Mixed Media

In various books throughout time, you can read about the vulgar arts; it is mostly a term for any mass production and in art that means printmaking. From an art history perspective, the patron and the artist was a system that was more or less redundant in the 20th century. It was at this time that printmaking came into fashion because if an artist didn’t have one major sponsor, they would need many smaller incomes from the public.

The history of printmaking and the taboo also follows publishing technology. After 1800 the wood-engraving was considered to be un-artisan and best left to newspaper printing and advertising. When wood-engraving was embraced by artists as a reaction to various exhibitions of Japanese woodcuts, the artists who used colour printing aped the Japanese styles of carving with British scenery. Sylvan Boxsius is a good example printing in a traditionally Japanese way. 


 Sylvan G. Boxsius – A Devon Village, 1930s. From My Collection

With more traditional styles of English wood-engraving colour wasn’t welcome. Linocut had a vogue with Cyril Powers works but for printmaking it would be the 50s when colour came in for most artists; much like how colour photography wasn’t considered artisan until the 1980s.

It is important to add this is only in Britain. In France artists had worked in colour. Many of the big artists even worked in advertising making large lithographic posters. Pissarro made colour woodcuts in a medieval style. The French also had the fantastic Atelier 17 – a studio founded in 1927 by Stanley William Hayter. He was a British artist and working mostly in intaglio prints, but he developed new printing methods for colour etchings. Towards the end of the 40s the studio had encouraged mixed media printing methods that crossed over the sea to Britain.


 Stanley William Hayter – Cinq Personnages, 1946

But the biggest taboo to some would be to mix medias, pen and ink with wood-engraving or an etching with a lino-cut. It was the 20th century when nothing was classed as holy. For me I should also add there is a thrill when you see something new. When was the last time you saw something new?

The images below are a series of John O’Connor wood-engravings with pen and ink continuations of the illustrations surrounding it. It might look to be obvious, but it is something new to me and I can’t recall seeing it before or after. The book is E. L. Grant Watson’s Departures from 1948.


 John O’Connor – Illustration from Departures, 1948

On the face of it John O’Connor doesn’t look to be a rebel. A student of Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden at the Royal College of Art his wood engravings always have an old-world charm to them. But I think adding the ink drawings really worked with these illustrations. Below, I love the way the woodcut ends at the child ankles and the ink drawing takes over to show the feet submerged in water.


 John O’Connor – Illustration from Departures, 1948

John O’Connor would go on to surprise me with printmaking by making colour wood-engravings. After spending a great deal of time carving the main black inked block, rather than waste time with wood to make the colour layers he would instead use Lino to make his abstract shapes that are loosely thrown over the engraving. Below I have over-saturated the colour layer to make the point, and it might look lazy but I think it’s fantastic and gives a lovely quality to the prints. So many artists fail in printmaking by trying to be too technically accurate, I think of

Stephen Whittle for example.


 John O’Connor – Illustration from A Pattern of People, 1959


 Michael Rothenstein – Horse and Sunrise, From my collection, 1974.

The other artist that thrills me somewhat is Michael Rothenstein. He is an artist that doesn’t get the credit he deserves and different people who represent his collection push the agenda that suit them. 

Having a diverse career in art he started making accurate and twee illustrations of the countryside. As part of the Record Britain project he was sent out to document areas of Britain as artworks before the start of the Second World War. But after the war is where his life and work is far more interesting. He became one of the real innovators of printing and an early British Pop Artist, before the term was coined.  

His first print was made in 1947 and after that he went to study at Atelier 17 with Hayter. There he developed skills with lithography and etching but abandoned them for their time consuming preparation processes and influenced by Edward Bawden he moved into Linocut.  

Michael Rothenstein, for instance, has applied boundless energy to extending the range of the relief process of wood and lino, sometimes combining them with screenprint and photo-screen.


 Michael Rothenstein – Marilyn I, From my collection, 1978

This Rothenstein print is made up of two screen prints of a photograph of Marilyn Monroe with a pink frame over printed impressions of a burnished planks of wood in green. I think it may need repeating; printed planks of wood.

When I was at art school at the end of the previous century I thought my printing of pavements and blocks of wood were new ideas, however Rothenstein had already penned a book on the topic called Frontiers of Printmaking – New Aspects of Relief Printing in 1966. In the book he shows printed Tree-trunks, metal cans, chicken fencing, the board at the back of an old Pye radio, electronic motors… anything flat you could get an impression off of. 

Any materials that were fairly thin were printed on the platen press. In proofing surfaces of rough texture, however, a soft, flexible packing was placed above the paper as already described … Before use, metal from the scrap-head needs cleaning. It is clamped to the bench and brushed down with a wire brush or wire circumference brush used in a power-tool. An industrial mask should be worn for this process. Very dirty metal taken from the scrapheap or city dump should be first put in the sink and scrubbed down with disinfectant. †


 Example page from Frontiers of Printmaking, 1966

Rothenstein later claimed that Hayter had prompted him to take pictorial risks and avoid predictable effects.

What Hayter did in France to stimulate etching and engraving’. wrote James Burn lately, ‘Michael Rothenstein has done in England for relief printing’. ♠

Rothenstein found and collected things to make really wonderful works and I think he should be celebrated more than he is. 


 Michael Rothenstein – Red Gothic, 1962

Michael Rothenstein – Frontiers of Printmaking, 1966
Richard T. Godfrey – Printmaking in Britain, 1978
The Penrose Annual: Review of the Graphic, 1964

John O’Connor

John O’Connor A.R.C.A. R.W.S, is today best known for his woodcuts, but during his lifetime he was also celebrated as a watercolourist. He was educated between the wars at the Royal College of Art in London under John Nash and Edward Bawden.


 John O’Connor – Self Portrait, The Ruth Borchard Collection

A quote about Ravilious mentions O’Connor: Through his work and his teaching he became a very real influence both in design and wood engraving. One of his
students was John O’Connor. As an engraver O’Connor is an illustrator and very sensitive draughtsman. In style he is influenced by the Ravilious manner, with an emphasis on pattern and book design techniques. He has made a valuable contribution to book design through his technical experiments which include colour. O’Connor has
also brought wood engraving and other media together in the same work. These are essentially book designing experiments rather than experiments in engravings as such.

John O’Connor was was born in Leicester in 1913. In 1930 he enrolled at Leicester College of Art before moving onto the Royal College of Art in 1933. His teachers at this time were Eric Ravilious, John Nash and Robert Austin. He graduated in 1937.


On a visit to Eric Ravilious’s home at Bank House, Castle Hedingham in Essex, O’Connor was captivated both by the directness of the wood-engraving technique, and by the simple domestic scene in which Ravilious engraved by a lamp in one corner of the room while his wife Tirzah played with their small son by the fire in another. It was due to Ravilious that O’Connor got his first commission of work aged 23, illustrating Here’s Flowers by Joan Rutter for the Golden Cockerel Press in 1937.

He taught at Birmingham and Bristol before serving in the Royal Air Force form 41-45. He arrived with the allied troops during the fall of Berlin, and sketched the ruined city. Back in England, but still in his flight lieutenant’s uniform, he met his future wife, Jeannie Tennant, who was a teacher, in Filey, North Yorkshire. They married in 1945, and spent their honeymoon cycling around the Yorkshire dales.


 John O’Connor – Kersey Church, Suffolk

On being demobbed he illustrated two books for the Golden Cockerel Press and taught in Hastings for two years before moving to Colchester to become the head of the School of Art in 1948. He was affectionately known as ‘Joc’ to his students, using his initials. His colleagues included Richard Chopping, who designed dust jackets for the James Bond novels, his own former teacher John Nash, and Edward Bawden, one of the finest
British printmakers.


 John O’Connor – Heron and Ducks

In 1950, O’Connor wrote and illustrated ’Canals, Barges and People’. The book had colour illustrations; wood-engravings by overprinting coloured linocuts. This was something of a revolution, as wood-engraving had till then been largely considered a black-and-white process.

The book also stood out as part of a Folk-art scene looking into the artistic past of Britain. Other writer/artists to be doing this would be Enid Marx, Barbara Jones and Noel Carrington. ’Canals, Barges and People’ was an immediate success, but only 1,000 copies were printed by Shenval Press and the colour made a reprint impractical and too expensive.


 John O’Connor – Orange Field. Clare College, University of Cambridge

He saw his favourite painting places in Suffolk – the ponds, willows, briars and honeysuckle – disappear beneath the bulldozer and combine harvester. In 1964 O’Connor retired from teaching full time at Colchester, to concentrate on painting and engraving. He wrote various ‘How to’ books and taught part time at St Martin’s School of Art. In 1975 he and his wife, Jeannie, went to live by Loch Ken in Kirkcudbrightshire, where his love of light and water inspired his many watercolours and oil paintings. He took up a post teaching at Glasgow School of Art from 1977 to 1984.


 John O’Connor – Chestwood Meadows, Lewisham Local History & Archives Centre

His engraving continued into yet another decade with the imaginative commission from Richard Ingrams for O’Connor to produce a monthly illustration for The Oldie magazine. These pieces – 36 of which were preserved in hard covers in People and Places – have all the sparkle and wit of the early work, and he only laid down his tools in 2001, a 65-year span which is surely unique.

John O’Connor’s last book of engravings, The Country Scene, a collection for the Whittington Press of his early and largely unknown work, was on the press when he died. As printing was about to begin, the instruction came from his hospital bed that colour was to be introduced wherever possible. Proofs were hurriedly made by his son, Mike, and taken to him, and delightedly approved days before his death.


 John O’Connor – Little Garden in the Evening, 1947

In the 1950s and 60s, O’Connor exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery, in London, and had many exhibitions throughout Britain. His work was purchased by the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum and the Contemporary Art Society, as well as by several local education authorities; it can also be found in the Oslo Museum, the Zurich Museum and at New York central library. He was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1947, and, in 1974, to the Royal Watercolour Society. He was an honorary member of the Society of Wood Engravers. He retired to Stable Cottage, Danevale, Castle Douglas.

He died March 5 2004

1937 –  Here’s Flowers by Joan Rutter. Golden Cockerel Press
1945 – Together and Alone by Christopher Whitfield. Golden Cockerel Press
1946 – We Happy Few by Owen Rutter. Golden Cockerel Press
1950 – Canals, Barges and People by John O’Connor, reprinted 2014
1951 – An Essex Pie by T.M. Hope
1959 – A Pattern of People by John O’Connor
1967 – Landscape painting, reprinted 1977
1973 – Introducing relief printing
1971 – The Technique Of Wood Engraving
1979 – A View of Kilvert by John O’Connor. Foulis Archive Press
1989 – The Wood-engravings of John O’Connor
1990 – The Four Elements by Seamus Heaney. Whittington Press
1991 – Wood Engravings From La Vida Breve
1991 – Twins (Came with Matrix 11) by John O’Connor. Whittington Press.
1999 – People and Places by John O’Connor. Whittington Press.
2004 – The English Scene by John O’Connor. Whittington Press. 

Selected list of Exhibitions
1954 Zwemmer Media Arts, London
1955 Royal Academy of Arts, London
1973 The Minories, Colchester
1976 The Minories, Colchester
1977 Graphic Work Retrospective, Glasgow School of Art
1990 Royal Watercolour Society, Bankside, London

A History of British Wood Engraving by Albert Garrettv, 1978, 9780859360777 – p222

Canal Boat Baroque

Woodcuts by John o’Connor
Canal boat decoration is more sever and generally smaller in scale and form than that of the gypsy caravan. The shape of the boat itself, build for narrow bridges, tunnels, and wharves, denies excesses and frills.


Canal boats in the 1960s still used a formal pattern of décor, in the style of road transport vehicles, and the rose and castle of the water bucket now have a strangely insecure position on the shelves of some departmental stores, although a few are still to be seen on the canals. In brilliant green, scarlet, yellow, and pale blue, the landscape and flower pictures are painted in a tradition as rigid as a Gothic screen.


Black is used as a foil to white cord in ship-shape order. These decorations are as incongruous in the setting of an English landscape, hedgerow, weed, and dark water, as a flowered teapot at a picnic. 

Cheap fairing pieces of china in the 1880s may be the direct source of inspiration for these designs. Recalling as they do the corded mantelpieces of a Victorian midland cottage.

From ‘The Saturday Book #22’ (1962) Edited by John Hadfield
& The best of the Saturday book 1941–1975 (1981) Edited by John Hadfield