Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The world in black and white

The name of the teacher, writer, and artist Walter George Raffé is hardly remembered today. He was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1888, and died around 1950.

Title page of Poems in Black and White, 1922
incorporating a reduced version of Raffé's woodcut Waiting

Raffé studied at Halifax Technical College, Leeds School of Art, and the Royal College of Art. He then became a lecturer at the Northern Polytechnic, and at the City of London College. He also spent some time in India, where he was Principal of the Lucknow School of Art, and a lecturer at Calcutta University.

Rosy Greeting

W. G. Raffé was elected FRSA in 1919, and a member of the Institute of Decorators in 1921; he was also a member of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society. He wrote a number of books, including Poster Design (1929), and Art and Labour (1927).

The Highway: A Song of Democracy

As an artist, Walter George Raffé was known for his strongly graphic Art Nouveau-flavoured woodcuts in black and white, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy and other galleries. In 1922 Raffé gathered together the best of his woodcuts alongside his own poems in the book Poems in Black and White, from which all my images come.

Love Is Not Blind

It cannot be said that W. G. Raffé was a significant writer (his poems are feeble harkings-back to the world of the Georgians and beyond them to Swinburne), or a particularly accomplished artist (some of his nudes, in particular, make one wonder whether he ever actually saw a naked woman), but there is something about his work that I like. It seems to represent a particular strain of English optimism and idealism, particularly poignant in the years just following the carnage of WWI.

The Vision of World Peace

Raffé was, it seems, a pacificist, theosophist, and socialist. Journals that had previously published some of the woodcuts in Poems in Black and White incude To-Day, Textilia, Theosophy, Drawing, The Linkman, and The Ploughshare.

Winter of War

He did have some success as an artist. Frank Rutter in The Sunday Times described one of Raffé’s woodcuts in the RA Exhibition of 1920 as “the best thing in the room”; Holbrook Jackson, editor of To-Day, said, “His landscapes are the best I have seen for many a long day.” According to the cover of Poems in Black and White, prints by Raffé were acquired for the V&A and the British Museum, though a quick online search shows no trace of these in their collections today.

The Rover's Song

The woodcuts do have a certain rhythmic vigour, especially noticeable in his treatment of skies, rays of light, and rolling landscapes, and in the graphic strength of his trees that seem to be almost holding up the sky.

A Song of the Highroad

Besides the cuts, printed from the original blocks, the most interesting thing about Poems in Black and White is the introduction, in which Raffé discusses his mystical theories of black and white, “as deep as life and as long as time”. I’ll finish with a few quotes from this, without editorial interference from me.


“Manifestations of black and white begin and end many operations of nature in her seasons and ages, by land and sea, in day and night, for lightness and darkness are the world’s everlasting paths.”

Love's Crucible

“Bounding all colours stand black and white, containing and demarking them, their light and shade constituting, when fully understood, a true practical key to skill with a painter’s palette.”

Fleeting Beauty

“Black and white are the Alpha and Omega of symbolic graphic art, as they are the nadir and zenith of visible creation, whence glowing webs of colour stretch between, a distracting and impermanent rainbow illusion, joyously ephemeral, splending and fleeting as music, no sooner born than dying away in the memories of which music is made.”

Let Us Dancing Go!

“Black and white, themselves cold and expressionless, yet may fully stir every passion; themselves colourless, may sugest every colour; at once the womb and the grave, they rule, enveloping in light and in darkness dispelling all.”


It is, I believe, in the woodcut Waiting that Raffé's strength of composition and gift for finding balance between black and white is most fully realised.

Colophon to Poems in Black and White


Jane said...

Mr. Raffee should have avoided the nude women. Without them, his work is strong and interesting. At a lecture by the art historian Ann Sutherland Harris on the ineptitude of famous male artists at painting nude women, the illustrations made the audience laugh out loud.

Neil said...

I'd like to have been there! To be fair to Raffé, I believe his nude women represent an ideal of freedom and liberation from constraint, rather than sexual objects.