Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The lure of Clegyr-Boia

Further to my post on Edward Bawden, here are some more thoughts about why British art took the direction it did in the mid-twentieth century. Bawden’s untitled abstract copper engraving, featured in the last two posts, was published in issue six of the Curwen Press “quadrimestrial of typography and graphic arts”, Signature, in July 1937. The same issue also had a highly-experimental abstract colour lithograph by John Piper, and an almost surreal colour lithograph of fish underwater by Graham Sutherland. The Piper and Sutherland works were used for the front and back covers of Stephen Laird’s catalogue for the exhibition Twentieth Century British Lithographs: From Pastoral to Pop Art at Keynes College, University of Kent in 2009.

John Piper, Invention in Colour
Lithograph, 1937

This lithograph by Piper (described as a “drawing” in Signature) is a very complex print. Stephen Laird says it “was printed from a ‘mosaic’ of plates made from different materials, including line, paramat (a rubber sheeting which, when inked-up, was normally used to achieve large, flat areas of colour in advertising posters) and halftone (the plate medium normally used for the reproduction of the tonal parts of black and white photographs in books and newspapers). This is an experimental image which plays about with the technical possibilities of commercial lithography, and demonstrates Piper’s early mastery of the methods involved.” Orde Levinson in his catalogue raisonné, “Quality and Experiment”: The Prints of John Piper, describes it simply as “printed from paramat blocks cut by the artist”. It was Piper’s fourth lithograph.

Graham Sutherland, Under Water
Lithograph, 1937

Under Water was one of Graham Sutherland’s first lithographs, “drawn direct on to five grained zinc plates”. It was commissioned by the printers Henderson & Spalding at the Sylvan Press, and was in fact published as an advert for their services, “to show how economically good effects can be made by Colour Craftsmen”. Sutherland’s name is not mentioned, though he has signed the image with a tiny G.S. at the mouth of the shell.
Taken together, these three works by Bawden, Piper, and Sutherland show young British artists of the day exploring the central issues of the international art of their day. But beneath the surface, something different was stirring. Graham Sutherland had in fact already created the work which would divert British Modernism from the track it was on, and send it into the sidings of Neo-Romanticism. That work was an extraordinary, brooding etching with aquatint, created in 1936 and published in Signature 9 in July 1938. It is entitled Clegyr-Boia, and depicts a Welsh landscape. It was this work, with its obvious debt to Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert, and its anxious overtones of threat and destruction, that set the template for the entire Neo-Romantic movement. That an etching published in a little magazine with a very limited circulation should have such a seismic impact is not as unusual as it may seem. Signature sold just shy of 500 copies, but every one of those went to an art school, or an artist, or a specialist printer or typographer. Art students couldn't afford it, but it was eagerly read in art school libraries or in art bookshops such as Zwemmer's.

Graham Sutherland, Clegyr-Boia
Etching with aquatint, 1936

The two wellsprings of Neo-Romanticism were Sutherland and Piper, each in their own way in thrall to the delights of wild landscapes and ruined buildings. The Blitz was to bring that wildness and ruin into the heart of the British city, and soon Neo-Romanticism had its fill of disciples, visionaries who overlaid Samuel Palmer’s harvest moon onto the bombers’ moon of the Luftwaffe.

John Piper, Pistyll Cain, North Wales
Lithograph, 1944

John Piper, Tomen-y-Mur and Roman Amphitheatre, North Wales
Lithograph, 1944

John Piper, Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire
Lithograph, 1944

John Piper, Easegill, Lancashire
Lithograph, 1944

John Egerton Christmas Piper (1903-1992) was born in Epsom. He studied at the Royal College of Art, and was an official War Artist in WWII, specialising in the depiction of ruined buildings, which remained a favourite motif throughout his life. The British landscape and its buildings was his primary subject, explored in paintings and in lithographs and screenprints.

John Piper, Hafod
Lithograph, 1947

John Piper, Adam and Eve’s Garden
Lithograph, 1947

John Piper, On the Making of Gardens II
Lithograph, 1949

John Piper, Prometheus II
Lithograph, 1954

John Piper, Elizabethan Love Songs II
Lithograph, 1955

John Piper, Elizabethan Love Songs IV
Lithograph, 1955

John Piper, The Salute
Lithograph, 1965

Apart from Piper, I don’t have a great deal of work by the Neo-Romantics, and none at all by John Minton (my personal favourite of this group), Keith Vaughan, or Robert MacBryde. However, several of the Neo-Romantics were commissioned by the first ever book packager, Adprint, to provide lithographs for the series of illustrated anthologies New Excursions into English Poetry, published by Frederick Muller. Adprint was founded by a Viennese emigré, Wolfgang Foges, and among those working there were two refugees from Nazi Germany, Walter Neurath and Eva Feuchtwang, who were to marry and co-found the art publisher Thames and Hudson. There were in all seven volumes of the highly-collectible New Excursions, under the general editorship of W. J. Turner and Sheila Shannon:

Sea Poems, edited by Myfanwy Piper, illustrated by Mona Moore (1944)
English, Scottish and Welsh Landscape, edited by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor, illustrated by John Piper (1944)
Visionary Poems and Passages or The Poet’s Eye, edited by Geoffrey Grigson, illustrated by John Craxton (1944)
Poems of Death, edited by Phoebe Pool, illustrated by Michael Ayrton (1945)
Soldiers’ Verse, edited by Patric Dickinson, illustrated by William Scott (1945)
Travellers’ Verse, edited by M. G. Lloyd Thomas, illustrated by Edward Bawden (1946)
Poems of Sleep and Dream, edited by Carol Stewart, illustrated by Robert Colquhoun.

Of these artists, four—Piper, Craxton, Ayrton, and Colquhoun—represent Neo-Romanticism at its height. Edward Bawden went his own way, outside the Neo-Romantic movement and rather scornful of its images of “a chance encounter in the slums by moonlight”. The landscape artist Mona Moore (1917-2000) is scarcely remembered today; her rather tentative lithographs for Sea Poems have charm, but no graphic strength. William Scott became one of the most important British artists of the postwar years, oscillating between figuration and abstraction. I don’t think of him as one of the Neo-Romantics, though there is a connection certainly with Piper, as Scott taught at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, with which Piper was also involved. As I haven’t seen Soldiers’ Verse, I can’t say what style Scott adopted for this commission, though the jacket (which I have seen reproduced) doesn’t look out of place with the true Neo-Romantic volumes.

John Craxton, The Poet’s Eye III
Lithograph, 1944

John Craxton, The Poet’s Eye VI
Lithograph, 1944

John Craxton, The Poet’s Eye XII
Lithograph, 1944

The painter and printmaker John Craxton (1922-2009) was born in London. Before WWII he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris; in London he attended Westminster School of Art, the Central School of Art, and Goldsmith's College (where he was later to teach). His art was influenced by that of Graham Sutherland, with whom he toured Wales in 1943. In John Craxton's lithographs for The Poet's Eye, the influences of Sutherland, Samuel Palmer, and Surrealism seamlessly merge. From 1970 Craxton divided his time between Crete and London. John Craxton was elected to the Royal Academy in 1993, and died in 2009.

Michael Ayrton, Death IV
Lithograph, 1945

Michael Ayrton, Death X
Lithograph, 1945

Michael Ayrton, Death XII
Lithograph, 1945

The painter, sculptor, and novelist Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) was born in London. Ayrton was his middle name (also his mother's surname); he was born Michael A. Gould, and signed his early work Michael Ayrton G. Ayrton was closely associated with John Minton and other Neo-Romantics, although Ayrton's art was darker and more expressionistic than that of most of the group. Ayrton was obsessed with the myth of the Minotaur.

Robert Colquhoun, Sleep and Dream, VI
Lithograph, 1947

Robert Colquhoun, Sleep and Dream X
Lithograph, 1947

Robert Colquhoun, Sleep and Dream XIV
Lithograph, 1947

Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962) was born in Kilmarnock. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, where he first met his lifelong companion Robert MacBryde. One of the British artists who absorbed via Picasso the lessons of Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism in the 1940s, Robert Colquhoun was closely associated with the Neo-Romantics, particularly John Minton, John Craxton, and Robert MacBryde. Colquhoun and MacBryde ("the two Roberts") shared a home and studio from 1941. The pair collaborated on set designs for the theatre.

Graham Sutherland, Balancing Form (First State)
Lithograph, 1972

As for Graham Sutherland, who was born in London in 1903 and died in 1980, he long outlived the brief flare of Neo-Romanticism. Much of the visionary fervour he had devoted to landscape in his early work was converted to religious subjects in his later life, though he continued to draw his inspiration from organic forms.


Jane said...

'Under Water' may be an advertisement, but it is very well done. Thanks for introducing me to Graham Sutherland.

Neil said...

It's charming and witty, isn't it? And I love the way the image and type work together. The various lithographic printers employed real artists to provide illustrations for their adverts - Barnett Freedman (about whom I have another post in the works) did advertisements like this for several printers. I suppose one of the things that was breaking down at this time was a strict division between Fine Art and Applied Art (or Commercial Art).

James Russell said...

Two fascinating posts - thanks, Neil. I would have guessed Bawden for your quiz question, something in the style of the piece definitely his...

The disenchantment with Modernism among English artists is intriguing - it's reflected in literature too and has its root (I think) in an antipathy to systems and the rule of ideas. The canon of literature in the 30s is dominated by writers who were very English - Lawrence, Orwell, Priestley. They wrote straightforward prose and worried about what was happening in front of their eyes.

I liked your comment about overseas readers not knowing Bawden. Would he be better-known if he'd done what he did, only better? Or bigger?

Neil said...

That's an interesting point about the writers of the day, James - I think of someone like Betjeman, too, in this pursuit of Englishness, and of course he was closely associated with John Piper, especially. There's a very amusing passage in Malcolm Yorke's book about Bawden exhibiting his art in Baghdad in 1943: "A 'modernist' Pole had been there before him and taught all the local artists to paint shadows purple and dab primary colours on in dots like pointillists. Consequently when Bawden put on an exhibition of his recent work the Iraqis thought him hopelessly old-fashioned..."

Philip Wilkinson said...

I think the impatience with ideas and theories is a thread that runs through much English culture, from the reluctance of many of our best composers to embrace the 12-tone system to the suspicion with which much 'foreign' literary theory was regarded more recently. I also believe that the way Piper & co turned their back on abstraction was also to do with the gathering storm and coming war. Returning to the subject meant returning to Britain, its landscape, buildings, and so on; Britain was threatened; and artists wanted to preserve it or record it. It's the same impetus that lies behind all those books about Britain's counties and regions, from the Batsford Face of Britain series to the Shell Guides with which Piper was of course closely involved.

Neil said...

I think of the Recording Britain scheme, too. During WWII, the Pilgrim Trust commissioned over 1500 works (mostly watercolours, I think) from around 100 artists as a guard against the anticipated wave of destruction. Four illustrated volumes were published after the war, but sadly in rather dispiriting monochrome. I believe the originals are now in the V&A - perhaps some enterprising publisher will make a selection of the best and bring out a book of them in colour.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, I can still remember the disappointment I felt when I first opened one of those Recording Britain volumes – I wanted them to be in colour, not grey!

Roxana said...

the Sleep and Dream Series is stunning!
though the little fish under water are also wonderful...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Perhaps I'm being whimsical, but I keep looking at that Piper abstract and questioning whether it's abstract at all. I see in it rocks and cliffs; a waterfall; the mouth of a cave; the sun behind a storm cloud spreading its light below. I know this is a naïve way of looking at abstract art, but knowing what I know about Piper's interests, I do wonder.

Neil said...

Thanks, Roxana - all the Sleep and Dream series are on my website, which is back up and running after a couple of days down.

Philip - I think you're right about the Piper - you could overlay it on one of the English, Welsh, and Scottish landscape lithographs, such as the one of Easegill - but equally it reminds me of the Prometheus head (which always looks more like the Minotaur to me!). But then a lot of "abstract" art has a base in landscape or organic forms. Even a relatively pure abstraction such as that of Ellsworth Kelly is rooted in his leaf drawings and observations, as well as what one might call the geometry of landscape.

ian said...

I saw Clegyr Boia on a recent visit to Tate Britain. I wasn't aware of Sutherland a a printmaker, but this little piece really grabbed me in ways that I still can't fully understand. In my own work, I had been trying to make larger pieces, but this made me reconsider and realise that small works can hold their own against the monumental - and you can't get much more monumental than John Martin after all!

Neil said...

I think you're right, Ian, that monumentality is not just a quest of size, but of weight, or density of meaning if you like. There's a Sutherland show on at Modern Art Oxford at the moment that I'd like to get to see. Sorry to delay posting your comment, by the way - it got lost in a vexatious transition to a new computer.