Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oriental delights

Hester Sainsbury is yet another of the lost female artists of England between-the-wars. Successful and acclaimed in the 1920s, she vanishes from view following her marriage to the Vorticist painter, architect, and publisher Frederick Etchells in 1932. Writing in the Print Collector's Quarterly in 1934, Douglas Percy Bliss lamented, "Hester Sainsbury, once so clever with the multiple-tool, has disappeared."

Hester Sainsbury, The Prayer of Manasses
Wood engraving, 1929

The multiple tool is described by Joanna Selborne in her British Wood-Engraved Book Illustration 1904-1940 as "like a small chisel with a multi-grooved belly which cuts several parallel lines at a time." Hester Sainsbury used one to create the kneeling figure in her wood engraving The Prayer of Manasses, contributed to the Cresset Press Apocrypha in 1929. She was ahead of her time in her use of a multiple graver, anticipating the style of another important female wood engraver of the period, Mary E. Groom, another contributor to the Apocrypha.

Mary E. Groom, The Lord upon his throne
Wood engraving, 1929

Hester Sainsbury started life as a dancer, and it appears she took up wood engraving because she wanted to catch the essence of dance in engraved line. She is thought to have been informally taught by two of her female friends, Ray Marshall (later Ray Garnett) and Vivien Gribble, who were both pupils of Noel Rooke at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Sainsbury also took up copper engraving, and in my view the delicacy of line that she achieved in this medium is quite remarkable. The rest of the illustrations to this post are all from the series of 24 copper engravings she made between 1927 and 1930 for the 12 volumes of Eastern Love, a collection of texts on love and sex translated by the orientalist and erotic aesthete Edward Powys Mathers.

Hester Sainsbury, E. Powys Mathers
Copper engraving, 1927

Hester Sainsbury had an affinity with oriental culture, shown both in her copper engravings for Eastern Love and her 1928 wood engravings for Paul Morand's Earth Girdled. A true Bohemian, she was the lover of the Japanese dramatist Kori Torahiko from 1917 until his death in 1926. While Mathers' translations in Eastern Love are wearisomely ornate in a manner inherited from Richard Burton, Hester Sainsbury's engravings remain fresh, supple, and irresistibly charming.

Part of the charm derives from the delicate hand-colouring. This was carried out by the printers A. Alexander and Sons, who also printed the plates on a hand press. Presumably a team of young women were set to the task, following prints coloured by the artist herself. My set contains three prints where the attention of the colourists seems to have wavered - in one, the brilliant blue scarf of a hunting prince has smeared across the page; in another (the middle one below), a delicate, barely-visible wash of blue has been applied to the sky but the rest of the image is left uncoloured; in a third, no colour has been added at all. These are the kinds of mistakes that happen in a relatively large print run such as this. 1000 copies of Eastern Love were published by John Rodker for subscribers only, on all rag paper.

Hester Margaret Sainsbury (née Tuke) was born in 1890 and died in 1967. She was a poet and playwright as well as an artist, and is remembered as an innovative dramaturge who combined dance and rhythmic verse in an excitingly Modernist style. With Frederick Etchells, she was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, though she appears to have remained on the fringe of the Bloomsbury artists; I don't think, for instance, that she ever designed for the Omega Workshop.

The textile artist and calligrapher Rosalind Wyatt is married to Hester Sainsbury's grandson, and her exhibition The Stitch Lives of Others at the John Martin Gallery in London included two pieces based on Hester Sainsbury's life. One celebrated her passionate affair with Kori Torahiko, based on his love letters to her and her mementos of their relationship, and the other commemorated her as the mother of her daughter Susan. From the verbal descriptions these sound wonderful works, and I only wish I could have seen them. And now I have found a link them here and they are as beautiful and laden with meaning as they sound.


SKIZO said...


Jane Librizzi said...

I find that I like Sainsbury's work in black and white better than the works in color. Being unfamiliar with her work, my guess is that her compositions are more coherent when there's no color to fall back on or be distracted by. Curious. I'll be looking for more of her work, thanks to you.

Unknown said...

which volume of Eastern Love does that beautiful lithograph of the woman playing with her hair come from?

Neil said...

Thanks, Skizo.

Jane, I know what you mean. She certainly made her name in b/w. But I rather like the restraint with which she used colour in the Eastern Love engravings.

pjmharmon - My copy of Eastern Love is in two bound vols. Contrary to what I wrote (and believed) in the main body of the post, it looks as if it was published in six, rather than twelve, parts (the confusion comes because each part seems to contain two works). The engraving you admire comes from vol III, which contains The Book of Women and The Education of Wives (this is in vol. 1 of my two). It accompanies the chapter of The Education of Wives entitled No Sulks! "A gay and gentle conversation and a laughing, joyous countenance are the two things which best suit loveliness," apparently.