Thursday, December 11, 2014

A major artist in a minor field: the wood engravings of Gwen Raverat

I suppose I've been aware of Gwen Raverat's wood engravings for most of my life, though without ever knowing how to pronounce her name: the final "t" is silent, so the correct pronunciation is more like Raverar. Her husband, the artist Jacques Raverat, was French, and Gwen and Jacques lived in Vence from 1920 until Jacques' early death from multiple sclerosis in 1925. It was in Provence that Gwen created what for me are her most perfect works, from a lifetime total of nearly 600 engraved woodblocks.

Frances Spalding, Gwen Ravert: Friends, Family & Affections
Cover design incorporating an oil self-portrait, c.1910-11

Gwen Raverat was born in Cambridge in 1885. Her eccentric family were part of the intellectual elite of Cambridge. Charles Darwin was her grandfather, and late in life she wrote a brilliant childhood memoir, Period Piece, which brings the family dramas of the Darwins to life. She would be an interesting person simply for her Darwin heritage, her close involvement in the Cambridge Neo-Pagans led by Rupert Brooke, and her tangential but intimate entwinement with the Bloomsbury Group, if she herself had never produced any original art. But she did, and it is art of such quality that Joanna Selborne in the monograph and catalogue raisonné Gwen Raverat: wood engraver describes her as "a major artist in a minor field".

Nightmare, or Cauchemar, or Flight
Woodcut, 1909

Gwen Raverat's work developed very quickly from her first woodcuts made while she was a student at the Slade in 1909, cut with a knife into softwood, along the grain. Even these are full of vitality, and one of the best is Nightmare, with its striking sense of existential angst and its strongly Expressionist aesthetic.

Sir Thomas Browne, state 1
Wood engraving, 1910

Within a year Gwen had moved from the woodcut to the wood engraving, made on the end grain of a boxwood block - the technique pioneered by her childhood hero, Thomas Bewick. She remained true to Bewick's small-scale perfection throughout her career, and she also shared his sly sense of humour. The  frontispiece she designed for Geoffrey Keynes's Bibliography of Sir Thomas Browne in 1910 is a brilliant piece of fun, with Death guiding the hand and mind of the author of Urn Burial. This impression is the first state of the engraving, before the artist filled in the blank background behind the figure of death with wood panelling, and altered the anachronistic sash window. I prefer the stark authority of this first state to the slightly cluttered feel of the second, finished state.

The Dead Christ
Woodcut, 1913

The Nativity
Wood engraving, 1916

As a Darwin, Gwen was raised a freethinker, but between 1912 and 1914 she went through an intensely religious phase. She and Jacques were friends and fellow-students of Stanley Spencer, and also friends with Eric Gill. Jacques dreamed of creating a temple to be decorated by the four of them, a project that never happened, though it came to a kind of fruition in Spencer's chapel at Burghclere. The Raverats and Gill also planned to publish an illustrated Gospels, a plan which fell apart over Gill's insistence on using the Catholic Bible. However the engraving The Dead Christ, engraved by Gwen after a drawing by Jacques, gives a flavour of what such a book would have been like. The resemblance to Eric Gill's work of the period is quite striking. Gwen's tender Nativity of three years later is less graphic and more intimate; the luminous sense of the play of light in the stable gives an indication of the impressionistic course that Gwen Raverat's art would take in the following years.

The Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au bois dormant)
Wood engraving, 1916

The Sleeping Beauty, from the same year, is one of Gwen Raverat's most attractive images; although the print was editioned in black-and-white, Gwen hand-coloured at least one copy, which can be seen on the website of the Raverat Archive here. All of the pieces illustrated in this post come from the Raverat Archive, by permission of the artist's grandson William Pryor, the author of the fascinating Virginia Woolf & the Raverats.

Olive Pickers
Wood engraving, 1922

Street by Moonlight, Vence, I
Wood engraving, 1922

Jeu de Boules, Vence, II

As I mentioned earlier, it is Gwen's Provençal engravings that speak most strongly to me, and all the rest of the images here come from that vivid period in Vence, where Gwen nursed the dying Jacques while also nourishing her own art.  The wood engravings Gwen made in Vence are among her loveliest; unfortunately the Provence climate played havoc with the woodblocks, so these exquisite works can never again be printed direct from the block.

La Place en Hiver
Wood engraving, 1923

La Place en Été
Wood engraving, 1923

Old Women, state 1
Wood engraving, 1924 

Gwen Raverat's long and influential career as a wood engraver was cut short by WWII. In her British Wood-Engraved Book Illustration 1904-1940, Joanna Selborne writes of Gwen Raverat, "Apart from Lucien Pissarro, she was virtually the only practitioner in the early days of the revival to apply the lessons of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and to retain an interest in light effects throughout her work."

The Balcony, state 2
Wood engraving, 1926

In addition to the books above, I strongly recommend the biography by Frances Spalding, Gwen Raverat, a really compelling read.


Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, I had only heard the name but not seen the work. France brought out the best in Raverat's work; funny how it does that to artists. She used series of fine horizontal lines to hold these detailed works together. That sounds like it shouldn't work, or be too busy, but that's not the effect at all. these are wonderful to look at.
What struck were the intersections with a book I just Finished - Nicola Beauman's biography "The Other Elizabeth Taylor."
Taylor knew Eric Gill and based parts of her novel "At Mrs. Lippincote's" on his circle. Taylor also wrote a novel called "The Sleeping Beauty."
She, too, was a free thinker who lived a conventional life, for the most part. Bowman doesn't mention Raverat but if they didn't meet they might well have known the other's work. What a small world it it.

Neil said...

So pleased to have introduced you to Gwen's work, Jane. I think like so many artists Gwen and Jacques were entranced by the light of Provence, which inspired the exceptional work she did there. And also unlike other English artists of her day, Gwen was immersed in the French art world. One of their closest friends in Vence was the Cubist, Jean Marchand; another was Renoir's son. I suspect Gwen's path might not have crossed that of Elizabeth Taylor, who was 27 years her junior and seems to have lived quite a retiring life. Gill and Taylor lived only about 8 miles apart, and his rather bizarre homelife would have made him ideal fodder for a novelist. I must re-read At Mrs. Lippincote's, I know I have a copy somewhere. All her books are good.