Here is a brief text that I have written for the Canterbury Times’ “So what is…?” column:
So what is an Original Print?
Residents of Canterbury are well placed at present to grapple with this slightly obscure aesthetic question, which turns out to be surprisingly relevant to a contemporary understanding of what art is.
Perhaps the first object in Canterbury that comes to mind is the wonderful Canaletto etching currently on display in the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge’s new Drawing Room. Here the line bitten into copper by acid conveys both a sense of the artist’s fluid yet controlled drawing, and also the sparkling light of a Venetian scene. Examples like this of a great artist engaging with the print medium – which because it produces multiple impressions of the same image always carried with it the taint of the copy – suggest ways in which it could lay claim to ‘originality’.
In 1961 the Print Council of America, building on decades of work by artist printmakers who tried to distance their ‘art’ from the products of popular and commercial reproductive printmaking, decided to codify the rules that defined an original print. These were so stringent that, surprisingly, the Canaletto and many other masterpieces of etching from the past did not qualify: the artist alone must create the master image, and not copy anyone else’s work. He or she should themselves hand print or at least supervise the hand printing of the edition. They should sign and number each impression, destroying the plate or stone (the print matrix) after the edition has been completed. All of these precautions should ensure that ‘the original print is a work of art in its own right’ and ‘as valid an expression as is any other form of visual art’.
These regulations were formulated just at a time when many young artists interested in printmaking were deliberately distancing themselves from this ‘hand made’ aesthetic and embracing more mechanical techniques. Patrick Caulfield, for example, whose use of commercial screenprinting meant that he was not personally involved in executing his design, found that officials at the Paris Biennale des Jeunes in 1965 wanting to disqualify his work. Joe Tilson at around the same time made a list of all of the things you were not supposed to do in printmaking and then deliberately set about doing them – for example, suspending objects from the sheet of paper, as in the plastic bag of coloured letters in his screenprint New Coloured Fire from the Vast Strange Country of 1968. This assemblage made in honour of the French poet Apollinaire will be displayed in the forthcoming exhibition Two-faced Fame at Studio 3 Gallery in Canterbury.
Canterbury was also recently the location of two major exhibitions by contemporary artists working with prints, who have introduced the computer into their practice in order to develop the ‘pop’ aesthetic of Caulfield and Tilson. Michael Craig-Martin’s Alphabet at the Sidney Cooper Gallery is typical of his coolly conceptual approach to printmaking where the rigorous designs renounce any trace of the artist’s hand. At Studio 3 Gallery a major retrospective of the work of Paul Coldwell charts the artist’s use of the computer programme Photoshop to build layered images that resonate with associations of memory, exile, travel and loss. Both artists have demonstrated that a print’s originality derives from the cogency of the concept it communicates rather than through the artist’s handiwork – and yet Coldwell has started superimposing simple handmade linocuts over inkjet prints in his latest work. He was, after all, the printer of the accomplished etchings by Paula Rego displayed in the Sidney Cooper Gallery’s recent exhibition From Grimm to Reality…
There is a review of Studio 3 Gallery’s 2010 exhibition In Elysium: Prints by James Barry, co-curated by Jon Kear and myself, in the latest Print Quarterly (XXX, 1, March 2013, pp. 65-67). Michael Phillips, who has done so much to advance our understanding of Barry as a printmaker, very kindly concludes: ‘in helping to bring recognition to Barry’s extraordinary originality and achievement as an artist printmaker, the curators of the exhibition at the University of Kent are to be saluted’. The same volume of this journal also has my review of Marco Livingstone’s excellent monograph on Peter Blake (pp. 103-5).
I have just received the advance copies of the catalogue for next term’s exhibition: Paul Coldwell – A Layered Practice. It is a beautiful publication, for which many thanks to the designer Jonathan Kearney. It contains essays by Christian Rümelin and myself, a commentary by Paul on his work, and is extensively illustrated throughout in colour. Put this new catalogue alongside the John Blackburn catalogue, designed by Stuart Hillcock, and 2012-13 is proving an excellent year for Studio 3 publications!
UPDATE: the catalogue is now available online for £10 at
One of Alfred Drury’s most effective public works can be found at Clifton College in Bristol. Most effective because it is so beautifully sited, and so completely carries out the brief the artist was given.
The idea for a memorial at Clifton College in Bristol to the former members of the school who had fallen in the South African War, also known as the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was initiated at a meeting of Old Cliftonians in London in May 1901, presided over by a former Headmaster John Percival, the Bishop of Hereford. The acting secretary of the memorial committee, Rowland Whitehead, then circulated a fundraising letter to alumni with a ballot paper giving three options for the form of the memorial. A gatehouse and a loggia having been rejected in the ballot, the committee then initiated a competition among Old Cliftonian architects for the commission for ‘a separate architectural monument on the Terrace overlooking the Close’. This competition was judged by the architect Ralph Selden Wornum F.R.I.B.A., son of the art historian Ralph Nicholson Wornum, and the firm of W. S. Paul and R. C. James of Bristol was awarded first prize. Wornum’s recommendation was adopted at a further meeting of Old Cliftonians in London but ‘the question of the figure surmounting the pedestal’ was at this point ‘left for further consideration’. It was only at a later stage that Alfred Drury entered the scene: ‘on the suggestion of the architects, the Committee then approached the well-known sculptor, Mr. Alfred Drury, A.R.A., and at their request he submitted two sketch models, one being of St. George, the other of a modern soldier in Khaki’ (The Cliftonian, XVIII, June 1904, pp. 190-91).
In a letter from the architect Walter S. Paul the following statement about the intended bronze figure on the monument can be found: ‘On the pedestal would be placed a figure in bronze emblematical of “Patriotism”. The memorial would stand above the quadrangle level about 25 feet, and it would form a conspicuous and handsome addition to the School buildings’ (The Cliftonian, XVII, March 1903, p. 349). Drury’s production of two very different sketch figures to embody ‘Patriotism’ reflects debates within the memorial committee and the wider body of Old Cliftonians about the most appropriate form of commemoration. The ‘realist’ point of view was put forward in a letter published in the school magazine under the pseudonym ‘O’erpeering Truth’. Although jocular in tone – armour might be necessary for a figure that ran ‘the risk of being peppered by stray cricket balls’ – it did make serious points about the anachronistic effect of patriotic virtue being represented by a medieval knight ‘clad in the obsolete panoply of a bygone generation’. ‘Was there any occasion during the late war’, asked the writer while pleading for a more truthful and contemporary treatment of the theme, ‘on which a kopje was scaled, a river forded, or a withering fire endured by warriors who were encumbered by heavy defensive armour? The “patriotism” of which the figure is to be symbolic is that of 1900 A.D., not that of 1300’ (The Cliftonian, XVII, April 1903, pp. 377-79). In the end the alternative point of view supporting a medieval figure of St. George prevailed, perhaps because of the advocacy of the poet Henry Newbolt who was on the committee (see Derek Winterbottom, Henry Newbolt and The Spirit of Clifton, Bristol: Redcliffe, 1986, pp. 54-56).
It was certainly Newbolt who provided the inscription on one of four bronze plaques on the gothic pedestal in Portland stone (which is riddled with fossils) – the other three plaques record the names of the forty-three Old Cliftonians who died during the South African War. The commemorative verse provided by Newbolt reads: ‘Clifton remember these thy sons who fell fighting far over sea / For they in a dark hour remembered well their warfare learned of thee’. This distils the essence of Newbolt’s best known and most quoted poem, Vitaï Lampada of 1902 (the torch of life), which also equates sporting behaviour in ‘the Close’ of Clifton College with heroic valour on the battlefield:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The sand of the desert is sodden red, -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
Today, such verses bring immediately to mind the corrective counter-argument of Wilfred Owen’s ‘gas poem’ of 1917, Dulce et decorum est:
If you could hear, at ever jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The distance travelled in war poetry between 1902 and 1917 is analogous to the difference between Drury’s South African War memorial of 1904 and the London Troops Memorial in front of the Royal Exchange of 1920. However, if the medieval and chivalric trappings are lost in the contemporary representation of the First World War soldiers, the character of their facial expressions is remarkably similar to that of St. George. Here we have Drury’s own statement of his intentions (presumably taken from a letter to Clifton’s Headmaster Canon Michael George Glazebrook, a letter from whom is in the Drury family archive): ‘Mr Drury writes: “The armour is of the period of the late fourteenth century; the shield is Gothic, with the cross of St. George on it; the handle of the sword is surmounted with a figure emblematical of Love; the figure of Christ is surmounted by a symbol of the Holy Ghost, intended to represent the descent of the Spirit of God or the Word of God; the hilt takes the form of an anchor representing the anchor of Hope. In the head of St. George I have endeavoured to express his character of Fortitude and Virtue without effeminacy”.’ (The Cliftonian, XVIII, June 1904, p. 194). A study for the head of St. George was published by A. L. Baldry in 1906 in The Studio:
The Christian symbolism of St. George’s sword, the romantic spirit of the description and also the elaboration of detail suggest the influence of Alfred Gilbert who produced a figure of St. George for the tomb of the Duke of Clarence at Windsor in 1895 (and variants and casts after it). Drury would also have been aware of the Renaissance precedents that had inspired Gilbert, such as the figure of San Liberale in Giorgione’s Castelfranco altarpiece or Donatello’s figure of St. George at Orsanmichele in Florence. However, in spite of the gothic detail, Drury’s figure does not have much in common with the ethereal, dreamy imagery of Gilbert or Burne-Jones. He seems a modern figure, closer in character to heroic standing males in the oeuvres of Hamo Thornycroft or Aimé-Jules Dalou (even Dalou’s Grand Paysan for the monument to Labour exhibited at the Salon in 1902). It is also interesting in this context to compare Drury’s St. George with Thornycroft’s Comrades, his own slightly later memorial for the Boer War in Manchester (1908) which shows two soldiers in modern uniforms, one fallen and wounded, the other standing resolutely over him.
Other documents in the Clifton College archive relating to the statue are largely concerned with the problem of the green staining of the pedestal caused by the large deposits of copper in the gunmetal bronze that was used by Singer & Sons of Frome in casting it. In 1929 the Bristol firm Humphrys & Oakes were employing the same workman who had cast the statue for Singer and he was able to advise on its conservation.
The unveiling of the statue took place at the Guthrie Commemoration on 25 June 1904 (see the account in The Bristol Times and Mirror, Monday June 27 1904, p. 7). This ceremony was performed by Paul Methuen, the 3rd Baron Methuen of Corsham Court, who had been a somewhat controversial General commanding British forces during the South African War, having been heavily defeated by the Boers at Magersfontein and also captured by the enemy at the Tweebosch. General Lord Methuen (an Old Etonian) spoke on this occasion of the role that schools like Clifton College played in fostering an ethos of patriotic service: ‘It seemed to him, both as a soldier and an Englishman, that there was no duty they could ask their countrymen to do more urgent or more important than the duty they called upon schoolmasters to perform, of inculcating into their pupils – the youth of England – those feelings of patriotism which were absolutely essential to this country if the voluntary system was to continue. Boys at a public school must realise that, and if he could not from his heart find a way into their ears it was not the least use his speaking one word more’. This sentiment was echoed by the Headmaster Canon Glazebrook when he thanked Drury ‘for producing that grand embodiment of patriotism, the figure of St. George, which they trusted would be an inspiration for many years to come. He did not think it was possible to imagine a figure more suitable for their purpose, which was that the School should have before it a continual reminder that chivalry was one of the first duties of life’ (The Memorial to Old Cliftonians who fell in the South African War, Bristol: Arrowsmith, July 1904, p. 11, pp. 12-13). Chivalry was a quality notably lacking in the prosecution of a war that saw the British employ scorched earth tactics and the concentration camp against the Boer civilian population.
In a poem published in the booklet that commemorated the unveiling ceremony Drury’s St. George is imagined soliloquizing nobly as he stands sentinel through the passing hours of the school day until ‘the shadows of the limes grow longer on the yellowy grass’ and the ‘gloom gathers round’, stating finally that ‘I stand looking Southward through the night’ – looking southward across the Close where ‘school patriotism’ was inculcated with cricket bat and rugby ball, and further southward still to the African battlefields where Old Cliftonians fell for their country in the ultimate expression of selfless patriotic duty.
[I am very grateful to all at Clifton College for their warm welcome and help, and in particular to Dr Charles Knighton for his expert assistance with the college records, and to Simon Reece and Lucy Nash of the Old Cliftonians Office.]
Here are some photographs that I took back in January 2012 when I first visited John Blackburn in his studio. It is interesting to compare the ‘black’ paintings then with how they look now in the Studio 3 show. In some cases, like Don’t Speak To Me and Look Away Now, the fragments of hurt or angry text have been obscured so that they are hardly legible, in others they remain clear. The Seabirds Smell Blood is a work that was abandoned, although this phrase – taken from a TV nature documentary – played an important part in the initial creative process in developing the black series.
At the busy start of the academic year it is easy to overlook the familiar features of campus. Perhaps it is worth pausing now to have a closer look at one of the most significant sculptural works in Canterbury – Father Courage by Frederick Edward McWilliam (1909-92) – particularly as there is currently a major exhibition of his contemporary Henry Moore in town.
McWilliam was born in Banbridge in County Down in Northern Ireland, where there is now a gallery dedicated to him. He trained at the Slade School, worked for a time in Paris, and was associated with the Surrealists in the 1930s. According to the critic Bryan Robertson, writing in 1965, McWilliam’s style is characterized by eclecticism ‘in the sense that he has explored style with insight and extreme intelligence’ and also by ‘a consistent lightness of touch’. Admiration for Brancusi and Arp prompted him to explore abstraction, but a concern with archetypal themes of human struggle kept him returning to the figural (Bryan Robertson, John Russell and Lord Snowdon, Private View: The Lively World of British Art, 1965, pp. 96-97). Father Courage dates from 1960 and, as Stephen Bann has pointed out, is a work that ‘still draws upon McWilliam’s sense that the sculptor was bound to create symbols which affirmed human values in a divided Europe’ as part of the post-war cultural task of moral reconstruction. Its title refers to Bertold Brecht’s play Mother Courage, itself ‘a passionate denunciation of the horrors of war’ (Stephen Bann et al, Sculpture on the Campus, Canterbury: Modern Cultural Studies, 1992, pp. 3-4). The sculpture’s purchase was funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, and it was installed near the Gulbenkian Theatre in 1969, and re-erected in its current position following the partial collapse of the nearby Cornwallis Building in 1974 (due to the nineteenth-century railway tunnel running beneath it).
The attenuated body of Father Courage with its lacerated surface recalls Giacometti, and the hunkered-in sitting pose suggests a determined endurance. Meanwhile the magnificent head seems to embody resolute will as it watches over its surroundings. A still and fixed point as crowds of new faces to the campus flow around it…
Henry Moore at the Beaney:
For more on F. E. McWilliam see:
After four days of hard work on the part of Kent’s Estates department eighty-eight paintings by John Blackburn have been hung throughout the Jarman Building as part of the Studio 3 Gallery exhibition that opens on 24th September 2012. John’s work has transformed the building! There seems to be a very happy marriage between his paintings and the architectural aesthetic as these photographs show:
To mark the London Olympics I am posting here a catalogue entry from Studio 3 Gallery’s 2010 exhibition In Elysium: Prints by James Barry. Barry’s mural Crowning the Victors (1777-84) in the Society of Arts must be the greatest representation of the Olympic Games in British art! The print we exhibited shows a detail of the central section of the mural – the sons of Diagoras carrying their father on their shoulders.
James Barry, Detail of the Diagorides Victors, 1795, etching and engraving.
This print reworks a detail of the central section of the procession of victors in the mural of the Crowning of the Victors at Olympia. A preparatory sketch for this print is in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Barry’s print illustrates a passage from Gilbert West’s Dissertation on the Olympick Games, 1749, p. cxxvii: ‘Pausanias relates of Diagoras the Rhodian, to whom Pindar inscribes his seventh Olympick Ode; in which he enumerates his several Victories in almost all the Games of Greece. This venerable Conqueror is said to have accompanied his two Sons, Acusilaus and Damagetus, to the Olympick Games, in which the young Men coming off victorious, Acusilaus in the Caestus, and Damagetus in the Pancratium, took their Father on their Shoulders, and carried him as it were in Triumph along the Stadium, amid the Shouts and Acclamations of the Spectators; who poured Flowers on him as he passed, and hailed him happy in being the Father of such Sons’. A section of the inscription in Italian makes explicit Barry’s pro-catholic views and develops the parallels between the Olympic priests and the Roman Catholic church that were already present in West’s essay.
The remarkable group of statues in City Square in Leeds is the result of the vision of one man: Thomas Walter Harding (1843-1927), known as Colonel T. Walter Harding after his retirement from the Leeds artillery volunteers in 1895. Harding was prominent in Leeds life as an industrialist, who manufactured pins for the textile industry, for gramophones and speed indicators, and as a local politician (at first a Liberal but becoming a Unionist in 1886 over Home Rule). He was a cultured man who in his youth had studied for periods in both France and Germany, and who traveled widely for business visiting nearly every major gallery in Europe. His commitment to a fusion of business and high art can be seen in the Italianate towers built by William Bakewell as part of Harding’s extension of the family factory – the Tower Works in Holbeck – and in his involvement in the organization of Leeds’ trade exhibits at the Brussels International Exhibition of 1898 and the Paris International Exhibition of 1900 – at both of which Alfred Drury also exhibited. Above all he promoted the visual arts in Leeds, helping to establish and endowing the Municipal Art Gallery. At its inauguration in 1888 Harding stated that Leeds ‘with its great reputation for its cloths, its iron, and its machinery, was practically unknown in the higher sphere of art’ (see Melanie Hall’s entry on Harding in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
As Chairman of the Municipal Art Gallery committee, Harding was probably behind the acquisition of Drury’s Circe and St. Agnes for Leeds in 1895 following their exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1894. Leeds had been elevated from a town to a city in 1893 and it was this new status that Harding proposed to celebrate in 1896 by funding the sculptural scheme for the new City Square. Therefore, it is not surprising, given the prominence of his work in the recently founded public collection, that Drury was included in Harding’s plan for the square, along with the sculptors Thomas Brock, Frederick Pomeroy and Henry Fehr. The original scheme had the huge equestrian statue of the Black Prince by Brock at the centre of a circular balustrade on which were placed at the points of the compass four pairs of female nudes by Drury, functioning as standards supporting electric lights, and representing Morn and Even. Drury also designed the base and pillar for the lamp-posts on the square, and produced a life-size portrait of the scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, in the act of carrying out an optical experiment, one of four Leeds worthies commemorated in the scheme – the others are Walter Hook, the Divine (by Pomeroy), James Watt, the inventor, and John Harrison, the philanthropist (both by Fehr). Numerous adjustments in the layout of the square since 1961 have left it markedly changed in appearance today. The Leeds worthies now face away from the former Post Office building and are prosaically lined up among the tables and chairs set out by bars and restaurants, while the balustrade has been reduced to a semi-circle and the nude ‘lamp standards’ no longer perform their illuminating function while seeming a little vulnerable as the heavily armored and larger than life Black Prince bears down on them at close range.
Although the installation of City Square was not completed until 1903, Drury’s contributions to the scheme date from 1898-99. The sculptor exhibited Even at the Royal Academy in 1898, and the design for the Base and Column together with Joseph Priestley in 1899. Drury also exhibited Even at the Leeds Art Gallery exhibition in 1899, while Harding was Lord Mayor. A statuette of Joseph Priestley is in the Ashmolean Museum, which Penny argued was the model for the Leeds statue (Nicholas Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, 1992, III, no. 483). This is dated 1902 on the back of the plinth and may be the work referred to in a letter Drury wrote to John Waugh on 27 August 1901 (National Art Library, 86.WW.1/MSL/1980/27/1), where Drury refers to a letter by a ‘Mr. Priestley’ that Waugh had forwarded to him, and to the fact that the scientist Sir Henry Roscoe had ‘fully endorsed my rendering of the “focal distance”’. This would make the Ashmolean statuette a work after the Leeds statue made for a descendant. In some ways the Joseph Priestley anticipates the later statue of Joshua Reynolds, and posed the same problem to the artist of how to produce an effective portrait memorial of a deceased subject (the letter to Waugh is primarily concerned with the loan of print portraits of Lord Byron which had helped Drury in his work for the Holbrook Bequest in Nottingham).
The official opening of City Square took place on 16 September 1903. In his speech Colonel Harding justified the civic role of modern sculpture of an ‘aesthetic’ type, comparing his scheme for Leeds with Alfred Gilbert’s Shaftesbury Memorial (better known as Eros in Piccadily Circus): ‘I know quite well that there are many persons who think that works of the kind – works for instance like Mr. Drury’s beautiful figures in City Square – are quite out of character in a business place and in a dirty place like Leeds, let us by all means be proud of our great factory and workshops, but let us too be able to rise above the sordid and rejoice in the beautiful’ (The Statuary of Leeds City Square, 1959, p. 1). Later that day, Harding was given the freedom of the City ‘in recognition and appreciation of the able services rendered by him to the City for many years past, and of the public spirit by which he has at all times been distinguished, especially in the furtherance of the culture of Art in the City, of which a notable instance is to be found in the generous gift by him of the Central Equestrian Statue of the Black Prince, and of two other Statues and 14 Ornamental Figures and Lamps for the adornment of the said Square’ (Leeds City Council Proceedings, 1902-03).
A lengthy article in the Yorkshire Post had appeared a couple of weeks earlier celebrating the completion of the installation of Brock’s enormous equestrian statue, and preparing the citizens of Leeds for the official opening of the square (‘Leeds City Square: The Decorative Scheme Complete’, 3 September 1903). The article commented on how City Square scheme ‘bears the impress of one dominant idea’ as a result of the controlling vision of Colonel Harding, and therefore avoids the muddle of sculptural schemes effected by committees. This was a common complaint of the time: the critic Marion Harry Spielmann, for example, inveighed against ‘the bane of committees’ (British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today, London: Cassell, 1901, p. 9).
‘One hardly knows whether to give the greater admiration to Colonel Harding’s grandiose scheme, and the persistent energy with which he has carried it out’, wrote the Yorkshire Post journalist, ‘or to the forbearance of the Leeds Town Council, which has allowed him to do so without interference, in spite of the muttered complaints of one worthy ex-Alderman, who desired to contribute a fountain which should be “a credit to himself”’. The minutes of Leeds City Council bear this statement out, as they have very few references to the City Square project. Fountains have recently been installed in the square.
The article in the Yorkshire Post also addresses the issue of the odd choice of the Black Prince as the central figure in an otherwise ‘logical, coherent and well-considered scheme’ – lacking, as he does, any connection with Leeds. It was considered essential to have an equestrian statue as the centrepiece in order to emulate Donatello’s Gattamelata and Verrochio’s Colleoni monuments, in Padua and Venice respectively, and ‘Colonel Harding’s choice fell on the romantic personality of the Black Prince’. Harding’s taste seems to have had a martial and romantic quality to it judging by his donations to the picture collection, for example Lady Butler’s Scotland for Ever, and his authorship of several medieval romances in retirement. In the plaque on the base of Brock’s statue, Edward the Black Prince is celebrated as ‘the flower of English chivalry’ and the ‘upholder of the rights of the people in the Good Parliament’. The choice may also have been a tribute to the contemporary Edward Prince of Wales, or reflected Harding’s political views and ambitions (he was aiming at a seat in Parliament at the time).
The article also anticipates and responds to the objections of two archetypal and stubborn opponents to art: the puritan and the utilitarian. The concerns of the first type of critic, who is ‘unable to perceive the distinction between the naked and the nude’, are misplaced because ‘we cannot believe that the public morality of Leeds will be one whit worse than it is from contemplation of figures which are absolutely pure in intention and expression’. To the utilitarian who raises the question ‘to what purpose is this waste’ the writer points out that an increasing number of people are finding relief from the increasing stress of life in the contemplation of works of art, and that Italy’s art works generate a vast income in tourism. ‘One sometimes wonders whether business-like statesmen, who grudge the meagre pittances allotted to the National Gallery and the British Museum, are so very business-like after all’. Worries about the sexualization of public space, the need for stress relief, and the economic impact of tourism and the funding of museums: it all has a very contemporary feel!
The Yorkshire Post article described Drury as ‘an artist of singularly refined and fastidious taste, and a modeller of unusual subtlety and delicacy’, noting also that ‘for the beautiful lines of the female figure Mr Alfred Drury has justly been awarded great praise’. According to the critic Marion Spielmann ‘the nude need no longer be so severe as Ruskin claimed; but our artists understand that if the figures are to be more like the human form the statues must appear as unconscious of their absence of drapery as though they were mere symbols – which indeed they are’ (British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today, London: Cassell, 1901, p. 3). Morn and Even are indeed both symbolic and quite unconscious of their nudity (although lightly draped below the waist and so, unlike Circe who was not intended for display outside, not completely nude). A comparison with Canova’s Venus in the collection of Leeds’ Municipal Art Gallery also shows how ‘like the human form’ the ‘beautiful lines’ of Drury’s female figures are, and how unlike an idealised generalisation of female beauty. As with Dalou’s nude figure of Abundance on the Triumph of the Republic monument in Paris, there is a sense of the artist responding directly to an individual model. The faces were modelled on Clarrie Doncaster, the older sister of Gracie the model for The Age of Innocence. According to Susan Beattie, Drury’s Morn and Even ‘succeed in combining sensuality and aestheticism in a way that proved irresistible to the Edwardians and still exerts a peculiar magic’ (The New Sculpture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983, p. 114).
In adapting the idea of the caryatid figure to the modern task of supporting an electric light, Drury’s figures respond to the twenty-two nudes holding gas lamps surrounding the Opera House in Paris by Louis-Félix Chabaud (1824-1902). These too come in pairs representing the morning and evening stars, although by comparison with Drury’s Morn and Even they perform their task a little prosaically (a result of gas technology?). While designing his figures very much with their function in mind, Drury could be said to have added ‘a touch of poetic originality’ – as Arthur Lys Baldry wrote of his contemporaneous work at Barrow Court near Bristol – to a commission that treated with less intelligence could have degenerated into ‘mere perfunctory ornamentation’ (A. L. Baldry, ‘The Art Movement: Decorative Sculpture by Mr Alfred Drury’, Magazine of Art, 1898, pp. 442-45). Like the Barrow Court termini, a series of twelve female heads representing the months through the progress of an individual life, the Leeds Morn and Even are concerned with the passing of time. The great sculptural precedent for this theme treated through the female nude is Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel in Florence, where the figures of Aurora and Notte symbolize time’s inexorable passing.
Morn stands erect with open eyes, holding her light up straight with her right arm, while her left hand clasps roses and a billowing swag of drapery. She is ‘rosy fingered’, just as Homer had described Dawn (Drury had previously referred to Homer’s poetry when his Circe was exhibited with verses from the Odyssey). Dante also described Aurora’s ‘white and rosy cheeks’ in his Purgatorio. Perhaps closer in feel is Swinburne’s ‘Before Dawn’ from Poems and Ballads (1866, reissued in a new edition in 1885), where the fragility and impermanence of the flower of delight is evoked: ‘Delight, the rootless flower, / And love, the bloomless bower; / Delight that lives an hour, / And love that lives a day.’ By contrast Even seems weighed down by the passing of time and the cares of the day, lost in reverie with closed eyes, her right hand supporting her drooping head. If Morn is a more restrained take on Dalou’s Abundance, is it too fanciful to see in Even Drury’s homage to Rodin? The closed eyes, the languorous, vanquished air, the telling detail of the head held up by the right hand, are all similar to Rodin’s early masterpiece, the male nude, The Age of Bronze (c.1876, but first cast in bronze in 1884).
[Post based on research done by Chloe Cheadle and Elizabeth Nixon in Leeds. Many thanks to the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Public Library, and Special Collections at the University of Leeds. Also to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art for funding the research trip.]
On 25th April 2012 I visited John Blackburn in his studio with Olivia Martin, a Kent undergraduate student and filmmaker, to begin the process of making a short documentary film about John’s forthcoming exhibition at Studio 3 Gallery. Here is part of our conversation touching on the creative process:
Ben Thomas: Robert Motherwell once said in an interview with David Sylvester that ‘the process of painting is a series of moral decisions about the aesthetic’. This reminded me of something you said to me when we first met about painting the black paintings you are currently working on involving you in a series of critical decisions, and also of what Andrew Lambirth wrote about your definition of a great painting as a ‘balancing act’ from which ‘the artist has managed to extract himself when the painting is at its highest level’. Could you say something about your creative process in relation to this?
John Blackburn: Quite recently I read somewhere a quote by a painter – I can’t remember who it was that said it – but I completely agree with it. It was to the effect that the process of painting means that you have to make a decision every two or three minutes. And I find that slots in perfectly with the way I approach the creative process. You step onto the treadmill of a decision making process, and it isn’t until you stop painting, that you step off that treadmill. Once you start painting you are on that treadmill, and it’s going, it’s moving, and every few minutes you are faced with an artistic decision. You can’t get round that. That’s not so with easy painting, stuff where you know the visual content before you start, because you’re painting a tree, you paint the tree. I am talking about the same thing that Motherwell was talking about, the sort of painting that I do, and others like me, you can’t do that type of painting without this happening.
BT: Painting a tree your reference is nature, so you size the tree – there are always going to be decisions there too.
JB: Sure, I don’t want to denigrate any of the great landscape painters. The point is, it’s quite easy for people like me to make a load of wrong decisions, and then you’re in trouble because you end up with a lousy picture, which you’ve either got to repaint or start again, or do something with it. It’s a horrible feeling to be thrown into that window of indecision. Is this right? Is this wrong? Should I be doing that? Should I be doing something else? That’s a bugger. I face that a lot. But I don’t let it stop me working. I think some people perhaps would be completely overwhelmed by that, intimidated to the point where they can’t make a decision to start. You’ve just got to be bullish and fight your way through until you get the result. You know instinctively when the result is there. That’s what Andrew was talking about when he said then the trick, the real trick on the high-wire, is getting out before you just take that one step too far, which metaphorically means you fall off the wire.
BT: I sometimes get that from your work, that there’s a precarious quality about it, that you’ve just removed yourself from it in time.
JB: You may meet him today, my friend, the artist Mark Pulsford. He approaches things in a different way to me: he’s more polished, more academic, he’s a painter, draughtsman and a teacher. He’s a very good talker about painting and I’m not. He came over here last week – all the black paintings were out, all stacked up in piles. Something was happening in the studio. Two or three days later I saw him and he said ‘I was so excited to come over to the studio. It’s the most dangerous place I’ve been’. He said: ‘the whole place reeks of danger’. Well I hadn’t quite thought of it like that. But in a way, I suppose, that’s what my painting’s about: life itself is terribly dangerous, terribly cruel, terribly rewarding. All these things at once. This multi-faceted, wonderful jewel – which we all live with and die with – is there. We’re saddled with it, like it or not.
A lot of people used to compare me with William Scott – particularly the Cambridge undergraduates I came into contact with, I’m thinking of the time I was visiting regularly with Jim [Ede] at Kettle’s Yard, a lot of the undergraduates that I met would always fall into the trap of making that sort of comparison, because I think they thought, not that it was smart, but because they thought they had discovered something – ‘gosh have you been influenced by William Scott because your work is so like Scott’. And I used to be quite cross at first, then I became more used to it and I would say, well look, superficially it may look a bit like Scott but it’s nothing like Scott at all, nothing at all like Scott, and all you have to do is just think about where we both come from, where was our inspiration, and Scott’s inspiration was completely different to mine. And when I talk about danger, the reasoning behind a lot of my work, almost all of it really, is the human condition, whereas for Scott it was something completely different. And the human condition drives my work. I would be lost really without that. It moves me forward.
[Coda, 19 June 2012] JB: Reading what I’ve spoken now seems presumptuous, and arrogant. I honestly don’t mean it like that at all, believe me. In fact, I can say truthfully that I have to fight tooth and nail for any scrap I get from the creative process, and I’m grateful for whatever I squeeze out. It’s always a fight, but I’m used to it. I know it’s going to be this way, me against what hasn’t been created yet.