Philip Hargreen

An obituary by Brian North Lee with Hargreen’s illustrations.

Philip Hargreen was a remarkable artist and the last survivor of the Eric Gill circle. He was educated at Wellington College, where his father was drawing master. He studied in Cornwall under Norman Garstin, then with Harold and Laura Knight, and later at the New Cross Art School. At the outbreak of the First World War he enlisted in the Army, and the following year became a Catholic, a move that was to transform his life and his art.

After the war he began to experiment with wood-engraving and cutting, and, with Lucien Pissarro, founded the Society of Wood Engravers, which held its first exhibition in Chelsea in 1920. He joined Eric Gill whom he described as “an odd fellow, but wonderful” at Ditchling in 1923, moving with him briefly in 1924 to Capel-y-ffin. “Heaven and Eric Gill took pity on me,” he wrote, “and I started to learn that alphabet. Eric taught me … lettering… and I had the blessing of sharing a workshop with David Jones. At last I was able to escape from the wrong ideas about pictorial art, but it was only after many experiments and failures that I could see the truth that is the common substance of all arts.”

In 1930, after living near Lourdes for six years, Hagreen and his wife returned to a quarter of a century of activity at the Guild of St Dominic, Ditchling. His range was by then extended beyond painting, some portraiture and cutting wood blocks, to furniture-making, wood and ivory carving, and engraving inscriptions on ecclesiastical vessels made by the Guild’s silversmith, Dunstan Pruden.

As a matter of principle Hagreen never signed his work, for he saw all gifts as emanating from God. Despite his formidable versatility, lettering was always his speciality and in addition to work for books and magazines he cut over 170 bookplates and book la- bels of remarkable quality. A good many of them were gifts on the weddings or anniversaries of friends, and they are remarkable for their linear skill, inventiveness and unimpeded focus.
Hagreen devised and made his own wood-cutting tools, to suit the unusual length of his fingers, and some of these were subsequently manufactured commercially.

In 1959 the family moved to Lingfield in Surrey, but Hagreen’s deteriorating health made wood- cutting impossible, and he had to settle for water-colour as his sole creative outlet. His wife died soon after the move, and from 1973 he lived in a nursing home near Crawley.

He remained almost to the end a vivid raconteur and a lively and endearing contact with an area of artistic endeavour which has passed into history. Hagreen preferred to talk about Gill, David Jones and Edward Johnston, rather than about himself; one suspects, nonetheless, it could not always have been easy to play a supporting role on a stage containing those three giants who were his intimates. With hindsight, and wider analysis of the Gill circle, the rare skills of Hagreen are drawing deserved admiration.