This first year art history module provides students with an opportunity to develop their writing skills by engaging with varied artworks from the University Collection. Activities include a writing workshop with the aim of creating short pieces of writing for this Museum Blog.
This year the theme was ‘Townscape/Landscape’. Each student had the opportunity to choose from a selection of pictures. They only had one week to undertake some research before presenting their drafts. They all worked very hard on these projects so please take the time to view their efforts!
In Fredrick Charles Richards’ etching Modern Education of 1917 we are presented with a nude boy playing a pipe whilst seated on the end stone of a balustrade. The latter has the artist’s monogram engraved onto the side. In the distance you can see a line of women, children and men walking underneath the Triumphal Arch of Education which is loosely based on the Arch of Titus in Rome.
Fredrick Charles Richards attended an elementary school and remained on as a pupil-teacher under Abraham Morris. He took classes at the local school of art and spent summer holidays training in studios at St Ives and Bruges. He often regarded himself as a painter in colour. Many who knew him were therefore shocked when he turned to etching at the Royal College of Art where he was greatly influenced by Sir Frank Short. Richards became a great advocate of the emancipatory power of education and he was inspired to create Modern Education to celebrate the appointment of Herbert Fisher (1865-1940) as Education Minister in 1917, one year before the First World War ended.
As a 21st century viewer looking at this etching it seems so bizarre to me that the boy is sat there naked. It raises many questions such as why is the child blissfully unaware or un-affected by what is going on around him? Why is he chained? Has this youth given up on education? Has he no desire to participate in the flock of young artists and intellectuals travelling under and into the future, leaving the wastelands behind them? W.J.T. Collins explains the presence of the boy as a challenge for all involved in education – how is the teacher meant to capture this youth’s young heart and attention when he sits uninterested in the beautiful city that is surrounding him?
The unusual layout of this etching also intrigues me. Richards’ level of detail is beautiful and I’m amazed at how he managed to create different tones and contrasts within the etching. The montage of famous buildings, representing civilisation, has been carefully placed away from the downward gaze of the boy. The presence of entrances to dark caverns behind the youth suggests that if he does not cross through the Triumphal Arch of Education he will be forever lost in mass unemployment, doomed to live a life of poverty and be lost to the enlightening powers of art and culture.
Perhaps though this youth is simply not interested in the passing of time, or the ever-changing world that is surrounding him. Whilst others are conforming, he quietly rebels, happy to let his fate be undecided – for now, to be a mystery.
On the Ouse is a watercolour painting on cream rag paper by landscape artist Robert Winchester Fraser. This delicate painting presents the tranquil wetlands of the River Ouse and its surroundings on a cold winter’s day. Fraser (1848-1906) was part of the well-known Fraser family of watercolour artists whose predominant subject matter was rural landscapes. On the Ouse was painted in a time when landscape imagery was at one of its most popular phases; the genre of landscape was seen as a gentlemanly subject to depict.
In the background of On the Ouse, distance is hinted at by Fraser’s depiction of faint purple shadows of a faraway forest. This allows the observer to imagine that the wetlands are great stretches of land disappearing far into the background. Above the isolated mass of trees is the majestic, greyish-blue sky heavy with large cumulus clouds. Birds can be seen in flight perhaps departing for somewhere warmer over the bitter winter. An eerie atmosphere is present in the middleground where the fields surrounding the River Ouse have been flooded. This is painted in quite a dramatic way when compared to the rest of the painting; the fragile, exposed trees with delicately painted branches are left to fight against the strong winter winds. Also present in the middleground are small collections of leaf litter wrapped around saplings or clumps of grass –these in themselves expressive of the force of the currents. When considering it is the main subject of the painting, the river itself is displayed in the foreground in a somewhat humble way, along with three rather curious ducks.
When compared to the other paintings and prints within the University Collection, On the Ouse can be seen as quite understated, yet it only takes a closer look to see the power the image has to capture the observer’s imagination. The main quality of On the Ouse is the superiority in which it has been painted by Fraser – not only in the level of detail and effects achieved by the medium but also in the choice of colours. Fraser’s ability to capture the smallest of details on such a small scale, such as the branches or the reflections of the tree trunks, demands the viewer to stop in their tracks, eager to look further, and to recall their own experiences of a chilly winter’s day.
The etching The Early Ploughman or The Morning Spread upon the Mountains shows, as both titles suggest, a ploughman ploughing his field with three oxen as the light of the rising sun spreads over the sky. To the right, there is a figure holding jugs and, further in the distance, there is another farmer working. The landscape itself is less defined than that in the foreground and is simply silhouetted; however, the presence of a ruin is still relatively clear. This holds resemblance to his earlier etching and watercolour The Lonely Tower and it is possible that the shape is in fact the same tower, both influenced by the one on Leith Hill in Surrey. The latter was visible from the studio in his house and was near to where his son had died seven years previous to The Early Ploughman’s completion – the etching may have had more personal significance to Palmer than it might seem.
I feel the work holds some influence from Claude in the composition, with the figures in the foreground and the trees framing a landscape that stretches far into the distance. But it is equally possible that some influence in the work came from Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite circle with whom he had contacts with over the period in which the etching was made.
This print is the ninth and final state. It was printed in 1926, long after Palmer’s death, as a set of final prints before the plate was cancelled – most likely to increase the value of the work. Each version was worked into on the same plate over a period of seven years, having been started in 1861 and the last development made in 1868. The work done increased the contrast and added to the definition of the subjects such as the trees and the bridge in the foreground.
Rigby Graham, Slievemore, Achill Island, 1973, Colour lithograph
This print by Rigby Graham is a study of a deserted village on mount Slievemore, Achill Island in Ireland. The village itself consists of more than one hundred derelict stone cottages located along an ancient pathway on the southern side of the mountain. Sources differ on the reason of abandonment. Some say it was the Irish famine in the 1840s and others infer it was the end of a tradition called booleying where families would move their cattle in the summer months to the mountain side to graze and return home in the winter. There are records stating that the deserted village was still used for booleying until the 1940s, being one of the last places in Europe to practice this technique.
Rigby Graham is mainly a topographical, landscape artist; his works show a wide range of media including painting, drawing, several different processes of printing, postcards, murals, patterned paper and book illustrations. There are several reasons why he would have created this piece of work. In the 1960s-70s he was working as a book illustrator for private presses; therefore he had the resourses and skills to create prints such as lithographs at this point in his career. His interests lay in observing time passing and the way in which time leaves it’s mark on things – this can be seen clearly in the print. He was always fond of the west coast of Ireland, its rugged appearance and untouched scenes interested him but over time his focus moved to his surroundings in Leicestershire as inspiration for his paintings.
The print itself is vibrant and rich in colour; the inks are used cleverly and complement each other. A variation in texture is achieved by the different types of marks created, some rough lines of colour as opposed to the block sections of ink. The colours and methods are effective in creating a visually striking image that portrays a modern view of the traditional landscape of the west of Ireland. In context, when the print was created, Northern Ireland was in chaos with considerable political violence. In depicting a social landscape that had been through a tumultuous period leading to abandonment, perhaps Graham is making an oblique reference to The Troubles. However, I feel his main intentions were to develop the traditional theme of landscape for a modern art audience.
Ernest Zobole’s The Valley Town portrays the town of Ystradgynlais in South Wales. Zobole creates a different perspective of this particular Welsh valley by utilising abstract shapes and colours within his watercolour. Zobole had a keen interest in painting the landscapes around him in an imaginative, expressive manner during the 1960s. Consequently, The Valley Town communicates a strong sense of place and identity.
Though the painting depicts the topography of the valley, it is not a realistic depiction. Instead, Zobole expressed his passion for this landscape by using symmetric shapes and line to create a sense of abstraction. There appears to be a railway line jutting out through the mountains and a figure embedded in the landscape, a reoccurring theme in his work. Dark, subtle, often murky colours contrast with the glowing, luminous yellow of the moon. His use of colour is not the result of direct observations of the landscape but rather an intuitive response which communicates the emotions and feelings he had for this locality. Zobole also portrays line successfully within the painting, experimenting with different marks and patterns. Overall, there is a sense of ambiguity running through this composition, it is never entirely clear what he intends to portray.
The Valley Town was composed during a period when minimalism and conceptual art were beginning to be established. However, Zobole was more influenced by the expressionist styles of refugee artists, such as Heinz Koppel, who were teaching in South Wales in the 1950s and 60’s. Koppel also portrayed landscapes and townscapes using bold colours and abstract shapes.
The Valley Town is an abstract and expressive painting and, in my view, a successful portrayal of the valley of Ystradgynlais capturing the structure of the landscape through the abstraction of shape and line.
Joseph Webb ‘A Master’s House’, 1931
Etching, with drypoint, in black on white paper
Born in Ealing in 1908, Joseph Webb was the son of a horticulturist. Joseph was an imaginative and creative child who quickly set eyes on becoming an artist. Webb initially attended Ealing School of Art, 1920-22, before being awarded a scholarship to study at Hospitalfield School of Art at Arbroath, Scotland. Influenced by Rembrandt and Turner, Webb excelled at the art of printmaking the old-school way learning techniques in etching by copying the Old Masters. Webb himself was named a ‘Master Etcher’ at the age of 20 for his highly acclaimed etchings Dream Barn and Rat Barn.
The etching A Master’s House features a fleet of chiliad travellers who wish to ascend the mountainous path to the ‘Master’s House’ at the apex of the mountain range in the background. The two foreground figures actively direct the journey that must be completed by crossing the featured bridge. The long line of pilgrims appear along the road in the middle distance before it ascends the mountain ridge towards the peak. The image is a depiction of a moralistic, virtuous journey which is a direct response to Webb’s interests in spiritual and theosophical ideas. Personally, I perceive the treacherous path as a difficult crossing through a chapter of life. This is confirmed by Webb who considered the subject to be an allegory of self-improvement – the Master’s House being the result, to better one’s self.
The etching includes the technique of drypoint – a manner of scratching directly into the plate to create grooves to hold the ink. Drypoint areas wear down quickly compared to areas etched in acid so it is likely that only a small number of these were printed by Webb at the time. In 2009, one appeared at a Christies auction – a rare occurrence.
Karen Keogh creates three-plate etchings and painterly monotypes focusing mainly on landscapes. Her use of bold colours combined with contrasting tones create a modern, but also classical, sense of beauty. Vineyard Harvest is an interpretation of the landscape of France in autumn. Her use of large areas of red, orange and brown for the fields evoke the fecundity of a traditional harvest time – a hint of the ripe fruitiness of wine in a foreign land.
The print depicts a hillside, one which we could typically imagine in the South of France. A village with white-washed houses nestles in the foreground held captive and stark against the deep reds and rich browns of the surrounding trees and fields. The sky is a mottled grey giving the illusion of dusk. It provides a contrast to the vivid tones of the fields emphasizing even more greatly their impression of autumn and harvest time. The intricacy of the bushes and the trunks of the trees against the diagonal hatching of the foreground fields displays, to me, the delicate process of harvest time but also the fragility of nature, it’s vulnerability to mankind’s will to either destruct or nurture it. I believe that Karen Keogh made this contemporary image to celebrate the traditional, old-fashioned beauty in things – qualities that tend to be forgotten when we are surrounded by our modern, urban environments full of technology. The simple rustic beauty of the piece reminds the viewer that the modern idea of beauty, such as the latest phone or steel architectural building, is nothing compared to the complicated simplicity of nature and its changing seasons. Karen Keogh’s work simply reminds us to look and to be enthralled.
In the foreground of the picture is an empty street flanked by tall buildings one of which casts a shadow over the road surface. This road leads the viewer’s eyes into the main part of the picture, Durer’s house. A long banner containing Durer’s monogram hangs from an upper storey window. The numerous figures in the middle of the picture seem to be carrying on with their everyday lives but they also direct the viewer’s gaze towards Durer’s house. Anderson is clearly interested in two things in this scene: Durer’s house and street life.
Most of Stanley Anderson’s output as an artist was in the form of intaglio prints. Prints were more accessible to the public because more copies were able to be made allowing less wealthy people to buy art. Drypoint etching is a form of printmaking where the lines are scratched directly into the plates, thicker lines are made by applying more pressure. The plate is then coated with ink and the plate surface wiped clean before it is passed through a press transferring the ink in the scratched grooves of the image on the plate to paper.
This picture was made at the beginning of the Great Depression which began in America but had an immediate impact on Germany when American loans for rebuilding their economy were withdrawn. This caused serious unemployment especially in bigger cities like Munich, Berlin and Nuremburg. The public stopped listening to the government as they didn’t think that they were doing anything to save the country. In the coming years their allegiances veered towards Hitler and the National Socialists as well as Communist parties.
The etching does not show the troubles of German society at the time. Instead the focus is on the old medieval buildings suggesting little has changed. Anderson has depicted Nuremberg as a small looking place, perhaps he was trying to show the viewer what it might have been like in Durer’s time. However, in the centre background, on the horizon, are two industrial chimneys – a small concession to the presence of the modern world.
This etching is one of a series of architectural subjects from Le Antichità Romane – a vast project by Giovanni Battista Piranesi intended as a definitive record of Roman architecture. Piranesi worked on the project from the mid-1740s with his first volumes published in 1756. The etching depicts the semi-circular arcade of Trajan’s Forum and the street continuing behind. The forum provided a large public space for the citizens of Rome and included a triumphal arch, a law court, a temple and two libraries. Areas of the building are overgrown with moss and there are some architectural features missing but overall the Forum is in a good state of repair considering its age. It is clear that Piranesi wanted to capture the building for posterity, to preserve its grandness forever in an etching that time cannot destroy.
The picture almost looks as if it is two separate images; straight down the centre of the etching there is a blunt, bold line created by the end of the upper wall of the curved arcade. On the left side the artist is focusing on the building, on the right side he depicts the surrounding city streets. In the foreground are various figures both outside and inside the Forum – it is unclear as to what their activities are but one may be begging.
What caught my eye on viewing this etching were the strong contrasts of light and dark, as well as his technique. The way he manages to achieve high levels of detail using only lines in a lot of different directions and patterns intrigues me. The positioning of the view is also interesting – was the artist sat in front of the building or does the curve of the arcade continue behind him? It is likely that Piranesi chose this viewpoint specifically to enable him to combine a description of the ancient building of Trajan’s Forum with the modern 18th century setting of Rome’s busy streets.
Gwilym Prichard is one of Wales’ most admired and successful artists whose work often depicts the desolate landscapes of Wales. Painted in acrylic, ink and gouache on buff paper, Birds in Trees has a rough texture which perhaps evokes the idea of a weather-beaten land, overgrown and untouched by people. However, as little as people feature in Pritchards’ artworks, there is evidence of them being there. For example, in Birds in Trees there is a man-made wall in the bottom left hand corner which is almost hidden by the overgrown branches. The dull grey of the wall contrasts against the use of browns, oranges, red, and green in the rest of the painting. These autumnal colours, together with the absence of leaves on the foreground trees, suggest that it is nearing winter. Pritchard has depicted a small group of birds taking off from the trees, perhaps leaving for the winter. The sky also shows tints of brown and orange – it is either an early morning sunrise or an evening sunset.
Most of all, the web of ink-drawn lines and painted textures of the vegetation creates a feeling of the inevitable growth of nature, a confirmation that nature is out of our control.
Samuel Prout was born in Plymouth before moving to London where he started to study landscape painting. In 1818 he found his niche; he started to study townscapes particularly ‘quaint streets and market-places’. Townscape in the Low Countries is a typical example of his subject matter but may in fact be a copy painted by a talented amateur artist of the nineteenth century. It is probably a scene in the Netherlands, as this was one of his favourite places to paint. In the centre of the picture is an old medieval building with gothic details and an abandoned hoist loft in the roof. On the right, in the background, is a church or cathedral with a tall spire. In the foreground is a group of women most of whom are seated under a large umbrella – they seem to be engaged in sewing. They sit directly in front of the medieval building where a man observes the seamstresses from an open, ground-floor window. It seems likely that the women are employed by a small business based in this building. This integration of people and architecture is a clear interest of the artist. Whilst urban buildings are often the main focus of his paintings, Prout is often just as fascinated with the social life around them.
This classical landscape by Richard Earlom is a copy of a work by Claude Lorrain. Claude executed a series of nearly 200 drawings of his own paintings in order to protect his designs from copyists. This collection is known as his Liber Veritatis, his ‘Book of Truth’. In 1776 Earlom was commissioned by John Boydell to recreate these drawings in print form and eventually 3 volumes were published between 1779 and 1819. The technique he used was etching with mezzotint printed in sepia ink on cream paper.
The print depicts a scene from the Bible where Jacob meets Rachel at a well. A large tree surrounded by smaller trees and bushes dominates the image. The three figures in the foreground are two women (one being Rachel) and Jacob who holds a staff. Jacob points towards the well which has had it’s wooden cover removed and placed on the ground. The sheep drink from the well. In the background, on the right, are the remains of an old Roman temple.
Earlom’s use of mezzotint creates shades of sepia which accurately recreate the tones of Claude’s original wash drawings. Earlom also used these techniques to copy the work of other well-known artists such as Johann Zoffany, Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West and the Dutch still life painter Jan van Huysum.