Monday, 16 December 2013

Four Southwest Wood Engravers at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter

Exeter - Pam Pebworth

There’s a fine new exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum showcasing the work of four wood engravers based in the South West. Howard Phipps was born in Colwyn Bay in 1958 and is now based on the border of Wiltshire and Dorset; Pam Pebworth was born in Altrincham in 1931 and studied, taught and worked in the arts and crafts field in Devon and the South West for many years before taking up wood engraving in 1988; Harry Brockway was born in Newport in 1958 (is there a natural connection between Welsh culture and wood engraving, I wonder?) and lives in Glastonbury; and Hilary Paynter was born in Dunfermline in 1943, moving south to study wood engraving at the Portsmouth College of Art. All of them are members of the Society of Wood Engravers. This was an organisation founded in 1920 by a group of artists including Eric Gill, Gwen Raverat and Lucien Pissaro. It was brought to life once more in the 1980s, with Hilary Paynter as a guiding light, and continues, in the spirit of those illustrious founders, to foster the art and traditions of wood engraving.

Hambledon Hill - Howard Phipps
Howard Phipps mainly produces landscapes, and his evocation of the spirit of place and depiction of hill forts, megalithic sites and ancient trackways puts him firmly in the tradition of Paul and John Nash and Eric Ravilious. He ventures into the heart of Wistman’s Wood, the atmospheric expanse of stunted oaks lining the slopes of a Dartmoor valley. The darkly gnarled trunks and twisted branches, lichenous bark and mossy rocks give plenty of scope for tonal and textural variation and contrast. The long sweep of Chesil Beach is depicted with a great sense of spaciousness and dwindling perspective. A grounded boat provides a foreground focal point, whilst weather looms in the distance. Solid shafting striations emanating from black clouds are a dramatic representation of heavy showers on their way. More black rainclouds empty over Stonehenge, with a rounded moon providing milky contrast to show up the shadowy megaliths. More ancient sites feature in Winkelbury Hillfort and Hambledon Hill, and in the old paths bordered by beech trees. Phipps seems to favour winter as his seasonal backdrop. His trees are intricate traceries of bare black branches.

Pam Pebworth’s prints tend to be stylised town or cityscapes with flattened perspectives. Historically significant buildings are selected and collaged together into depictions of place which might lack geographical accuracy but which summon up in concentrated architectural form the architectural spirit of the place. This approach is applied to Chester, Exeter, Bradford-on-Avon, Bristol, Bath, Dartmouth, Lyme Regis, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton. The Exeter print was made in 1994, and the tugboat in the foreground is a reminder of the old maritime museum which was still situated in the quayside basin at the time. Aquae Sulis, the Bath print, has a particular elegant formal composition, as befitting its subject. Bath becomes a symmetrical mirror of itself. William Beckford’s tower rises on the hill in the background, a black sun hanging to its side, and provides a counterbalancing note of intemperate romanticism. A solitary figure striding from the shingle beach in the Budleigh Salterton print, easel tucked firmly under his arm, is presumably intended to be a representation of John Everett Millais, who painted his Boyhood of Raleigh here. Pebworth has also created two imaginative and playful alphabets: The Artist’s Alphabet and Touchwood. Both set their letters out in gridded blocks, as if they’re in a typesetters tray. Objects, personages or famous works correspond to each letter – P for palette, V for Van Dyke, E for easel and so on. Touchwood is an alphabet for the worker in wood, featuring engraver’s tools, techniques and carved art. The blocks have an appropriately greater density and roughly grained texture.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Harry Brockway
Harry Brockway is a stone mason and carver in addition to being a wood engraver, and there’s a solid sculptural quality to the faces and figures which are the main focus of his work. From his initial commission to provide engravings for the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Bible, he has produced illustrations for a number of books. His depiction of characters in Crime and Punishment for a 1997 Folio Society edition, arrayed here like a pictorial cast list, show an expressionist intensity and interiority which is entirely appropriate for Dostoevsky’s novel. The psychology or inner cast of the faces shows through in the distorting grain or patina which Brockway lends them. Some seem to be afflicted with plates of psoriatic hide, whilst others are clearly and sparely engraved, simple and pure souls. The illustrations for John Prebble’s book Culloden, another Folio Edition, contrast the gaunt, grimacing and fiercely daubed faces of the ordinary Scots who fought in the battle with the self-satisfied, relaxed and beefily broad visages of the aristocrats whose orders and plans they followed. Screaming, expressionist heads set against posed profile portraits cast the social divisions outlined in Prebble’s polemical history (which were also highlighted in Peter Watkins’ 1964 TV adaptation) in artistic terms. Dulce Et Decorum Est (2007) evokes the horror of Wilfred Owen’s war poem with more wide-eyed expressionist screaming, the face of another figure in the background reduced to the gas mask’s grotesque parody of human features. The addition of colour makes the spreading yellow cloud of mustard gas powerfully palpable. It particularly leaps out at you here given that you’ve thus far seen nothing but black and white prints. The portrait of a woman titled The Pearl Necklace (2003) offers a reflective contrast, and is, I presume, an illustration to Guy de Maupassant’s cruelly ironic tale. A 2011 picture of Harlequin and Pulcinella sets these archetypal commedia dell’arte characters in Brockway’s Glastonbury environs, the tor rising behind them, thus suggesting their universal nature. There also his ten engravings for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner made in 2010. Brockway follows in illustrious footsteps here, the narrative poem having previously been illustrated by Gustave Doré, David Jones and Mervyn Peake. He manages to elude the anxiety of influence, however, and produce something entirely his own. Swirls and curlicues abound, both in sea, sky and sailors’ beards, all converging in the culminating, ship-engulfing whirlpool. The image of the calm sea sown with the pasty rafts and fishing tendrils of Portugese men-o-war is particularly startling and original. There’s something of the psychedelic poster style to these illustrations, and you can imagine their clearly outlined segments filled in with vivid colours. In fact, you don’t have to, since there are some large blown-up panels on the far wall of the gallery taken from a British Library exhibition of Coleridge illustrations.

The Discovery at Lascaux - Hilary Paynter
Hilary Paynter’s depiction of the Discovery of Lascaux is another print which introduces an element of overlaid colour, here the yellow of torchlight and the brown of the prehistoric cave wall paintings. The cave, shown in yawning cross-section, is thus portrayed as a magical space, a world apart from the black and white reality beyond its subterranean gallery. Stones Over Avebury (1974) maps out the well-known aerial view of the village bounded by circular earthworks and bisected by crossing roads. A surreal touch is added by having boulder clouds hanging heavy over the megalithic site, though. It’s as if the stones in the circle and avenue were splinters sharded off from such hovering masses millennia ago. A playful take on the ancient British landscape can also be found in the comical depiction of the Cerne Abbas giant come to chalk-outlined life and chasing three Victorian ladies across the fields. One of them is evidently making no great effort to escape its clutches. Paynter takes a romantic view of the British landscape and the ancient structures built upon its wild spots. Her print of Hadrian’s wall exaggerates the hills it measures out into a dramatic, Tolkienesque sweep of mountains and far flung plains. Dunnottar is shown as a fairy tale castle by the sea, with a winding path leading to its door, whilst the flinty tower of Carn Brae is made all the more monumentally solid by the blank white background against which it’s set. The cobbled street of Clovelly plunges with heightened precipitation towards the sea, its winding path continued through the curve of the harbour wall and the bends of the river. More romantic sites are found in the sea bordering castle of Chepstow, the gothic ruin of the abbey at Valle Crucis in Wales, and the timbered patterning of Plas Newydd. This Elizabethan house, in which the ladies of Llangollen lived together, is loomed over by a craggy mount on top of which the jagged ruins of Dinas Bran castle stick up like a pile of bones.

Trio - Barbara Hepworth
Downstairs, a new selection from the museum’s fine art collection has been mounted. This includes two of the drawings Barbara Hepworth made of surgeons at work in an Exeter hospital in the post-war period. Her daughter had undergone an operation in the Princess Elizabeth Orhopaedic Hospital, and she got to know one of the doctors there, one Norman Capener, very well. He invited her into the operating theatre as an artistic observer to record the concentrated co-ordination of collective endeavour which took place there. It was, in a way, a means of producing images which celebrated the newly created NHS, lending it an air of bright, optimistic modernity. Hepworth’s masked and gowned figures are semi-abstracted, the bodies amorphously rounded like her sculptures. The focus of detail is all on the hands and the eyes which guide them. In Preparation (1947) we see those hands being washed, clasped together in a way which suggests prayerful ritual cleansing as much as mindful hygiene. The wash of turquoise colour, curving around in a liquid flow to convey the smooth flexibility of the upturned operating arm, extends beyond the outline of the figure to the background, creating a sense of harmony between the surgeon and his environment. In Trio (1948), the predominant tone is a neutral beige. The three figures are merged, like one of Hepworth’s group form sculptures, fused into a singular entity through a common fixity of purpose. A patch of dark blue beneath the operating table is the only hint of depth and perspective beyond the figures. There’s also the slightest daub of green, like a guiding tone to indicated the actual colour of the gowns. The drawing is all about the motion and direction of the hands and the unity of figures with background, though. Hepworth herself wrote about finding, after initial reservations, that ‘there was such beauty in the operating theatre that the whole composition – human in appearance – became abstract in shape’. She was fascinated by ‘the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life’, and discovered that ‘this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work’.

Boy In A Landscape: Portrait of Eric Verrico - John Minton
Also newly on display is John Minton’s Boy In A Landscape: Portrait of Eric Verrico (1948). This is a poetic portrait of Minton’s boyfriend in the 40s, whom he had met whilst teaching at the Camberwell School of Art. The young and beautiful Italian is painted in glistening oils, his skin and clothes coloured in shades of olive and mossy green, a nature boy. He has a calm and contented look, and leans back in a relaxed posture against a wooden chair, one arm hooked over its back. The landscape behind him is a patchwork of autumnal colours, interlaced with the branching black lines of bare winter trees. There’s a slightly melancholic air of acceptance to the picture, with its late autumnal atmosphere; an acknowledgement that this moment won’t last, Eric will soon move on and they will inevitably part. Minton lived a fairly tempestuous life, and was something of a wild man of Soho in the post-war years. He was out of step with the avant-garde orthodoxies of the time (in particular the move towards abstraction), even though he taught some of those who forged them. He came to feel increasingly frustrated and marginalized, although he was relatively successful and well-off, partly thanks to a substantial inheritance. He’d achieved a solid reputation as a book and magazine illustrator, and had a regular job as a teacher of painting at the RCA, a position in which he was generally well-liked and respected. In the repressive climate of the 50s, his gay sexuality led to fugitive feelings of self-destructive despair, and the search for love and companionship never found long-lasting fulfilment. This lonely disconnection, combined with his depressive temperament, lapses into alcohol abuse and the disinterested reception of his new work, led to his committing suicide in 1957 at the age of 39. The title of his final painting, The Death of James Dean, suggests he might have felt more at home in the pop art climate of the 60s, although Minton seems to depict the death scene as a slum Passion worthy of a Pasolini film. But the painting on display here summons the feeling of a golden instant of time, which is captured in all its brief beauty and still repose. A moment of love, happiness and contentment gifted to the modern viewer, something to be contemplated, remembered and treasured.

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