Iain Macnab by Herbert B Grimsditch

Below is an essay on Iain Macnab. Someone who is talked about for his and Claude Flight’s Grosvenor School. I didn’t really know a lot about Macnab but the text and illustrations are from The Artist, April 1937. 

The old adage that “Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach” is one of those half-truths that are dangerous from their very speciousness. It is a good thing to dissect and expose them once in a while. So far as the fine arts are concerned, one need not look far for examples to prove the frequent falsity of this cruel and facile allegation. 


 Iain Macnab – LNER Poster

Sickert is one conspicuous case; Tonks (whose recent loss we mourn) is another; and among the younger men one could hardly select a better subject than lain Macnab, who can both ‘do’ and ‘teach’ with talent and finish, and who is an artist teacher because he has the two-fold vocation. 

The clarity of his exposition, the whole-hearted enthusiasm with which he descants on art, the breadth and catholicity of his views, mark him out a born teacher; while his own production as a painter and engraver is proof of his capacity as a practising artist. 

Macnab is of Highland ancestry, and comes of an ancient and celebrated line of Scottish armourers, the Macnabs of Barachastalain. He has always found his hand respond easily to any new technique, and he is inclined to attribute this manual aptitude to the ingrained hereditary habit produced by an age-long tradition of fine engraved work on pistols and other arms. Also, there were artists on both sides of his family. His father was in the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, and Macnab was born on 21st October, 1890, at Iloilo, in the Philippine Islands, which were then under Spanish control. He lisped in Spanish as an infant but at the age of four he was brought home to Kilmalcolm, in Renfrewshire.


 Iain Macnab – Fisherman at Portofino, 1937

During a holiday in Ireland at the age of seven a gypsy foretold that he would become an artist. He was educated at Merchiston and left school at eighteen. Already as a boy his interests were turned to sculpture, painting and cartooning, with the first perhaps pre-eminent, but the career chosen for him was that of chartered accountant, and he duly served his artiles thereto in Glasgow for five and a half years. He was due to sit for his final examination in October, 1914; with the prospect if he passed, of an excellent post in the Philippines, leading to the early reversion of a complete business.

But the outbreak of the war formed a pretext for abandoning accountancy, and Macnab enlisted at once as a private in the Highland Light Infantry. Being already trained in the school cadet corps, he found himself in France by the end of October, 1914 and is a Mons Star man. In April, 1915 he was granted a regular commission in the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. During the battle of Loos he was blown up by a shell. After some little time symptoms of grave internal injury became evident; and in July, 1916 he was invalided out of the service. 


 Iain Macnab – Spring Landscape, Tossa, 1936

His cure was by no means complete, however, and it was not until 1918 that he was well enough to take the art course he had promised himself. 

In that year he became a student at Heatherley’s. He had already seen and studied many good paintings; he had an uncle who knew several of the Impressionists, and who used to talk art with him; and in general his mind was well stored with paintings lore. He started work with the determination to be a professional artist or nothing; the amateur status had no attraction for him. His rapid progress, his fertility in ideas, and his clear and ready exposition of them, led Henry Massey, the Principal of the School, to see in him a potentially valuable teacher. So strongly did Massey feel this that after only a year he offered Macnab the post of joint Principal of Heatherley’s. 

With this offer Macnab closed, and as a teacher worked with enthusiasm at the School till temporarily put out of action again, in 1925, by a too-vigorous pull at the etching press. While convalescent in a nursing home he decided that the time had come when he needed, for the proper expression of his educational theories, a school under his sole personal control; so, once well again he found a big house in Warwick Square, Belgravia, and on 19th October, 1925 opened there the Grosvenor School of Modern Art.


 Iain Macnab – Illustrations for Burns’s Tam o’Shanter, 1934

Macnab had thought out the broad principles on which he wished to run his school. His idea was not so much to train students to paint what they saw, in the crude sense, as to teach them to isolate from nature the elements that are truly pictorial, and then to develop their own personalities. His ambition was to make artists

To be an artist, as distinguished from a mere competent draughtsman, he felt, it is necessary first to have a personality to express. It is indispensable to the production of a work of art that an emotional reaction shall take place. Of that reaction the drawing is only a vehicle. He stresses the cardinal importance of composition; the students are encouraged to approach every problem in terms of design from the beginning, and to build up their drawings gradually on logical principles. 

The preliminary visualisation of a subject in planes and its resolution by successive steps into a picture giving the illusion of three-dimensional form are clearly expounded in his recent book on ‘Figure Drawing.’ He is a firm believer in the virtues of wood-engraving as a discipline for all artists, since in this medium every mark must have its significance, and the whole thing must be thought out thoroughly in advance, for there is no scope for fumbling or retouching.


 Iain Macnab – Figure Drawing, 1936 

Macnab considers himself lucky to have attracted, from the first, a serious-minded type of student, took kindly to his inexorable rule of silence while at work in the studio. This rule shows his common sense, and is by no means the mark of the martinet. No one, indeed, could be less like the more starched kind of pedagogue than Macnab; and when the time comes for exposition and discussion he not only admits but encourages the criticisms of students. 

He believes in the thorough ventilation of the subject, and strives to train his pupils to see the inwardness of widely-differing styles. Side by side with his teaching activities Macnab has pursued a versatile course as an artist. He began painting in 1918, and has developed, both in oils and water-colours, a distinctive style that, while it has nothing outré about it, is thoroughly in the modern trend of design. 

In October, 1922 he decided that he would like to etch. He was told of five-year courses and suchlike, but this did not suit him, so he bought copper, tools, acid and a book on etching, and within three months had produced six prints which were good enough to secure his election as an Associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. For some years he exhibited etchings at the Academy, but in 1929 he decided that the copper was altogether too facile and deserted it for wood engraving. 


Iain Macnab – Illustration from Burns’s Tam o’Shanter, 1934

This medium he took up largely because of its recalcitrance, because of the stern discipline it imposes. In it he has done some of his finest work; and one might go a long way before finding wood-engravings to equal the ‘Tam of Shanter’ illustrations here Shown, with their beautiful distribution of blacks and whites and their admirable translation of the famous story into graphic terms.

Macnab is a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Honorary Treasurer of the National Society, and was made a full R.E. in 1935. He has held only one one-man Show, at the old Albany Gallery, Sackville Street. He exhibits each year at the Royal Scottish Academy, and frequently at the London Group, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the New English Art Club and the National Society. He has achieved much, and much more may be expected from him in the future.

The Slaves of the Grosvenor School

The school had no formal curriculum and students studied what and when they wished

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art sounds like it was a liberal progressive place, but what I have always wondered was, what was the teaching like? I find it a curious place in how much of the teachers hand has been passed on to the pupils.

In Wood:

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art was a private British art school. It was founded in 1925 by the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab in his house at 33 Warwick Square in Pimlico, London. From 1925 to 1930 Claude Flight ran it with him.

The influence of the teaching of Iain MacNab is a strange one. I have noticed that many of his pupils at the

Grosvenor School of Modern Art made prints under his direction with a Spanish flare to them, mostly in the buildings. It is a signature look for MacNab, so I can’t help wondering if he was such a dominant presence that he got his pupils to mimic his work? Was it a way to succeed under him? Were the pupils expected to pick up a style and mimic it in the same way old masters like Rembrandt used to with their pupils?

The main characteristic is the buildings have have a roof that slopes down with no central pitch. I wonder how many of the pupils travelled to Spain in the late 30s or were they showing a solidarity towards the Spanish Civil War? This post is full of questions I have no answers for.

I do know that Macnab did travel to France, Spain and Corsica himself. Many of his later works in the 50s were of such landscapes. The Grosvenor School was closed in the Second World War.


 Iain MacNab – A Southern Landscape, 1941


 Peter Barker Mill –  Spanish Lane


 Tom Chadwick – Unknown, c1930s


 Suzanne Cooper – Back Gardens, c1930s


 Rachel Reckitt – The Farm or House in Catalonia, c1930s



 Guy Malet – Gran Canaria, 1939


 Alison Mckenzie – Staithes

In Lino

When it came to Linocut, in the School they followed the external fashions of Futurism. A movement that started publicly in 1909 it inspired many British artists in the First World War, mostly C R W Nevinson. But these prints are much later from the 1930s. So maybe they are post-futurist? The mechanical features, repeating patterns and graphic devices made a beautiful set of prints. Ending up looking so similar to each other I still find it hard to know what is Power and



Cyril Power – The Escalator Print, 1929


 Sybil Andrews – Racing, 1934


 Lill Tschudi – Underground, 1930


 Ethel Spowers – Swings, 1932


 Eveline Syme – Skating, c1930

Discover Suzanne Cooper


 Suzanne Cooper – The Busman’s Holiday

To discover a new work or artist is always exciting, but it must be rather perplexing to some people who have lived with artists and their work, and over time find it admired. This happens many times with families accepting works of art on walls, but not enquiring. 

A famous example of this is Evelyn Dunbar. She had died in 1960. Her work and her studio was packed up and distributed about the family soon after. In 2013 the wife of Evelyn’s nephew was watching Antiques Roadshow and saw the expert value one of her paintings at £40,000 – £60,000. Members of the family started to look for the works!

They turned out to include more than 500 paintings and drawings by Evelyn. Another nephew had been tracking the contents of Evelyn’s “lost studio”, dismantled after her death, with its contents sold on or given away to family and friends, and compiling a record of her paintings; the find doubled the number of her known works ♥

With the help of a commercial gallery the works were costed at a market price and presented to the public to buy, along with a major retrospective of these new works. A PR Video on Dunbar can be found here.

In the case of Suzanne Cooper, the family knew of the works but sought for recognition for her. They have also reprinted some of her woodblocks for sale. Her family own 14 of her paintings and various woodblocks and the original blocks, 1 painting is in the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, but around 12 works are ‘lost’ and yet to resurface in the market.

Born in 1916, Cooper grew up in Frinton, Essex, the town with the reputation. We know that she was educated at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London under Iain Macnab and Cyril Power. 

Based in 33 Warwick Square, Pimlico, London, the Grosvenor School was housed in a mansion built in 1859 by architect George Morgan for James Rannie Swinton, the Scottish portrait painter. In 1924 the house was sold following the divorce of Lady Patricia Ellison (of Louisville, Kentucky) and Sir Charles Ross (of Balnagown). 

Iain Macnab married Helen Wingrave, a famous dancer and dance instructress. Macnab used some of the building as teaching rooms for his Grosvenor School and others are living quarters while his wife operated a dance studio and gave private lessons from the ball room.

The Grosvenor School would have been the hippest place to be taught at the time and the printmaking department was having a renascence of modernism with lino and woodcuts. It is clear that Cooper was influenced by Macnab’s style in woodcut. 


 Suzanne Cooper – Back Gardens


 Iain Macnab – Cassis-sur-Mer

During Cooper’s time as a student she exhibited paintings and wood-engravings at the Redfern, Zwemmer, Wertheim and Stafford Galleries, mostly as part of the Society of Women Artists and the

National Society of Painters, Sculptors and Print-Makers, the later being reviewed below in 1938. 

I liked the prints of Rachel Roberts, a newcomer to these exhibitions, and also those by Suzanne Cooper, Eric King, Joar Hyde, and John O’Connor.

Christopher Wood’s patron, Lucy Carrington Wertheim bought one of Coopers paintings Royal Albion, she later donated it to the Auckland Art Gallery in 1948. It was at this time that Cooper was painting in oils and her work mirrored Christopher Woods in tone and composition. 


 Suzanne Cooper – Royal Albion, 1936

Suzanne Cooper was one of many artists who were taken under the wing of Lucy Carrington Wertheim, who was first encouraged by Frances Hodgkins to set up a modern art gallery. This delightful depiction of the Royal Albion hotel shows a common seaside view, with small boats drawn up on the beach opposite, in the protection of the groynes which can be found on many British beaches. The artist’s use of simplified blocks of form and colour was popular with members of the St Ives school of painters.

The fashionable appeal of the Grosvenor School linocuts did not last long, however. Even before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. ♠

The Second World War came and the Grosvenor School Closed in 1939. Cooper married Michael Franklin in 1940. They had three children, and she produced no more large-scale paintings, though continuing to work in pastels and chalk. She died in 1992. 


 Suzanne Cooper – The Carol Singers


 Suzanne Cooper – Street Scene


 Suzanne Cooper – Still Life


 Suzanne Cooper – Renwick Coals


 Christopher Wood – Drying nets, Treboul Harbour, 1930

†  The Scotsman – Tuesday, 08 February, 1938
Auckland Art Gallery 
Lino Cutting and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art – artrepublic
♥ Evelyn Dunbar: the genius in the attic, The Guardian