Sunday, February 7, 2010

What's in a name?

The name of Tirzah Garwood may well seem vaguely familiar, because it is unusual enough to stick in the mind. And I know some readers of this blog will recognize it immediately as the unmarried name of Tirzah Ravilious, who was married from 1930-1942 to the artist Eric Ravilious, and from 1946-1951 to Henry Swanzy.

Tirzah Garwood, Yawning
Wood engraving, 1929

Eileen Lucy “Tirzah” Garwood was born in 1908 into a conventional middle class background in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Attracted by the artistic life, at 18 she enrolled in a class in wood engraving at the Eastbourne College of Art. The teacher was Eric Ravilious, who was also born in Eastbourne, though by this time he was living either with Douglas Percy Bliss in London or with Edward Bawden in Great Bardfield.

Tirzah Garwood, Kensington High Street
Wood engraving, 1929

Tirzah’s first wood engraving was made on 24 November 1926. By 1927 she was already exhibiting engravings at the Redfern Gallery, London. Over the next four years she was widely recognized as one of the most promising wood engravers of the day, and this at the height of the wood engraving boom. Her work received praise in both The Times and The New Statesman; examples were included in The Woodcut: An Annual for 1929, and (reproduced) in The New Woodcut, a special number of The Studio, in 1930; commissions flowed in from the Curwen Press, the Golden Cockerel Press, the Kynoch Press, and the BBC.

Tirzah Garwood, The Dog Show
Wood engraving 1929

There is a 1987 catalogue raisonné of Tirzah Garwood’s wood engravings, compiled by her daughter Anne Ullmann. Unfortunately I haven't been able to see a copy of this before writing this post; when I do, I may need to revise. It lists 43 wood engravings, the bulk if not the whole of a small but perfectly formed body of wittily observed and technically accomplished wood engravings.

Tirzah Garwood, The Crocodile
Wood engraving, 1929

The title of Anne Ullmann's book is The Wood Engravings of Tirzah Ravilious. While I understand the reasoning behind the choice of title, there is a delicious irony here that my female readers will immediately grasp. For there are simply no wood engravings by Tirzah Ravilious. All her engravings were made between the ages of 19 and 23. After she married Eric Ravilious in 1930, she produced no more. Various reasons are given for this. It is nothing so simple as Eric standing in her way; indeed it was he who introduced her work to Herbert Furst, the editor of The Woodcut, and to Harold Curwen and others. Probably she simply found that she no longer had enough time to devote to such a painstaking art. But I suspect that, as with Marion Dorn and Ted McKnight Kauffer, there may have been a tacit wifely understanding that a sense of artistic rivalry might not be conducive to marital bliss. And her engraving The Wife, published three months before her marriage, implies, I feel, a certain fearfulness about what becoming a wife might entail.

Tirzah Garwood, The Wife
Wood engraving, 1929/30

Following her marriage, Tirzah Ravilious’s artistic impulses were channelled into making beautiful marbled papers (see two lovely examples here), in collaboration with Charlotte Bawden (Tirzah and Eric were living with the Bawdens at Brick House, Great Bardfield). Then came the war. Eric Ravilious was lost over the Icelandic ocean while flying as a war artist observer on an air-sea rescue mission on 2 September 1942. Tirzah, was left a widow with three children, denied a war pension as her husband was not a combatant and his rank in the Royal Marines was honorary.Tirzah Garwood’s early promise was fulfilled not in art (though she did achieve wonders in her highly original marbled papers, and also make some small oil paintings, and some 3D paper sculptures) but in her marriage, her children, and her friendships. Even here, there was heartache. Eric Ravilious took a mistress, Helen Binyon; Tirzah developed breast cancer. She was recovering from a mastectomy when the news arrived of Eric’s death. After her remarriage in 1946 to Henry Swanzy, who worked for the BBC, her cancer returned, and she died in March 1951, at the age of 42.

Tirzah Garwood, The Big Man
Wood engraving, 1930/31

If this all sounds tragic, one has to set against it the memories of those who knew Tirzah as a vibrant and life-enhancing presence. Her friend Olive Cook, in an article on “The Art of Tirzah Garwood” published in Matrix 10 (the text of which is available here) remembered that, “After an absence of close on forty years her presence remains extraordinary and poignantly clear. Light boned and quick moving, she had the figure of a Botticelli angel, a pale, mobile, rather long face framed in wavy brown hair, a wide mouth and dark vivid eyes, shining with intelligence and full of half mocking humour.”

Tirzah Garwood, The Defeat of Apollyon
Wood engraving, 1928

I have been on the lookout for engravings by Tirzah Garwood; her work is, as you might expect, quite hard to come by. But I have managed to acquire impressions of 9 of her engravings. All of my prints are contemporary lifetime impressions, but in 1989 two of her engravings were reprinted from the blocks by Ian Mortimer at I.M. Imprimit in an edition of 500 copies for Merivale Editions. These were The Crocodile and The Dog Show - two of her finest works. These two, High Street Kensington and The Wife were all published in The London Mercury in 1930; they probably all date from the previous year. As I understand it, her last published engraving was the frontispiece she supplied for The Big Man by L.A.G. Strong, published in 1931, but probably executed the previous year.

Tirzah Garwood, Vanity Fair
Wood engraving, 1928

My earliest wood engravings by Tirzah Garwood are the three she made in 1928 for Granville Bantock's oratorio inspired by Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, commissioned by the BBC. While these are strongly composed and show real talent, I can't feel that this commission played to her strengths. There is no room here for her gleeful observation of middle class life, so strongly present in my other examples of her work.

Tirzah Garwood, The Dream
Wood engraving, 1928

Except as the wife of Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Garwood has been almost forgotten. She has no place, for instance, in Albert Garrett's British Wood Engraving of the 20th Century. Patricia Jaffé's Women Engravers reproduces The Dog Show, but does not mention her in the text so far as I can see (there is no index). The only book I have that gives her her due is Joanna Selborne's wonderful British Wood-Engraved Book Illustration 1904-1940. Selborne describes the 8 prints completed by Tirzah Garwood for an unpublished Curwen Press calendar, to be titled Relations, as "probably her finest wood engravings and among the most vivid portrayals of 1920s middle-class life by a contemporary practitioner." Four of these subjects, illustrated above, are The Crocodile, The Dog Show, Kensington High Street, and The Wife. Olive Cook's article tells us that the "masterful figure dressed in the height of winter fashion" who is about to cross the road in Kensington High Street is one of Tirzah's aunts, near whom she was living in London while studying at the Central School of Art in 1929. The rather cowed girl trailing in her wake is carrying a briefcase marked with the initials T.G.


Jane said...

Tirzah Garwood is new to me, but her story is familiar. If we wonder why smart women tended to avoid marriage a century ago, here's the answer. And not just husbands. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that none of the things she accomplished would have been possible while her father lived. How sad that Garwood portrayed herself as 'cowed.'

Ravilious and Bawden Blog said...

A two-volume book on Tirzah is being produced by the Fleece Press and promises to offer a fascinating insight into this very accomplished artist. She was hugely influential on her husband and certainly deserves much wider recognition. This is particularly apparent in High Street and also with her image of the train carriage - which interestingly is not featured in the book by her daughter Anne Ullmann. The Towner in Eastbourne have several works by Tirzah, which are stunning and are well worth going to see.

Neil said...

Well, "cowed" was my word - it seems to me that the predominant flavour of these engravings is a sense of wit, so all the visual elements that convey both individual character and the relationships between characters (and between humans and animals) are exaggerated for comic effect. But there is certainly a pattern in 20th century Britain of male artists marrying promising female art students, who then devote themselves to being the man's helpmeet rather than pursuing their own career.

Neil said...

Fleece Press have the highest standards, so the two-volume book on Tirzah should be fantastic. Tirzah's engraving of the interior of a train carriage (which is incorporated in the Olive Cook article) makes a fascinating contrast with Eric's famous painting - his carriage is empty, and the focus is on what's outside the window; hers is crowded with people.

Jane said...

Garwood's work is witty, indeed Humor is one lens an artist - or anyone - can apply to experience. Standard pop psychology would say that one should "own" one's pain. I prefer Garwood's way; she created something treasurable.

Neil said...

After I replied to your first comment, Jane, I thought that the Kensington High Street engraving also exemplifies a particular kind of English humour of the '20s centred on the assertive aunt and the hapless niece or nephew (think Bertie Wooster). If I were commissioning Tirzah Garwood to illustrate a book, it wouldn't be Pilgrim's Progress, but something like Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - not published till 1938, I know, but she would have done it with such quiet elegance.