Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An obscure English woodcut artist: Felix Henry Eames

I offer the robust woodcut A Breton Déjeuner by F. H. Eames to my readers with all my best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015. May your tables overflow with food, wine, and the laughter of friends.

Felix Henry Eames, A Breton Déjeuner
Woodcut, 1930

I really like this highly-accomplished work, which was contributed to The London Mercury in 1930. Around this time Eames was also contributing woodcuts or wood engravings to another London literary and artistic revue, The Town Crier. So I was surprised when researching him to find almost nothing about F. H. Eames, either in standard reference books or on the internet. I did manage to expand the initials to two given names, Felix Henry. I also discovered that he was born in Matlock, Derbyshire, in 1892, and that he died in 1971. And that is about the sum total of my knowledge.

From the Breton subject-matter of A Breton Déjeuner and the Post-Impressionist aesthetic of the piece I would suspect that Felix Henry Eames was one of those artists still drawn to Pont-Aven in the 1920s and 30s, in the footsteps of Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven of the 1880s and 90s. For instance in the 1930s the painter William Scott, his wife the sculptor and painter Mary Lucas, and their friend Geoffrey Nelson ran the Pont-Aven School of Painting there, to attract just such artistic pilgrims.

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.