Friday, 7 September 2012

Image and Word

A must see exhibition at a must visit venue - Monnow Valley Arts Middle Hunt House, Walterstone, Herefordshire HR2 0DY (h.art venue 10). Superb views, four acres of garden complete with sculptures and carved lettering. The Image and Word exhibition features 50 prints and limited edition prints from the Julian Francis Collection of Prints and Private Press Books. Additional prints and books are available for sale, including prints by Eric Gill, David Jones and John Buckland Wright.
the most comprehensive exhibition of 20th and 21st century wood engraving I've ever seen
I fell in love with British 20th Century Wood Engravings when I was still at school in the 1960s and even produced some myself. At that time it was the artists working in the inter-war years that had the greatest appeal - for instance, Clare Leighton, Getrude Hermes, Agnes Miller Parker, Iain McNab, Eric Gill. Examples of the work of all these artists and more from this time are exhibited here. But great wood engraving continued for the whole of the century and into this. Those working more recently include George Mackley, George Tute, Anne Desmet, Harry Brockway, Reg Boulton (famed for writing and illustrating The Sculptures of Kilpeck). Because the exhibition highlights wood engravers who worked for Private Press publishers some modern 'greats' are not represented but this is the most comprehensive exhibition of 20th and 21st century wood engraving I've ever seen. The catalogue (£10) is excellent - its illustrations and lucid text give a good introduction to the artists and their work for the Private Press publishers.

My favourite engraving was Autumn Fruits by Getrude Hermes. Many engravings were familiar but often only known to me through reproductions in books and these are often reduced in size. Seeing familiar images as original prints helped me see them afresh. One familiar and interesting image was an Eric Gill self-portrait (1927). I don't particularly like it and I have seen more than one original, however, seeing this print in its pre-final state jogged some dim memory and when I got home I found I had a full size image of the final stage print in Clare Leighton's "How to do it" book Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts (The Studio Ltd 1932). But this book also shows a trial proof where Gill hasn't yet cleaned away the white background, the grey down the neck is still black, modelling is much heavier and not all upstanding wood has been cleared from the cap. She also wrote about a separate version of this self-portrait printed after large patches had been put into the block giving him more hair. It is this other version which appears in A History of Wood Engraving (Albert Garrett, Bloomsbury Books 1986).

Design is the key to a good wood-engraving together with the ability to think in white on a black field and work and with what is effectively a mirror image of the final image. You cannot engrave the all the lines you're used to drawing. What is printed is the parts of the block that have not been cut. We tend to draw shadows and dark edges but engraving is the other way around - you have to work into the light and leave the darks.

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