St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery

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Review of Colour Cuts exhibition by Hilary Chapman, author and print expert

The current exhibition at St Barbe provides a remarkable display of craftmanship and colour.  John Edgar Platt and Allen William Seaby were friends and colleagues. They both received their artistic education during the important  period in British art just before the first world war and, once introduced to the skill and aesthetic of Japanese colour woodblock printing, they went on to become two of the most admired exponents of the colour woodcut in Britain. Occupying the two main galleries of the exhibition, their prints are a revelation to many, and a visual delight.  The exhibition extends to include arresting oil paintings by Platt’s son , Michael Platt, and highly decorative, contemporary colour linocuts by Seaby’s grandson, the ornithologist and artist Robert Gillmor; their work giving testimony to the artistic gene which sometimes runs through families.

The existence of British woodcuts in the Japanese manner may come as a surprise to many who come to this exhibition. Japanese colour woodcuts by famous Japanese artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige were appearing in great numbers in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and were much admired by British artists. The technique used by the Japanese to produce the beautiful translucent colours and graduated hues of these prints was unknown in the West and it took some years of research and experimentation before the British artist,  Frank Morley Fletcher,  was successful in producing his own prints, emulating not only the colours, but also the simplified, decorative designs of the Japanese colour woodcuts. Morley Fletcher taught the technique at art colleges  in London, and later in Reading,  and colour woodcut in the Japanese manner was to be taken up by many artists in the early twentieth century.

Allen Seaby is best known as a bird painter but, as a newly appointed teacher at Reading in the early 1900s, he was drawn into the growing group of artists who were using the Japanese colour woodcut technique. The prints on show indicate that he became an exceptional colour woodcut artist, often choosing his favourite subject matter of birds.  In these prints, such as The Heron, his use of the Japanese technique and elements of Japanese traditional designs is combined with his ornithological knowledge to produce works of great beauty and originality. Several watercolours and drawings are included amongst  the exhibits as Seaby was also a painter, an illustrator and a prolific author ; his children’s storybooks about wild  ponies were to become highly popular in 1920s. Some of the sketches for these stories can be seen in the exhibition, and an interesting local connection is the group of drawings of ponies and wildlife made by Seaby on holiday with his family in the New Forest; a favourite place for the artist.

John Platt met Seaby at Reading around  1910 and the two artists became lifelong friends. Platt admired and collected Japanese prints and was another member of the group who learnt the technique whilst associated with the art school at Reading.  Platt was to become a great art educator, dedicated to imparting the importance of craftsmanship which he considered to be the basis of all great art. His teaching and promotion of the skills associated with the colour woodcut in the Japanese manner contributed hugely to its popularity as a medium for original prints. His own work, as evidenced in this exhibition, was technically superb. The prints shown represent his total output in the medium and demonstrate a development from the more intricate landscapes and figurative works such as The Giant Stride, to the more Japanese inspired , simplified forms  seen in  The Plough.  It is in these later prints that the stunning effects of the Japanese technique , (where water-based colours are brushed on to carved blocks and transferred to paper by delicate burnishing) are revealed more clearly.

 To aid one’s understanding of the rather complicated technique used in these prints some of Seaby’s  original  cherrywood  carved  blocks are exhibited, alongside the tools and brushes with which the artist produced  and printed his design.  In the printing process no printing presses are used and the multiple blocks used for each image are all printed by hand using small round burnishers, called  ‘barens’, some of which are also displayed.

Moving on to the next generation, Michael Platt began his artistic career in 1930 at Blackheath School of Art, where John Platt had just become Principal, and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art In 1935.  His paintings and drawings were recently shown at a retrospective exhibition at the Red House Museum in Christchurch.  The selection of works on show here are representative of the high quality and range of his work;  from a striking, academic portrait, The Strong Man, to loosely painted landscapes and interiors, and to the later abstract works where his inherent and deep understanding of form is apparent. 

Robert Gillmor’s vibrant linocuts burst with energy and colour. A former President of the Society of Wildlife Artists, he has contributed to over 100 books and has executed over 200 linocuts. He inherited his grandfather’s interest in birds and also a love of drawing and printmaking.  He works in other media, but the striking prints exhibited demonstrate  the decorative qualities of colour linocut. Gillmor skilfully uses the technique to provide unique interpretations of the wildlife around him in a distinctive style that appeals to a wide audience .  

Hilary Chapman, Author and Print expert