THE 2008 DEATH OF EDGAR HOLLOWAY MARKED the passing of the last surviving artist who flourished as a printmaker during the ‘Etching Boom’ of the 1920s and 1930s. A miner’s son and child prodigy, Holloway was a teenager when he first enjoyed success in the early 1930s. A self-taught printmaker, he was etching and printing the plates on his own press at fifteen, selling 10-shilling impressions from a bicycle that he peddled throughout his native south Yorkshire. His father enrolled him on a correspondence drawing course, arranged letters of introduction into the art world and moved the family from Doncaster to London. By the age of twenty, Holloway staged two solo exhibitions in central London, his work had been purchased by the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and his sitters for portraits included T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and Herbert Read.
Holloway’s anecdotes of key figures of the art world during the inter-war years – among them, curators Campbell Dodgson, Martin Hardie, and Malcolm Salaman, and printmakers John Copley, Paul Drury, Ernest Lumsden, and Joseph Webb – provided fascinating and invaluable insights into a unique period in the history of British printmaking.
During the 1920s there had been an unprecedented demand for contemporary etchings, though Holloway began a little too late to gain financially from the available opportunities. In search of marketable subjects, he made expeditions into the countryside armed with copper plates and a needle. Back in his studio he followed Ernest Lumsden’s seminal 1924 book The Art of Etching, printing editions of popular landmarks and prospects like his 1930 drypoints Lincoln Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, and The Mansion House, Doncaster. In 1931, Lumsden purchased several etchings and invited Holloway to become a member of the Society of Artist Printers in Edinburgh. The young artist’s work also attracted the attention of influential etchers such as Muirhead Bone, Francis Dodd and James McBey.
By 1931 Holloway was in London making a modest living undertaking portrait commissions and selling watercolours and prints of such popular subjects as Eastcote (1932) and Essex Street Water Gate (1934). In 1935 he met the Scottish painter-printmaker William Wilson. They became close friends, travelling together in the UK and Europe. For six months they lived and worked in Essex, bought an etching press and spent their days drawing, painting and printing. Bosses Farm and Latton Priory, both etched in 1936, convey mood and atmosphere through dramatic light, extremes of weather and the expressive use of mark making. By now, Holloway had abandoned his summary linear approach to build up the image in a densely etched, painterly application of line.
Exempted from military service, Holloway held teaching posts in Shropshire and London, drawing views of the blitzed capital. In 1941 he converted to Roman Catholicism and became interested in the writings of Eric Gill. He visited Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains where Gill had lived in the 1920s. There, Holloway met Daisy Monica Hawkins, Gill’s model for Drawings from Life (1940). Holloway began a series of portraits of Daisy Monica. Six weeks later they married.
To support a growing young family, Holloway returned to Doncaster and worked as a sign writer. In 1949 he accepted an invitation from Philip Hagreen to join the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a community of Catholic artists founded at Ditchling by Gill and Hilary Pepler in 1918. Gill’s views on the status of the artist within the community and the role of art shaped Holloway’s attitude towards craftsmanship. For the next twenty-two years, he was a graphic designer, undertaking commissions for lettering, cartography and dust jackets for Britain’s leading publishers. In 1957, not foreseeing that he would ever again take up etching, he sold all but eleven of his copper plates to a scrap-metal dealer.
Though Holloway returned to watercolour painting in 1969, his passion for etching was undiminished. Demonstrating an ease and facility born of maturity, his lyrical landscapes of the South Downs, Wales, Spain and France became larger and more expressionistic. Liberated from detailed observation, he became open to experimentation with etching processes. Between 1972 and 1975, he was commissioned to make watercolours and etchings of the industrial heritage of Troy, in Upstate New York.
Daisy Monica died in September 1979. During long periods at home nursing his wife, Holloway took up line engraving working under the influence of his friend Philip Hagreen.
Holloway will best be remembered as an etcher of portraits, for nowhere is his keen observation and technical virtuosity more evident. During a lifetime of study and self-analysis, he made more etched self portraits than any other British printmaker. With a consistency and conviction comparable to that of Rembrandt, he drew himself in various guises, using bodily gesture and facial expression to suggest different aspects of his personality or state of mind, and over time responded to the aging process. They form a pictorial autobiography. His first self portrait was a drypoint of 1931, aged 16, and his most recent The Fedora, his thirty-third, was etched in 2002, at age 88.
In later years Holloway was fortunate to witness a new enthusiasm for his work as he rose on the tide of interest in prints of the ‘Etching Revival’. In addition, his association with, and portraits of eminent writers and artists, his marriage to Daisy Monica, and his membership of the Ditchling Guild all played a part in drawing the attention of scholars to the artist and his work. His drawings and prints continued to find their way into public collections from the British Museum to New York Public Library.
From 1979 he staged a succession of solo exhibitions in Britain and America. As new commissions followed, the revived interest in his early etching fueled his desire to make prints. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford mounted a retrospective exhibition of prints in 1991. That year, almost sixty years after his first unsuccessful application at age eighteen, Holloway was finally elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. National touring exhibitions followed in 1994, 1999, 2001 and 2004. In 1996, Scolar Press published Robert Meyrick’s A Catalogue Raisonné of Etchings and Engravings by Edgar Holloway.
In November 2008, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent newspapers carried full and half page illustrated obituaries of Holloway. In 2009, there followed an exhibition of his watercolours at Monnow Valley Arts, while at Abergavenny Museum ‘A World Untouched’ explored the work of Eric Gill, David Jones and Holloway at Capel-y-ffin. The RE mounted a small memorial exhibition at the Bankside Gallery. Aberystwyth University, which along with the Ashmolean holds the UK’s largest public collection of Holloway’s work, celebrated a life’s work in the context of his Etching Revival contemporaries: Graham Sutherland, Bouverie Hoyton, Paul Drury, Webb, F. L. Griggs, and Gerald Brockhurst.
Such exhibitions represent the culmination of a resurgence of interest in Holloway’s work as an etcher and watercolourist. While his work stands apart from much contemporary art, he acknowledged and reinforced a sound art historical tradition, as evidenced in 2009 when the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam purchased Self Portrait No.7 for Holloway had taken his inspiration from Rembrandt.
Holloway was fortunate to witness the art world turn full circle and observe his prints attract the public acclaim they deserved.
Aberystwyth 2009 & 2018
Robert Meyrick. Obituaries and Printmaking Today.
Robert Meyrick. Supplement to The Etchings and Engravings of Edgar Holloway. (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries Press, 2004). 24pp. ISBN 1 899095 21 7
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway and Friends: an Artist’s Collection of Prints from the Thirties. (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries in association Wolseley Fine Arts, London, 1999). 36pp. ISBN 1 899095 16 0
Robert Meyrick. The Etchings and Engravings of Edgar Holloway RBA RE. (London: Scolar, 1996. 114pp. Published in two editions: Standard ISBN 1 85928 304 7 & Special ISBN 1 85928 306 3
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway at 80. (London: Wolseley Fine Art, 1994). 40pp. ISBN 1 899095 00 4
Robert Meyrick. On Reflection.
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway at 80 : A Retrospective.
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 14 April – 28 May 1994
Hove Museum and Art Gallery, 25 June – 24 July 1994
Abbott Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Kendall, 1 August – 3 September 1994
Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, September – 8 October 1994
The Gallery in Cork Street, London, 18 October – 11 November 1994
Robert Meyrick. Edgar Holloway and Friends.
Towner Art Gallery and Museum, Eastbourne, 6 November 1999 – 9 January 2000
National Museum and Art Gallery of Wales, Cardiff, 29 January – 12 March 2000
Museum of Modern Art, Wales, Machynlleth, 27 March – 29 April 2000
Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Kendal, 9 May – 18 June 2000
Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries, 1 – 30 September 2000
Wolseley Fine Arts, London, 4 – 28 October 2000
Wakefield Art Gallery, 11 November 2000 – 7 January 2001
Royal Albert Memorial Art Gallery, Exeter 20 January 2000 – 2 March 2001
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, 31 March – 19 April 2001
Perth Museum and Art Gallery, 17 May – 16 June 2001
Bankside Gallery, London, July 2001
AT AN EARLY AGE, JOSEPH WEBB was acclaimed a ‘master etcher’; his ecclesiastical-looking structures Rat Barn, widely considered to be his masterpiece, and the iconic Dream Barn, were etched when he was just twenty years old. By 1932, the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum had each acquired five of his prints. Soon he was exhibiting in London, Chicago, New York and the Paris Salon. In 1933, aged 25, he staged his first solo exhibition at P. & D. Colnaghi in Old Bond Street, the most prestigious of the London print dealers and publishers. Its Director Harold Wright was a keen advocate of Webb’s work and, not long afterwards, they collaborated to compile a catalogue raisonné of his prints. Yet despite this early promise and his absolute faith in his worth as an artist, Webb was unable to sustain his reputation and career. After 1933 he made prints only sporadically, finally giving up etching in 1947. Subsequently, he helped his common-law wife manage a café in Reading and, during the last six years of his life, ran a boarding house in South Kensington; few who encountered him would have realised that he was an artist.
To be continued …
Gladys Vasey (Blackpool, 1889 – Aberystwyth, 1981) Painter
HUGH BLAKER IS CHIEFLY REMEMBERED as advisor to the Davies Sisters of Gregynog. It was his taste that influenced Gwendoline and Margaret in the formation of their internationally-renowned collection of nineteenth-century French art now held by the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. It was on Blaker’s recommendation that the Davieses purchased many of their works by Daumier, Corot, Millet, Rodin and Monet, as well as a small number of Old Master paintings. However, Blaker’s role as consultant has overshadowed his many other activities. He was also a painter, author, critic, museum curator, collector, dealer in Old Masters and, against overwhelming public opinion, an indefatigable advocate of avant-garde tendencies in art.
It was Jane Blaker who introduced her brother to Gwendoline and Margaret ‘Daisy’ Davies. She was the sisters’ governess from 1895 until the young women came of age. She then became companion to their stepmother who was living at Broneirion, Llandinam. Passionate and opinionated, Hugh Blaker ridiculed official conservatism in his support and promotion of young artists. ‘I am trying to do something for the moderns’, he protested, ‘but they won’t let me!’ Since my 2004 essay for the Oxford University Press Journal of the History of Collections, I have explored Blaker’s hugely important, yet largely unrecognised, contribution to the course of art history in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century.
Hugh Blaker : Advisor to Gwendoline and Margaret Davies
While the sisters consulted other collectors, advisors and dealers, it was Hugh Blaker’s artistic tastes and preferences that largely shaped the Davies Collection. He directed them toward artists and movements that he admired. Blaker was charismatic, confident and passionately outspoken, the sisters’ opposite in so many ways. Both sisters were artistically sensitive. Gwen played the violin, Daisy painted. In his 1969 book Spiritual Pilgrims, Ian Parrott described the sisters as so ‘self-effacing, timid, shy and undemonstrative that they seemed to fade from view.’
Like other turn-of-the-twentieth-century collectors, Gwendoline and Margaret initially favoured eighteenth century portraits by Thomas Lawrence, Henry Raeburn, George Romney and landscapes by Richard Wilson, Thomas Gainsborough, David Cox, and J. M. W. Turner. It was not until 1912, four years after they began collecting, that Hugh Blaker finally persuaded them to buy Impressionist paintings.
Perhaps a little cautious at first and in need of reassurance, Gwendoline was soon writing to Blaker requesting that he ‘look out for Impressionist works’ on his next visit to Paris. She found it easier to buy through Blaker, at least until she made her own contacts with Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and the Leicester Galleries in London.
The sisters first bought Impressionist paintings at a time when such works were not widely accepted in Britain. The most important attempt to introduce the British public to modern French painting was the exhibition Manet and the Post Impressionists staged by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in 1910. The Times critic was offended by the ‘simplicity of the work which has a blatant disregard for skills past artists had acquired and bequeathed, and a rejection of all that civilisation had done.’ His was not a lone voice. Public institutions – including the Tate – were no more open-minded.
Hugh Blaker, however, had studied in Europe. He was a self-professed ‘modernist’ and wholly sympathetic toward artistic developments on the Continent. He knew that collectors in Germany and the United States of America were more enlightened than the British toward Impressionism. Blaker derided The Times critic and others for their ‘ponderous stupidity’, insisting that ‘cultured London is composed of clowns.’ He prophesised that those who then condemned would in twenty years’ time pay large sums of money to possess these paintings. ‘How insular we are still,’ he exclaimed.
In his 1916 Journal, Blaker noted that he had ‘inspired the Davies girls to buy Rodin’s Eve thus adding one more glorious Rodin to their collection. Also some early John paintings, and two drawings.’ Gwendoline Davies also made outstanding purchases independently of Blaker. In 1918, for example, she bought the first of her three Cézanne canvases. Eager to claim some credit, Blaker points out in his 1922 Journal that is was some ‘ten maybe fifteen years ago, [that he] was begging Miss Davies to buy Cézanne.’
The sisters bought relatively few pictures through the London or Paris salerooms. They had an apartment at Buckingham Gate and from there they could attend auction viewings. Since picking up a bargain was not a necessity, they generally liked to go through dealers who guaranteed a painting’s pedigree. However, the dealerships were not perceived to be the domain of women and so it was useful to have Blaker negotiating on their behalf.
Gwendoline and Margaret bought a small number of Old Masters on the advice of Blaker who considered himself to be expert at discovering ‘sleeper’ masterpieces. The question of attribution, however, was all too risky to the uninitiated. Blaker sold paintings to the sisters that he had ascribed to Botticelli, Constable, El Greco, Hals and Van Dyck all of which now have School, Circle or Follower status. Buying contemporary artworks was much less problematic. Some of the sisters’ newly acquired Impressionist paintings had been painted just a few years earlier. Authorship was almost certainly guaranteed.
Blaker became the public voice of the Davies collection. He sprang to its defence when it was subject of criticism or prejudice. The first loan exhibition was to the fledgling National Museum of Wales in Cardiff in 1913. The collection was then only partially formed yet those involved foresaw it as a milestone for art in Wales. Writing in his Journal, Blaker anticipated that the exhibition would ‘educate the population in the love of art’, adding that the ‘Rodin’s are great enough to found a school of sculpture in Wales.’
The sisters sought to encourage and support interest in the arts in Wales. They were concerned that the people of Wales had been starved of the visual arts. They looked on the French collection as a means to introduce Wales to the best of the European tradition and to encourage high standards among indigenous artists. They wanted to see a Renaissance in Welsh art.
Gwendoline and Margaret remained anonymous. Blaker handled the organisation, gave public lectures and invited guest speakers. While the English and Old Master paintings were admired, the Impressionist canvases prompted a strong outcry. The Western Mail critic wrote of the ‘slapdash’ impressions that are ‘of more use to the author than anyone else, and ought never to have been framed, let alone exhibited.’
In 1921 Gwen Davies proposed the loan of two Cézanne oils to the Tate Gallery. The offer was turned down on the grounds of limited space. Blaker took the refusal personally. As architect of the Davies collection, he felt it reflected poorly upon him. Blaker suspected that the Trustees were questioning Cézanne’s importance and the paintings’ merit. In an open letter to The Observer, Blaker made the issue public. A debate ensued on the need for Cézanne to be represented in Britain’s national collection.
Letters between Blaker and Tate trustees were published in the Saturday Review and the Burlington Magazine. Blaker was insistent. After all, Cézanne was already on public display throughout Europe and the USA. In June 1922, Tate Trustee D. S. MacColl approached Gwendoline Davies to arrange a loan. He admitted to having rated the painting ‘too low.’ In so doing, François Zola Dam became the first Cézanne to hang in a public gallery in Britain.
With faith in Blaker and their own convictions, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies went against overwhelming public opinion to form a collection of nineteenth century French art that twenty years later they would not have been unable to afford.
Hugh Blaker : Connoisseur and Collector
Hugh Blaker was himself a collector. He used his modest income from investments in West India Rubber to buy from contemporary English and French artists as well as speculate on Old Masters at the salerooms. He seriously considered becoming an independent dealer for he had made many useful contacts at London galleries and salerooms as a consequence of his dealings on behalf of the Davies sisters.
Since Blaker did not have the financial means to indulge his passion for the work of Cézanne or the other modern French painters in the Davies Collection, he looked ahead of the other dealers and bought works by then underrated artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck and Amadeo Modigliani. Blaker claimed to be the first person in Britain to buy Modigliani’s painting, ‘the only man in London to give a tuppenny damn about them.’ Jane Blaker presented Modigliani’s The Little Peasant to the Tate in memory of her brother.
When Blaker began dealing in Old Masters, however, he entered the risky domain of connoisseurship. He made many speculative investments in Old Master paintings. He bought and sold canvases by Holbein, Rubens, Hals, Gainsborough and Turner. He expected it to be a lucrative market given his self-professed ‘instinctive sense’ for the Masters. In 1913 he purchased from a ‘Somerset nobleman’ what he believed to be an earlier version of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. His most important discovery was made at Christie’s in 1921 when he suspected that a painting attributed to the School of Zurbaran, St John in the Wilderness, was in fact an early work by Velasquez. He purchased it for 60 guineas and resold it to a private collector in the United States for £14,000. It is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
On the whole, Blaker bought paintings by modern British and French artists. He admired works by those associated with the New English Arts Club, Camden Town Group, and the Fitzroy Street Group. He owned oil paintings by Whistler, Sickert, Orpen, John, Gilman, Gore, Ginner, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Burra and Gertler. Earlier British artists were also represented in Blaker’s collection: Constable, Millais, Cotman, Burne-Jones, Clausen and Leighton among them. In his 1930 touring exhibition Modern British Paintings and Drawings from the Hugh Blaker Collection there were no fewer than twenty-eight works by Augustus John represented. Gwendoline Davies had bought many John artworks at Blaker’s suggestion. He had long admired John before they met for the first time at a Chelsea bar on 28 September 1916.
Hugh Blaker : The Museum Curator
In July 1905, with a testimonial prepared by the sisters’ brother David Davies, Blaker was appointed Curator of the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath. There he was responsible for the large collections of ceramics, antiquities, miniatures and paintings bequeathed to the city by Sir William Holburne. At the first meeting of the Trustees, Blaker doubted the attributions of many of the Old Master paintings. With the assistance of Ayerst H. Buttery of London’s National Gallery he undertook a reclassification of 258 paintings. They deemed them to be ‘Very Good (11), Good (33), Fair (59), and Bad (159).’ 125 of the paintings were subsequently put into storage. Blaker’s undermining of the Holburne Bequest provoked scathing attacks from both local and London press.
Once the controversy subsided, Blaker appears to have lost interest in his role as curator. He made frequent requests to the Trustees for leave of absence to pursue other activities. He wished to experience the contemporary art scene in London and Paris in order to educate members of the Bath and West Country Society of Artists and rescue them from their conservative and insular views. ‘I am Art in Bath!’ he insisted.
The rift between the Holburne Trustees and Blaker widened following the publication of his 1910 book Points for Posterity in which he attacked many established conventions and beliefs. The contempt he expressed for Trustee-controlled provincial art galleries must surely have been read as an assault on his employers. ‘There is hardly a member of a provincial art gallery committee,’ he wrote, ‘who knew enough about a painting to judge whether an Old Master was genuine or not […] or who had sufficient knowledge of art to prevent his fellow members buying the stupid popular stuff which every year finds its way into permanent collections.’
Hugh Blaker : Gregynog
Blaker was not only the Davies sisters’ picture advisor. He also assisted them in their various art and crafts initiatives. In 1920 they set about turning Gregynog Hall near Newtown, Powys into a rural centre for arts and crafts. Both sisters had worked in Red Cross canteens in France during the World War I. They intended that Gregynog Hall, its formal gardens and beautiful estate, could be used for the rehabilitation and training of soldiers and those affected by war.
Advocates of William Morris’s tenet of good craftsmanship and the importance of hand-made objects, the sisters hoped to nurture a crafts revival in Wales. Hugh Blaker recommended Robert Ashwin Maynard to lead on the arts and crafts venture at Gregynog. Blaker felt strongly that they should appoint an artist rather than a craftsman. He considered Maynard to be a brilliant watercolourist, though he knew nothing of the crafts. Maynard was selling cattle medicines in Shrewsbury at the time.
Maynard was sent to London’s Central School of Art and Crafts to learn craft techniques where he developed a particular affinity for wood engraving and fine printing. In 1922 he moved to Gregynog and set up a print shop and composing room in the stables. The first Gregynog Press book, The Poems of George Herbert, was published in December 1923. However, the residential crafts centre initiative was abandoned in 1924 when Gregynog Hall became the sisters’ home.
Fine printing continued at the Gregynog Press. Maynard’s typography and high standard of printing attracted widespread recognition. When in February 1930 Maynard resigned as Controller, Blaker recommended Blair Hughes-Stanton who was already a well-known wood engraver. Stanton is ‘distinctly modern’, he wrote Gwendoline Davies, and ‘his modernism is all to the good.’ Painter-sculptor William McCance joined as Press Artist. Stanton and McCance were allocated Estate properties where they were joined by their wood-engraver wives Gertrude Hermes and Agnes Miller-Parker.
Stanton, McCance, Hermes and Parker exhibited brilliant technical mastery, meticulous detailing and remarkable imaginations. Between 1930 and 1933 they were responsible for some of the finest illustrated books ever produced by a private press. However, the private press book market was in the doldrums. Britain was in the grip of mass unemployment and an economic slump. There were no more resident Controllers at the Press after 1933. The Press gradually ran down. Work was suspended at the start of World War II and the last book was published in August 1940.
Blaker : The Artist
Hugh Blaker studied at art school in Teddington, London, at the Académie Julian in Paris, and Antwerp School of Art. On his death in 1936, the contents of his Isleworth studio passed to his sister Jane at Gregynog. After Jane’s death in 1948, some 140 Blaker artworks remained at Gregynog until Margaret Davies died at which point they passed to the University of Wales in 1963 and to Aberystwyth University in 1989.
The early life drawings bear the labels of the South Kensington School System Examining Board and were probably made around 1895. They are executed in the traditional academic manner and attest to the fashion for charcoal on a laid Michallet paper. The ink pen illustrations suggest that Blaker once attempted to make a living from his work. Judging by the inscriptions, they were intended for publication. Stylistically they vary from the sketchy manner of George du Maurier and Charles Keene for Punch magazine to more consciously arranged areas of black and white recalling the artworks of Charles Robinson and the Edwardian gift Book illustrators.
In search of a style, Blaker used a wide range of materials and explored different techniques. His attempts to be ‘modern’ led him in unexpected directions stylistically. He emulated the work of painters whom he admired, borrowed from their vocabulary, adopted their means of expression, and often their subjects too: from Franz Hals (Le Lion Comique) and Théodore Rousseau (Kew from the Thames at Isleworth) to the French Symbolist Carriere (Jack, 1912 and Woman Reading), painted in the year that Gwendoline Davies bought her first Carrieres. The correspondences between the paintings that Blaker acquired for the Davies sisters, and his own stylistic experiments, are especially evident in his paintings influenced by Daumier (A Conversation and Two Men at an Easel) whose works the sisters collected between 1912 and 1922.
Blaker was very much a product of his generation, excited by the challenges presented at the turn of a new century. Traditional values in British art represented by the Royal Academy of Arts were being challenged as artists attempted to come to terms with modernism from the Continent. While many still believed in the values formed during the last sixty years of Victoria’s reign, Blaker was against the establishment and officialdom.
Blaker’s ‘squarist’ paintings and drawings are probably the most resolved of his experiments with modernism. There appears to be evidence of a sustained effort to interpret the principles of the Vorticists, adopting the angular simplification of English painters such as Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and David Bomberg. ‘Squarist’ paintings such as Woodsmen are somewhat more cuboid than Cubist. Blaker never took the contemporary idiom as far as the Vorticists by abstracting or rearranging the objects in a non-representational way. He goes no further than to impose their angularity on to an otherwise traditional subject without interrupting the arrangement of the objects.
Hugh Blaker was endowed with all the advantages necessary to succeed as a painter – natural ability as a draughtsman and an art school training in Britain and abroad. He had many influential and wealthy friends in the art world. He was self-confident and determined with enormous faith in his convictions. However, he was not blessed with a single-mindedness of vision, which is probably why his painting did not develop or mature beyond the experimental. His personality, despite creating fascinating biography, took him in too many different directions at the expense of his commitment to becoming a painter.
As he reveals in a Journal entry dated 25 February 1932:
‘The cause of my failure to “make good” in any single branch of knowledge is that I have too many interests. Had I been isolated in my youth at a time when there was demand for artistic expression, I should have been an artist of repute. I was dumped into a generation which did not care a damn for art – apart from popular art. I just happened. I was an Old Master, born centuries late. No kid ever had greater equipment. No kid ever faced greater frustration. Centuries ago I would have been apprenticed to a painter – as a boy well fitted to make good in a prosperous trade. Instead, at that period of my development, I was the veritable curse of damn-fool schoolmasters at my “public school”, Cranleigh. I was a wondrous fair kid, strong, and good at games. I got something out of them. In the gym I builded up a body as strong and fair as that of any sweet boy of the ’80s.’
Aberystwyth 1991 & 2018
Hugh Blaker 1873-1936
Robert Meyrick. ‘Hugh Blaker: Doing his bit for the Moderns’. Journal of the History of Collections Vol.16, No.2 (Oxford University Press, 2004). pp.173-189. ISSN 0954 6650
Robert Meyrick. Hugh Blaker 1873–1936: Artist, Collector and Connoisseur. Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.2. (Aberystwyth: School of Art Press, 1991). 12pp
Robert Meyrick. Hugh Blaker 1873–1936: Artist, Connoisseur and Curator.
Gregynog Festival Exhibition No.2, Gregynog Hall, Newtown (1991)
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (1992)
Holborne of Menstrie Museum and Art Gallery, Bath (1993)
Catherine Lewis Gallery, Aberystwyth University (September 1995 – 30 April 1996)
NEVER BEFORE HAS there been a publication devoted to Sydney Lee, an artist who, in his lifetime, was widely acclaimed for his paintings and prints of landscapes and architectural subjects that he sought out in his travels around Britain and on the Continent. The last exhibition to showcase his work was staged in 1945, four years prior to the artist’s death. Since then, his stature has been reduced to little more than a footnote in the history of 20th-century British art. His works have never been catalogued and his many, varied contributions to printmaking have received but scant appraisal. Long overdue, the present fully-illustrated publication aims to redress this significant oversight. Drawing on a broad range of prints and manuscripts, it attempts to reconstruct a life through art.
The Colosseum in Rome. A mountain fortress high in the Swiss Alps. The city walls of Segovia and the Basilica de San Vicente at Avila. Sydney Lee travelled near and far in search of such monumental subjects. He became known and acclaimed for his ‘studies of picturesque old buildings … rich in the patina and atmosphere of history’; but Lee was also a pioneer, an early exponent of wood engraving as a fine art medium, colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner, as well as tonal intaglio printmaking. A versatile painter-printmaker, he produced drypoints, aquatints, mezzotints, lithographs, wood engravings and woodcuts. Few artists working in Britain during the first quarter of the 20th century were in command of such a broad range of graphic media.
Lee was a member of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers as well as numerous other professional bodies. His works are now represented – albeit rarely on view – in major museum collections from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and the United States of America. Yet despite his professional associations and the peer recognition he received in his lifetime, Lee never achieved lasting critical acclaim. The name he made for himself all but died with him. How could one of the ‘most versatile of artists associated with the Royal Academy’ so quickly fall into oblivion?
Robert Meyrick. Sydney Lee RA. Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013). 160pp. ISBN: 978-1907533402
Robert Meyrick. From the Shadows: The Prints of Sydney Lee RA.
Royal Academy of Arts, London. 27 February – 26 May 2013.
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University. 17 June – 6 September 2013.
WHEN IN 1948 JOHN ROBERTS, then a printmaking student at the Royal College of Art, visited backstage at Bertram Mills Circus in Earl’s Court, he could not have foreseen that the experience would give his work immediate purpose and direction, and that he would find a subject to engage him for the next five decades. From pencil drawings made in a small hardback sketchbook, he developed characters and compositions that he would revisit time and again, fulfilling an enduring fascination with the costume and ritual of circus life. But it was a very particular aspect of life in and around the Big Top that attracted: the ringmaster, lion tamer, elephants and camels, trapeze act or tightrope walker never appealed. Almost exclusively he was compelled to draw the male performers—the clowns, dwarfs and tumblers—not in the ring performing, but backstage in costume and makeup preparing for, or at rest after a show. He was sensitive to their isolation and the loneliness beneath a façade of gaiety; he called it the ‘fact and fantasy’ of’ circus life.
John Vivian Roberts RE was born in Tredegar, Gwent and studied painting at Cardiff College of Art under Evan Charlton and Ceri Richards (1939-42) before serving with the South Wales Borderers and Indian Signal Corps (1942-47). His wartime drawings document life in the barrack room at Brecon training camp, daily routine aboard a troop ship in the South Atlantic Ocean, and off-duty activity at Arakan, Cairo and Burma.
Roberts went to the Royal College in 1947 originally as a student of illustration and mural decoration. He enrolled for the Saturday morning classes in etching and recalled that Professor Robert Austin PPRE ‘let it be known’ that he would be very pleased if he would consider a transfer to the Engraving School. This he did at the end of the first term. There was an immediate rapport between the two men. Austin’s enthusiasm and discipline greatly impressed Roberts, who was fortunate to have an art school education at a time when good draughtsmanship, the acquisition of skills and a regard for tradition were valued. A fellow student at the Royal College and close friend was Harry Eccleston PPRE.
Backstage (1949), which was among the first etchings drawn from the circus sketchbook, demonstrates that Roberts soon acquired a remarkable command of tone through the subtle manipulation of finely stippled and hatched etched line. With the addition of fine aquatint, sensitively burnished, this mastery reached its zenith in 1951 with Figures and Flowers, an imaginative composition drawn from a busy flower market in Majorca. An RCA Travelling Scholarship had enabled him to work in France and Spain that year. Even as a student, Roberts was drawn to outsiders, those who led unconventional lives, often on the fringes of society. In Edwin la Dell’s lithography classes he drew on London life. Caff (1949) shows a man seated in a late-night tea room, huddled over a newspaper, reading the sports page and biting on a sandwich, and in Two Loose Teeth (1949) an old woman, wearing a flower-trimmed straw hat and astrakhan overcoat, sits alone in a Fulham Bar. Spain also provided subjects to which he would return periodically—notably in his paintings, etching and lithograph of the Seller of Paper Birds, Madrid. Harry Eccleston believed that one of Roberts’ most remarkable qualities was his ‘ability to look at ideas again and again, and to bring to them new aspects to delight.’
In 1951 Roberts returned to Wales to teach at Cardiff College of Art and in 1960 took up an appointment at Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moores University) where from 1971 until his retirement in 1983 he was principal lecturer in the Department of Graphic Design. At this time he illustrated books for major publishers: Nelson, Macmillan, BBC, Longman, Odham and Penguin— mostly natural history books that allowed him indulge a passion for wildlife, insects and landscape. In 1961 he conceived a series of prints of decorative and abstracted heads as a means to encourage students to explore the creative potential of etching for its intrinsic quality of mark, and to demonstrate that intaglio prints could involve much more than merely etched line.
To this end, Roberts employed a multiplicity of processes, incorporating impressed textures into soft ground, deep open bite, course grain aquatint and vigorous burnishing. For the first time he departed from naturalistic representation, deconstructing the head, then reassembling the features to exaggerate and distort facial topography. He also took an interest in photogravure, photo-etching and photomechanical means of making lithographs, reworking old themes such as Seller of Paper Birds (1967) and developing new, as in The Reluctant Concierge (1983).
In Liverpool Roberts came to know Arthur Pedlar (b.1932), manager of his family’s shopping mall in Southport and a part-time clown. Pedlar had worked at the Cirque Medrano in Paris, for a short time was assistant to Buster Keaton and was the first non-American to be elected President of the World Clown Association. He created many characters on stage but is best known as Vercoe, the absent-minded tramp clown, and Arturo, a continental white-faced clown with sequinned costume and a tall white hat. Roberts used Pedlar as a model over many years, drawing him in different guises, performing card tricks, playing a miniature violin and riding a unicycle.
Much of John Roberts’ work was autobiographical. The etching Novia del Toro (Bride of the Bull, 1962) tells the story of unrequited love. It presents an awkward union. He draws himself as the bull and the bride-not-to-be is his erstwhile art school sweetheart. His admiration of Goya’s work is evident. From the master he learned to use light to focus attention and illuminate depth of character. The Odd Companions series that followed also rely upon disturbing juxtapositions, this time of mannequins, plastic flowers, his daughter Cathryn’s graffiti-covered dolls and her childhood drawings. In March 1986 he wrote, ‘I have always been interested in contrasts, in the bizarre and in strange meetings between objects. When a picture assumes its own identity, as if by magic a small new world is born. That is the excitement of making something that never was.’ In contrast to these darkly surreal compositions, the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology commissioned Roberts in 1978 to produce six etched portraits of its academics and scientists. In 1990 the National Library of Wales staged ‘A Selection of Contemporary Portraits’, an exhibition of Roberts’ portraits of eminent Welsh men and women. The Library now holds 26 of the portraits in its permanent collection.
John Roberts was an artist of great integrity and commitment, he was active while teaching full time and despite the vagaries of artistic taste remained faithful to his convictions, exhibiting at a time when his work would have been considered by many to be outmoded. By the 1950s the market for small black and white etchings had all but dried up and consequently impressions of his etchings were only ever pulled for proofing and as required for exhibition and sale. For the most part only a handful of impressions of each exist. While occasionally an edition size was declared, no plate was ever editioned. In addition to solo exhibitions he was an active exhibiting member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Royal Cambrian Academy, the Liverpool Academy of Arts (where for many years he was Treasurer) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. In 1983, he retired to St David’s in south-west Pembrokeshire and thereafter made few prints, but he worked almost daily, in spite of increasing ill-health, producing acrylic paintings, watercolours, pastels and densely-hatched ink drawings. Once again he drew upon Arthur Pedlar’s characters, notably the maladroit auguste Vercoe. There is a pervading melancholy and poignancy in these unlucky eccentrics. In Take a Card (lithograph, 1983, etching 1989), Vercoe, wearing battered everyday clothes, forcibly engages the viewer with his direct gaze as he invites us to pick the Ace of Spades.
In his 81st year, I curated a retrospective exhibition of fifty years’ work that demonstrated Roberts’ versatility working in a wide range of graphic media. Unfortunately his deteriorating health prevented him from travelling to see the show and John Roberts died on 11 August 2003, half way through its run. Roberts was a consummate draughtsman and printmaker who was fortunate to be the product of the British art school system that believed drawing was the best means to test an artist’s powers of observation and expression. He was an artist fascinated by human nature and he responded to it in his work. A quiet and unassuming man ‘Robbie’, as students knew him, was a well-loved and respected teacher, though it was not in his nature to promote himself or his work. He exhibited regularly and his popular themes ensured that the work sold well, but it received little critical exposure and now deserves to be better known. Fortunately, these works remain as a testament to this most perceptive of artists who in his paintings and prints demonstrated a genuine empathy with the circus folk he regarded as friends, the humble sitters upon whom he bestowed an almost spiritual significance, displaying a Rembrandtesque sensitivity toward the human condition.
Aberystwyth 2004 & 2018
Robert Meyrick. ‘Odd Companions: The Prints of John Roberts RE’. Printmaking Today Vol.13, No.1, Spring 2004. pp.
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth 2003
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth 2016?