found Tangier brimming with subject matter. Before I had saw anything from his Journal, I was struck by the way fifty-year old men digging a hole in the street in the old town had the dignified faces of Masaccio saints. Delacroix went one better, and I know exactly what he meant when he said, 'The Greeks and Romans are here at my door, in the Arabs who wrap themselves in a white blanket and look like Cato or Brutus... ' I think Kirkpatrick might have noticed something similar, judging by her orange-seller, and even if she didn't, here we have another version of the Latin Quarter, done with that searching sensitivity she always brought to her work.

I have added Ada Collier's Sweet market, Tangier  (courtesy of William P Carl Fine Prints) and Mary Macrae White's intrepid view of Fez, in case anyone missed them the first time around.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Yet more from British ebay

One of the minor pleasures of researching artists is attempting to trace their West London studios. There used to be a large number of these and many still survive but their locations are often far from obvious. Many Georgian and Victorian houses were equipped with basements simply because street-level was higher than ground level. I remember being fairly convinced I had found Robert Gibbings studio because they could all be seen on the first and second floors of what are now family houses and flats. Yet I wondered how on earth he had got his Albion press up there. The answer is he hadn't because Bolton Studios had been built on unused land behind the row of studio houses and so were at ground level and had never been visible from the street. (You pass under an arch to get to them and, of course, it was gated and there was no going in to see exactly where he had printed off those wonderful colour woodcuts of his).

By the time I came to Arabella Rankin, I should have known better and it was only by chance that I realised that West Studios like Bolton Studios were down some steps below pavement level and were private and secluded. It made sense. So, it was fascinating to see this  colour woodcut by her showing The Temple on Edwardes Square (above) just a short walk from her studio. As I have never even seen her work for sale ever, I would have been tempted by this, even thought it isn't Rankin at her best. But I am off to Wales tomorrow and that is that. Of course, it all depends what it goes for. I would guess it comes from the early twenties before she made her glorious prints showing the island of Iona. The use of mottled colour, shape and blank space is all very typical of her. The lack of a keyblock is notable, too, but I am not so impressed by the use of that emphatic double outline. That aside, it could quite easily be workaday modern Japanese. It has their kind of abstraction and restraint, qualities very much to the fore in the great Scottish prints she made.

Less distinguished because it is less original is John Souter Bulloch's etching (above). A Scot like Rankin, I don't know much about him but he had a go at all kinds of stuff from linocuts to bourgeois portraiture. Here he took the bohemian route to success because he had obviously been looking at Augustus John's etchings of Dorelia and added some Gerald Brockhurst (as unlikely a combination as you will find) while having the model adopt a pose that was striking enough to make me look again even if it all had a definite sense of deja vu. It's all in there somewhere, a dash of the French academic tradition, a hint of seriousness and I mean, I think it's pretty good but I'd sooner have his linocut of ducks. Less hefty by half.

So, ebay is looking up. We have had an etching by F.L.M. Griggs, albeit with a hole in it (not that such a defect deterred everybody), Mabel Royd's Christ in the carpenter's shop, Edgar Holloway and now  because we also have the tender and attractive colour woodcut of winsome deer by Barbara Harvey Leighton (top) and one you will have to pay £390 for if you want it because Canadians can be just as expensive as Americans.

Going on to recent sales, I was a bit surprised by Geoffrey Wedgewood's engraving Fishmarket, Naples going as high as £193 even though it is a complex and distinguished print and one I would have liked to own (if I weren't sinking almost everything I have into this cottage in Wales). Just as surprising was Elyse Ashe Lord's daft confection going for as little as £83. So, perhaps there is justice in this world, after all. Unless, of course, you are buying colour woodcuts. And then, I am afraid, there is none.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

William Neave Parker: 'March' and other prints on ebay


There continues to be something of a trove of prints by the British artist and illustrator, William Neave Parker, on ebay, and for those who missed the opportunity the first time round, you can have another go at prints like his fetching Bear and his surprising period-piece, March. Who would have thought he could have stretched to satyrs and nudes? And what was he doing calling his print March? It's all rather unlikely and I begin to wonder if there isn't something I have missed about Neave Parker (and, goodness knows, I searched and searched).

Going by the last round of bidding, there were other people taken with this print. What kind of print it is, I wouldn't like to say. It is described as a linocut (and Neave Parker certainly made some in colour) but the style looks far more like wood-engraving. But I kind of doubt it is either. Does this matter? Hardly. Even with the obvious condition of the prints, these would be nice to have. A mite conventional, yes, but also perhaps deceptive. Parker was never serious about prints. I think they were something of a sideline. He was certainly more Hall Thorpe than Bresslern Roth and once you see his original work in front of you, it is disappointing. The effect is too flat and unexciting, there is none of the thrill of a finely-made print. All the same they are both well-drawn and sufficiently individual and quirky to be tempting. Once bitten, though, twice shy.