Woodcut Patterns by Paul Nash

An essay from The Woodcut No.1 An Annual.
In its beginning engraving had certain practical uses. One of these was the cutting of hieroglyphics on wooden stamps for the purpose of producing impressions on clay. The cuts were made both in intaglio and in relief. Blocks of this kind, for stamping bricks, where employed by the Egyptians and in Babylon. The accompanying illustration represents a wooden block found in a tomb at Thebes.

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Considering these examples of an early method of printing, it is obvious that it was used in other directions, and the inference is that blocks were cut not only with a directly useful intention, as for impressing clay and similar substances, but with a decorative purpose in marking cloth. From the moment the simple craft flowed over from its utilitarian groove it assumed the nature of an art.

That is not to deny that the craft of cutting hieroglyphics may produce consummate art, but a skilled craftsman is not of necessity an artist. Therefore, I date the birth of the art of engraving on wood from the time the craft developed a consciously decorative purpose, and the first-fruits of this were probably in the nature of patterns marked by dyes upon cloth.

It was not until centuries later that the art took on a pictorial significance: even then, for many years after its application to books as an accompaniment to text, its decorative or pattern value was still its true importance.
With the increase of skill, however, this quality began to diminish. 

The discovery of chiaroscuro only hastened its disappearance, and once the conception of wood engraving as a means for reproducing drawings rather than creating prints was firmly rooted, the decorative value of woodcuts became a matter of accident, dependent, indeed, upon the nature of the drawing translated. Thus, although the art of engraving was already doomed, its spirit has perished long before its ultimate decay into a job for skilled mechanical hacks.

With the revival of wood engraving in recent times, artists have instinctively explored the decorative possibilities of the art. This is only natural in an age interested in the rediscovery of the fundamentals of aesthetics. The woodcut re-seen as an end in itself, and not a means to some other end, discovers itself as a very pure form of art, with its sculptural character, its simple expression in black and white, its direct technique and straightforward application. Of all the arts which are crafts it is the most autobiographical. Indeed, if one may account for the abuse of wood engraving for commercial reasons, it is still difficult to understand the neglect it has received as a means of self-expression. But there is always the dangerous seduction of skilfulness to be taken into account. Hitherto this has been a temptation mainly for the craftsman. To-day it is likely to prove the artist’s snare.

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Block Print engraved by Doris Scull

Because, as an engraver, I fear such a danger invading the art I practise I have become lately more interested in woodcut patterns than in woodcut pictures. It is always a relief to be rid responsibility of representation. To concern oneself solely with the problem of formal relationships is to escape into a new world. Here one is in touch with pure reality, and the business of make-believe gives place to other considerations in many ways infinitely more satisfying. I would maintain this about all forms of plastic art, but I feel it to be acutely applicable to engraving on wood. Wood seams to yield to the evolution of an abstract design or a decorative arabesque as stone excites the sculptor to the creation of pure form. For it is the glyptic character of engraving on wood which is its peculiar charm, so that the more the engraver cuts into his block — I do not mean literally in point of depth, in the fractions of an inch — the greater his sense of contact with the reality of his expression.

Unfortunately, the scope of this article may not be extended to a consideration of abstract design as expressed in wood engraving, rather it mush be confined to a cursory examination of a few instances of pattern making by means of wood blocks as practised to-day in England.

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Design and cut on wood by Enid Marx for The Curwen Press

The artist who has worked most consistently and successfully in this direction is Miss Phyllis Barron, who for many years now has produced block-printed materials for dresses and furnishing, using a narrow range of carefully chosen and tested dyes of rather sober but subtle colours on linen, cotton, silk and velvet. Miss Barron, being a true artist as well as a crafts-woman, has created something very definite: in my opinion, as valuable as any contribution to contemporary art in this country. With her are working Miss Dorothy Larcher and Miss Enid Marx. The former is a design of equal ability with Miss Barron, with a personal invention distinguishing all her output. Miss Marx, in one sense, is hardly more than a recruit, but judging by her first efforts one may predict a most interesting future for her art. In the first place she is attempting in her patterns a three-dimensional design. 

This is a expedient often resorted by the French with amusing results, but our own textile designers seem generally content with the flat arabesque. Miss Marx’s designs have the character of a fugue in music. Another quality which distinguishes them from the majority of textile designs is the peculiarly rigid movement of the units, which are not conceived in fluid waves or undulations, or as an efflorescence, but are more like the delicate architecture of birds, building with rather awkward shaped sticks.

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Design and cut on wood by Eric Ravilious for The Curwen Press

It is difficult to proceed farther in discussing the making of patterns without confessing that they are not all cut on wood. Wood is rapidly becoming supplanted by linoleum, and there is no doubt the latter substance has many advantages for the hand block printer. It is quicker and easier to cut, easily replaced, and there is not the danger of warping, which the wood block so constantly presents. Its disadvantages is its unpleasant pulpy texture, which does not allow of fine engraving, and at the same time is a little too easy to cut. There is however, so much excellent work being done in this medium that is must be recognised here.

The most recent group of designers and engravers on linoleum for producing textile patterns is that established by the energy and resource of Mrs. Eric Kennington (nee Edith Celandine Cecil), in a workshop by the river at Hammersmith. The chief craftswoman here is Mrs. Gwen Pike, a most experienced and able engraver and printer. The works, known as Footprints, reproduce patterns by their own staff, and also designs contributed by independent artists.

Finally, there remain to be considered two new fields of activity for the woodcutter. These are the making of wallpapers and papers for book covers by means of printed blocks, These has been recently a revival of interest in wallpapers, especially in Paris, Such distinguished artists as Madame Marie Laurencin and Monsieur Dufy have been in demand, and produced some charming designs. No doubt there are other artists who should be mentioned, but their omission is due to my ignorance, not my neglect.

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Raoul Dufy — La Chasse (The Hunt) c1910

In England I am aware of only one designer who has turned his attention seriously to engraving wallpaper patterns. This is Edward Bawden, whose invention in this direction has produced papers of real distinction and originality. I need scarcely add that they have either been ignored or rejected by every manufacturer who has seen them.

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Node: Linocut. One of the four ‘Plaistow Wallpapers’ designs commissioned by Curwen Press in 1932

In the narrower field of book cover patterns designers are more fortunate, since there is not only greater demand for ‘original’ papers, but the cost of production is small. Also we have at least one or who enlightened Presses in this country, although our manufacturers remain benighted. Even so, the industry is minute. 

Compared with the production of patterned papers on the Continent, more especially in Germany and Austria, the English output is confined to the work produced by the enterprise of the Curwen Press, which continues doggedly to give encouragement to the two or three artists interested in this branch of design. Alas” that is our trouble in England — the general lack of intelligent encouragement given to her artists for any form of activity, small or great, outside of picture-making.

In England we are still prone to cling rather sentimentally to the idea of the Fine Arts, and think it is a little undignified, or at least unusual, for artists to concern themselves with anything but painting and sculpture, with the result that, for the most part, such arts as interior decoration, stained-glass work, theatre décor and textile designing are left in the hands of the competent but uninspired. The British contribution to the Paris Decorative Arts Exhibition was a shocking enough reminder of this fact, and may serve, perhaps, for as good a reason as any why we should begin to consider patterns as important as pictures.

Paul Nash. 1927

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Paul Nash: Woodcut — ‘Bouquet’, 1927

It is important to mention that the bold praise of the Curwen press was due to Paul Nash being the head printer there for some years, and this essay being printed by the Curwen Press in 1927. This is not to say there were not ahead of the other printers and designers, but it is always important to review essays with any bias that seeps in the ink.

Cecil Buller

Cecil Buller (1886–1973) was a Canadian artist most notable for her wood engravings.

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She was born in Montreal and travelled north America, and at 16 years old travelled Europe, mostly England and France. In 1910 She moved to New York where she attended the Art Students League in New York where her wood engravings started to get noticed. Then in 1912 she travels to Paris again where she would have been exposed to Cubists movment that had gained momentum at that time, this inspired the form of her woodcuts in the 1920’s.
She moved to London in 1916 to focus on graphic arts where she was educated under Noel Rooke, at the Central School of Art and Design. It was there that she met John Murphy, they married in 1917 and as an American he was able to move his new wife with him to Greenwich Village, New York in 1918.

Cecil Buller:

She gained success in the 20’s and 30’s for her wood engravings and were exhibited. In 1924 her only son was born, in 1930 an essay on her work was published in The Print Collector’s Quarterly. In 1937 she separates from her husband. From then on she travelled widely to Egypt, Iran, Greese, Afghanistan, and back and forth to London and Paris. In 1973 she died of a stroke.

She was awarded the Pennel Prize, Library of Congress, D.C. (1945), the Audubon Society Award (1947 and 1953) and the National Academy of Design Graphic Art Award (1949).

Great Bardfield Artists

The Great Bardfield Artists were a community of artists who lived in Great Bardfield, a village in north west Essex, England, during the middle years of the 20th century. The village’s “open house” exhibitions attracted national press attention and thousands visited the remote village to view art in the artists’ own homes during the summer exhibitions of 1954, 1955 and 1958.

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The principal artists who lived there between 1930 and 1970 were John Aldridge RA, Edward Bawden, George Chapman, Stanley Clifford-Smith, Audrey Cruddas, Walter Hoyle, Eric Ravilious, Sheila Robinson, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree and Marianne Straub.

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 Edward Bawden CBE RA (1903–1989)

Other artists associated with the group include Duffy Ayers, John Bolam, Bernard Cheese, Tirzah Garwood, Joan Glass, David Low and Laurence Scarfe. Great Bardfield Artists were diverse in style but shared a love for figurative art, making the group distinct from the better known St Ives School of artists in St Ives, Cornwall, who, after the war, were chiefly dominated by abstractionists. Below are pictures from the 1957 exhibition catalogue.

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 John Aldridge RA (26 July 1905–3 May 1983)

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 Walter Hoyle (1922–2000)

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Some posts from my instagram account.

Crime in the Art Room

In 1998, woodcuts started to appear on ebay by Earl Mack Washington (1862–1952). For some time there was a lot of mystery about Washington, but the accepted view, now is that he was invented by Earl Marshawn Washington, whom he claimed was his great grandfather. Below is the original faked biography.

Earl M. Washington (1862–1952):

Earl M. Washington (1862–1952) was an African-American master wood-engraver and printer who between the early 1900s and the time of his death had amassed and printed from one of the largest collections of artists’ wood blocks in the United States. Washington’s career began at the age of 13, when he was apprenticed at a Southern printing shop. In 1880 Washington moved to New York, but encountered racial and social prejudice which barred him from employment at the larger printing shops in the city. Eventually finding a position in a small shop on the Lower East Side, Washington went on to perfect his skills as a master printer.

Washington’s collection of wood blocks began accidentally, with blocks collected from the fire-ravaged print shop of a fellow-carver and friend. As he continued his printing work, Washington’s circle of acquaintanceship widened, and he began to receive blocks from many different artists and publishers. These included the work of Hale Woodruff, (1900–1980) whom Washington met and befriended; Eric Gill, Lynd Ward, Rockwell Kent, M. C. Escher, Robert Gibbings, and others. Washington printed impressions for each of the wood engraved blocks in his collection, and in some instances, he used the designs of other artists to create new engraved blocks.

Earl M. Washington (1862–1952):

The woodblocks produced by Earl Marshawn Washington (born 1962) are now all viewed to be fakes of the masters mentioned above. It was estimated by September 2004 that as many as 60,000 prints had been sold, at prices ranging from $20 to a $350 and Washington himself has since admitted to “creating over 1700 wood engravings” with a team of assistants who he trained to cut woodblocks.

Earl M. Washington (1862–1952):

Many of the fakes where printed on old paper that, for a while, abated suspicion. Washington even tried to train his ex-girlfriend (who signed a statement against him) Terra Zavala to cut woodblocks. She also wrote that Earl admitted that he doesn’t even have a great-grandfather named Earl M. Washington.

With so many copies coming onto the market The M.C. Escher Co. found that Washington was forging the work of M. C. Escher and pressed eBay into promising that it would forbid listing of these. They filed a complaint of criminal fraud in California, as prints were being handled there by stripper Stacy Ortiz (who would later become Washington’s wife). 

A criminal complaint was filed in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, by the owners of Prairie Home Antiques, who had purchased 82 prints from Washington for $1,640 on 17 June 2004.

Now many of the prints can be bought online for £5-£10. If you buy knowing they are fakes inspired by famous printers you can acquire some beautiful and talented work. But it is unlikely to return any value, other than the novelty of a good tale.

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The Unwelcome Guest: Hans Christian Andersen & Charles Dickens.

In June 1847, Andersen met Dickens at a party hosted by the Countess of Blessington. Both authors respected each others works and Andersen was a fan of Dickens, they both walked on the veranda of Gore House at the party. After this brief meeting they both exchanged letters for many years and planned to meet again.

Gad’s Hill

Ten years passed and Andersen visited Dickens on a trip to his house at Gad’s Hill, Kent. The trip was meant to be a short visit but much to the annoyance of the Dickens household, Andersen stayed for five weeks! Tensions where high in the Dickens house before Andersens visit as Dickens, 45, has started a relationship with Ellen Ternan, 18. A year later Dickens wife, Catherine, would leave him, taking one child and leaving the other nine children to the care of her sister Georgina.

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“He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on” was the daughter comment on Andersen’s long visit. To all accounts Andersen was a difficult guest, a selfish, aggressive and alternated between bouts of depression and suicide, while speaking in very poor English. They would go to London together to balls, plays and parties as well as spend the days together at Gad’s Hill.
Dickens stopped all correspondence between them after the disastrous stay, much to the great disappointment and confusion of Andersen, who had quite enjoyed the visit from accounts in letters to his friends, and never understood why his letters to Dickens went unanswered.

Inexpensive Progress

by John Betjeman

Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.

Let’s say goodbye to hedges
And roads with grassy edges
And winding country lanes;
Let all things travel faster
Where motor car is master
Till only Speed remains.

Destroy the ancient inn-signs
But strew the roads with tin signs
‘Keep Left,’ ‘M4,’ ‘Keep Out!’
Command, instruction, warning,
Repetitive adorning
The rockeried roundabout;

For every raw obscenity
Must have its small ‘amenity,’
Its patch of shaven green,
And hoardings look a wonder
In banks of floribunda
With floodlights in between.

Leave no old village standing
Which could provide a landing
For aeroplanes to roar,
But spare such cheap defacements
As huts with shattered casements
Unlived-in since the war.

Let no provincial High Street
Which might be your or my street
Look as it used to do,
But let the chain stores place here
Their miles of black glass facia
And traffic thunder through.

And if there is some scenery,
Some unpretentious greenery,
Surviving anywhere,
It does not need protecting
For soon we’ll be erecting
A Power Station there.

When all our roads are lighted
By concrete monsters sited
Like gallows overhead,
Bathed in the yellow vomit
Each monster belches from it,
We’ll know that we are dead.