- Presented by Mr Rex Nan Kivell, 1953
- Wood engraving
- 129 x 106mm
Related reading: The Golden Age
Paul Nash was a member of England’s Society of Wood Engravers in the 1920s, and this work, one of his earliest wood engravings, highlights his instinctive approach to the medium. Rather than be tied down by traditional wood-engraving practices of precision and accuracy of line, his mark-making is free and immediate. A jagged, hard-edged perspective intensifies the scene. The waves breaking on the seawall form a series of varied, simplified patterns and shapes. The elongated figures, dwarfed by the wall, intensify the scale of the structure. Nash’s rough and intuitive techniques in cutting the end-grain wood serve to intensify the image and highlight an artist approaching a medium with much tradition under his own terms.
Tomorrow, Book, Caxton Press, Landfall
In the decades before and after the Second World War, Christchurch experienced a remarkable artistic efflorescence that encompassed the visual arts, literature, music, theatre and the publishing of books and journals. And the phenomenon was noticed beyond these islands. For instance, in his 1955 autobiography, English publisher and editor of Penguin New Writing and London Magazine, John Lehmann, wrote (with a measure of exaggeration, perhaps) that of all the world’s cities only Christchurch at that time acted ‘as a focus of creative literature of more than local significance’.
This article first appeared as 'Artist captured poetry in wood carving' in The Press on 11 November 2014.
This article first appeared as 'Wood engraving artist finally won recognition' in The Press on 27 June 2014.
This article first appeared as 'An oblique profile' in The Press on 12 July 2013.
This article first appeared as 'Death mastered' in The Press on 28 March 2013.
Believed to be one of Eileen Mayo’s first wood engravings, this dynamic monochromatic image of two ice skaters shows her interest in balancing form and movement within a tightly controlled picture space. In 1925, Mayo was in London and had just taken up her studies at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, after two years at the Slade School of Art. She attended evening classes in wood engraving, calligraphy, drawing, lithography and historical costume design, supporting herself by working as a freelance designer during the day. Mayo later worked as a model for a life-class at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, where she met Claude Flight, the artist and educator who pioneered and popularised the linocut technique and encouraged Mayo to produce her first work in that medium.
(Turn, Turn, Turn: A Year in Art, 27 July 2019 – 8 March 2020)
New Zealand’s most respected wood engraver, E. Mervyn Taylor remains renowned for his delicately engraved and beautifully designed prints. He was drawn to Māori mythology for much of his subject matter, in particular George Grey’s collected legends published as Polynesian Mythology in 1855.
In this work he depicts the myth of the Ma- ori sorcerer Hakawau defeating a carved magical wooden head whose stare will cause death to anyone who looks at it. As with his contemporary British artists, Taylor’s wood engravings were also used for illustrative purposes, and in 1946 he produced a limited edition book of his wood engravings through Christchurch’s Caxton Press – which can be seen elsewhere in the exhibition.
'A book of wood engravings' by E Mervyn Taylor is in the Robert and Barbara Stewart Library and Archives and can be viewed by appointment
One of the striking things about all the artists in The Golden Age is their perfectionism, a necessary quality considering the medium they were working with – engraving the woodblock requires the utmost care and control as a mistake is very difficult to rectify. The quality of printing was also of concern, especially if the artist wasn’t printing the block themselves. The extremely fine detailed lines of the engraved block are notoriously difficult to ink and print: too much ink and the detail is lost, too little and the impression is not crisp enough. David Jones commented:
I think in the case of my work, it is particularly difficult because [the blocks] do depend to some large extent on really ‘sympathetic’ printing, they are very easily killed. I do ‘not’ think this is a virtue in them, far from it, perhaps, but it is a fact. The idea ‘only’ just gets across in any case & mechanical process simply dishes ‘em.
Nature was the predominant theme in Eileen Mayo’s work throughout her distinguished career as a printmaker, painter and designer. She wrote and illustrated numerous books on subjects as varied as seashells, birdsand cats, including her monumental book The Story of Living Things and Their Evolution (1948). She was fascinated with the variety of forms and shapes of plants, and her subject in this work reflects the year of the seasons, as opposed to the calendar year, that begins with the emergence of spring flowers such as these crocuses.
Robert Gibbings was an early convert to wood engraving and quickly appreciated its qualities. He once wrote:
Discipline in art: was that what I’d come to London for? Impressionism was what I thought I was after. I couldn’t think what all this hard labour on wood was about. There was no tradition at the time; it seemed a lot of finicky gouging to get a few lines that might have been obtained more easily with a pen or brush. But slowly a love of the wood came upon me. I began to enjoy the crisp purr of the graver as it furrowed the polished surface. I began to appreciate the cleanness of the white line that it incised: even the simplest silhouettes had an austere quality, a dignity, that could not be achieved by other means. Clear, precise statement, that was what it amounted to. Near enough wouldn’t do: it had to be just right.
An illustration from 'Beasts and Saints', translated by Helen Waddell, published by Constable, 1949.
This is the largest wood engraving in the exhibition, and was cut from several blocks glued and clamped to one another. Gertrude Hermes’ interest in the human form was mirrored in her work as a sculptor, and like her contemporary Eric Gill she was able to successfully transition between both mediums. Unlike the hard-edged style of many of Gill’s wood engravings, however, Hermes’ line is sinuous and flowing with various tonal gradations throughout the work. As a sculptor she had a good understanding of human forms, which in More People seem to overlap and merge into one another.
A major figure in the British wood engraving movement of the 20th century, Gwendolen Raverat took an impressionistic approach to the medium. Rather than in the studio, she worked on many of her subjects, such as Poplars in France, out of doors. Raverat’s first wood engravings date from 1905 and, although she received little formal training, she excelled with the medium. She studied at the Slade School in 1908, and in 1915 settled in France with her husband and two daughters. Raverat was a founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920. She returned to England in 1925 and continued to illustrate books.
Eric Ravilious was an extremely talented artist and designer who excelled at numerous artistic mediums, including wood engraving. He was a prolific illustrator for the private press movement, and produced many titles under the much- admired Golden Cockerel Press imprint thanks to his close friendship with Robert Gibbings (who at one point owned the press). Ravilious was no purist, however, shifting with ease between the worlds of high art and commercial design.
Alongside his stunning wood engravings, he was happy to design transfer illustrations for china and even furniture. Decoration to ‘Five Eyes’ was based on the poem ‘Five Eyes’ by Walter de la Mare and was used to illustrate a piano music roll, while Doctor Faustus conjuring Mephistophilis was to be used as an illustration for a Golden Cockerel Press book, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, which unfortunately went unpublished.
The words 'Be still Earth, be silent, be still and be silent' is part of a 1928 translation into English of a song by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).
The translation appeared in the journal 'Music and Letters', Vol. 9, No. 4, (Oct., 1928), pp. 381-385. This issue was a special Schubert issue, to mark the centenary of the composer’s death. As well as articles on Schubert’s life and works, it included translations of songs mentioned. The song in question is 'Auflösung' and it was translated, to be sung, like this:
Veil, sun, thy glory! Fierce the rays of thy fury, They sear me to the bone, And you, ye voices, When the spring rejoices, Away! and let me alone (let me alone). Welling up within, new forces Range and sweep resistless in their courses, Now making melody Now heav'nly harmony; Be still, earth, he silent, for I Would listen To the song of the soul that is free from her prison.
The last part of the song involves various repeats and there is a specific instruction for it to be sung thus:
Be still, earth, be silent; be still and be silent; for I would listen to the song of the soul that is free, that is free from her prison is free from her prison. Be still, earth, be silent, be silent.
This is a very free translation, designed to be sung. A more modern translation, not suitable for singing, from the Hyperion Schubert Edition:
Hide yourself, sun, for the fires of rapture burn through my whole being. Be silent, sounds; spring beauty, flee, and let me be alone! From every recess of my soul gentle powers well up and envelop me with celestial song. Dissolve, world, and never more disturb the sweet ethereal choirs.
And the original German, a poem by Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836)
Verbirg dich, Sonne, Denn die Gluten der Wonne Versengen mein Gebein; Verstummet, Töne, Frühlings Schöne Flüchte dich und lass mich allein! Quillen doch aus allen Falten Meiner Seele liebliche Gewalten, Die mich umschlingen, Himmlisch singen. Geh unter, Welt, und störe Nimmer die süssen, ätherischen Chöre.
Eileen Mayo has a special place in Christchurch’s art history, not only because of her extraordinary prints and illustrious career but also her tangible connections with this city. Mayo settled here in Christchurch in 1967, having established a career as a printmaker and designer in Britain and Australia. Her British contemporaries included Mabel Annesley and Clare Leighton, both of whom are included in this exhibition, and several works by these artists came into the Gallery's collection as part of a gift of British modernist prints by Redfern Gallery director Rex Nan Kivell.
Mayo adored cats. They were a constant source of companionship throughout her life and were regularly used as subjects in her art.
One of Britain’s most celebrated printmakers, Gwen Raverat was a formative figure in the wood-engraving revival in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. In Raverat’s arcadian vision of a golden age, figures exist in harmony with nature and each other. With its rich hand-colouring Raverat’s large wood-engraving draws parallels with medieval tapestries, detailing a country life in which the trials and tribulations of living in a town are left behind.
Much of Clare Leighton’s work as a wood engraver focused on rural labourers going about their lives in the countryside. These works were used extensively as illustrations in her popular books on country life during the 1930s, including The Farmers Year (1933), Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle (1935) and Country Matters (1937). The skill of Leighton’s wood engraving is evident in this work, where her exquisite and delicately cut lines create incredibly soft tonal variations. The subject is drawn from her time spent in a lumber camp on Canada’s Quebec-Ontario border. One of the most important manuals on wood engraving remains Leighton’s 'Wood-engraving and Woodcuts' from 1938.
Illustrated in ‘Poisonous Plants, Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect', The Curwen Press, 1927.
Agnes Miller Parker stands out in this exhibition as an artist who had a natural affinity with wood engraving and ranks among the most talented of her generation. Her subjects were often traditional, featuring living creatures, and her working method shows extreme complexity – particularly in her delicate mark-making with the cutting tools known as burins, creating exceptionally subtle tonal contrasts. In this work, the careful cutting of the individual hairs of the fox’s fur creates an impression of softness. Fox was used as an illustration for H. E. Bates’ book Through the Woods (1936), for which Miller Parker created seventy-three wood engravings.
The beautiful forms and shapes of a humble weed are given centre stage in this wood engraving by John Farleigh. He had a natural empathy with the wood engraving medium, as can be seen in this work with its delicate lines and contrasting areas of black and white in the background. In his role as lecturer in the book production department at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts in the 1920s he encouraged many artists to work with the medium. He illustrated numerous books and produced an important manual on wood engraving for students titled Engraving on Wood (1954).
Describing the process, Farleigh once stated:
The tool has a subtle voice. It will only confide in the understanding craftsman. […] It can become the only living thing about you. All feeling and life; all action and intensity can pass into the tool until the body clouds up and only the point of the tool is in focus. It is then that the tool will talk and all is well.
Eric Gill was one of the most prominent and energetic proponents of wood engraving during its revival in England during the 1920s. His training as a sculptor put him in good stead for the medium: scale aside, carving an uncut piece of stone is not dissimilar to carving the surface of a wood engraving block. Gill excelled as a wood engraver. He was one of the most prolific of his generation, and his work illustrated many private press publications. In this work, Gill's strong, hard-edged lines cut directly from the wood engraving block, reflect his training as a sulptuor and highlights his unique style. It was included as an illustration in Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, published by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1926.
During the 1950s John Buckland Wright produced a number of prints in which female figures appear on deserted beaches. He has given a classical, idealised feeling to this work with the elegant poses of the bathers, the robes on the figure in the foreground and the tranquil setting. Buckland Wright was a significant figure in British printmaking and book illustration during the first half of the 20th century. Although self-taught, he displayed a masterly technique. His detailed work was ideally suited to the woodcut medium. Born in Dunedin, Buckland Wright travelled to England with his mother and siblings after his father died in 1901. During World War One he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry. Buckland Wright worked as an oil painter, etcher and engraver. He exhibited with the London Group and the Society of Wood Engravers and his book illustrations were done largely with the Golden Cockerel Press. From 1948 he taught at both the Camberwell School of Art and the Slade School of Art
This subject was reworked for the frontispiece of ' Endymion'- A Poetic Romance by John Keats published by the Golden Cockerel Press, Great Britain in 1947.
Gwen Raverat was a celebrated author and book illustrator, and a major figure in the British wood engraving movement of the twentieth century. The granddaughter of Charles Darwin, she trained at the Slade School of Art (1908-11) and after she married the French painter Jacques Raverat in 1911 they both joined the Bloomsbury Group and Rupert Brooke’s Neo-Pagans. The family later settled in France, but after the death of Jacques in 1925 Gwen returned to Cambridge, where she had spent her childhood. Raverat often worked outdoors and took an impressionistic approach to the wood engraving medium, creating works full of varied textures. Many of her works depicted agricultural scenes, such as this impressive view of hay being stacked using a traction elevator. The fine leaves of the surrounding trees and the soft piles of hay are contrasted with the strong lines of the machinery.
(Turn, Turn, Turn: A Year in Art, 27 July 2019 – 8 March 2020)
An illustration (page 172) from 'Over the reefs' by Robert Gibbings, published by Dent, 1948.
An illustration from 'The Glory of life' by Llewellyn Powys, published by John Lane, 1938
Mervyn Taylor was one of the few New Zealand artists to successfully work with the wood engraving medium during the 20th century, reflecting the medium’s revival in England at the time. Initially trained as a jeweller’s engraver, he made a successful transition to wood engraving, one of the most difficult print mediums to master, and produced work that focused on Māori and New Zealand subject matter. Taylor was born in Auckland. In 1952 he was awarded the Association of New Zealand Art Societies Scholarship, which allowed him to study Māori life and culture in Te Kaha in the eastern Bay of Plenty. He was elected a member of the Society of Illustrators, New York, in 1950 and a fellow of the Institute of Arts and Letters, Linau, in 1953. Taylor held a solo exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in New York in 1954, and his work was included in the First International Biennale of Prints in Tokyo in 1957.
Leo Bensemann was one of the few New Zealand artists to produce wood engravings during the 20th century. He was deeply interested in literary subjects, which he freely interpreted in his unique, sometimes bizarre, manner.
Here, Bensemann has based his image on Aesop’s most famous fable, but he has set it in a Canterbury landscape. The foothills and mountains are reminiscent of the Southern Alps and the cloud formations are characteristic of the region’s hot, dry föhn wind, known as the Nor’wester.
Bensemann moved with his family to Nelson in 1920, then to Christchurch in 1929 where he worked for an advertising agency. He attended evening classes at the Canterbury College School of Art between 1932 and 1936. In 1934 Bensemann met poet and publisher Denis Glover and became involved with the Caxton Press, with which he remained associated until his retirement in 1978. Bensemann was a regular exhibitor with The Group from 1938.
Agnes Miller Parker was a prolific wood engraver and illustrated numerous publications throughout her career. She specialised in nature subjects, particularly animals and plants found in Britain. Parker studied at the Glasgow School of Art and was introduced to wood engraving by Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes-Stanton. All three artists worked as illustrators for the Gregynog Press in 1930. Parker was a member of the Society of Wood Engravers and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers.
If the question "what is the largest individual collection area numerically held by the Gallery?" was to be asked, the answer would have to be the Works on Paper collection, within which are 2145 original contemporary and historical prints, the earliest dating from the second half of the fifteenth century.
This article first appeared in The Press on 14 December 2005
At just 14 cm tall, the exquisite St Brendan and the Sea Monsters by Irish-born Robert Gibbings (1889-1958) is one of the smallest works in Christchurch Art Gallery's collection, but carries with it some of the largest tales. A rhythmic composition of swirling sea serpents, stingrays and sharks, this finely-crafted woodcut print tells the story of 6th century Irish explorer-monk St. Brendan, or Brendan the Navigator, whose recorded travels were an important part of medieval European folklore, and which continue to fascinate.