The dilemma of the Austin brothers…
Like all best laid plans this one did not work out the way that I had hoped. My idea was to promote the works of Frederick Austin as his elder brother Robert had received more exposure through exhibitions at the Ashmolean 1980, and some more recent exhibitions at the Fine Art Society and even more recently at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009. Through the now infamous, well it has become this in my endeavours, 1931-32 prospectus for the Blackheath School of Art I discovered that Frederick Austin taught Pictorial Design and Antique and Architectural Drawing on Mondays and Tuesdays.
I had got as far as beginning to plan about writing about Frederick Austin and how he had followed in his brother Robert’s footsteps by winning the Prix de Rome. Robert won it in 1922 and Frederick in 1927. I wrongly assumed that this is where the ‘following in the footsteps’ of his brother had ended. Up until a few days ago I believed that Frederick Austin was the only member of his family who was connected with the Blackheath School of Art. When looking through my new go to guide about the BSA, The Blackheath Local Guide, I discovered an article from 1930 referring to the newly employed Frederick Austin as ‘the brother of a former member of staff’. This must have been his brother, and more renowned printmaker Robert Sargent Austin.
So now my focus was taken away from Frederick and my curiosity peaked into finding out more about Robert and his association with the school. Again the Blackheath Local Guide has been my source of information in finding out more about Robert Austin and his connection with Blackheath. He became a teacher specialising in etching in the Autumn Term 1925, employed by John Howard Hale. It was something of a tradition that newly employed teachers at the school had some of their art works exhibited on the premises and Robert Austin was indeed no exception to this rule. These exhibitions provided an opportunity for current students to know more about their new teachers and would also have enticed prospective students through exposure to the art works of the teachers.
Both Robert and Margaret Holden Jones, who was returning to the school after teaching in the US, were scheduled to have works on display as a part of the Students’ exhibition in September 1925. Austin’s exhibition was delayed, due to a lack of space, eventually running from 19 to 24 October. The exhibition featured sketches and drawings by Austin relating to his time in Europe after winning the Prix de Rome. The anonymous reviewer of the exhibition described it as follows:
His work is wonderfully intensive. The portrait studies are exceptionally strong, and in the treatment of the figure he betrays wonderful skill, in expressing vitality and other characteristics. Nowadays there is happily a renaissance of drawing, and in his series of pencil sketches done in Rome, Venice, Frankfort on the Maine, Paris and elsewhere, Mr. Austin is unquestionably a skillful exponent of it. He has the rare faculty of embodying a mass of correct detail into an obviously rapidly sketched-in drawing. The collection betrays the sure hand and quick touch of the artist.
|Robert Austin, The Birth of Venus (after Botticelli), etching.|
Courtesy Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - more here
|Robert Austin, Women in a Church, etching.|
Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - more here
|Robert Austin, The Angel of Saint Matthew, Orvieto, etching.|
Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - more here
Even though there is no reference to specific subjects of the sketches included in the show it would be nice to think that the sketches may have informed later prints including Women in a Church, Spanish Steps Rome, Souvenir of Paris, The Mother, San Domenico, Perugia, The Angel of Saint Matthew, Orvieto, Italian Bride, The Birth of Venus (after Botticelli), Litany and German Madonna (these images all feature on the Liss Llwellyn Fine Art website - here).
It seems likely that Robert Austin left the Blackheath School of Art in 1927 at the end of the Summer Term. This is the most probable conclusion that I have been able to come to is his brother-in-law, James Woodford, who he met whilst in Rome, took over as life teacher in the Autumn Term of 1927:
Sculptors living in the neighbourhood and art students generally will be pleased to hear that the modelling classes have re-opened this session. The school has been fortunate in securing the services of Mr. J. W. Woodford, Prix-de-Rome, gold medallist to take charge of the classes.’
In describing the works of the students’ exhibition in 1928 Woodford was referred to as the teacher of the life class. Given teachers were not referred to in the review of the 1927 exhibition I believe I am right to presume that James Woodford took over the Life Class from his brother-in-law Robert Austin but unfortunately I cannot be sure of the exact year, 1927 or 1928. It also confirms that my assumption that Frederick worked here because of his links with John Platt at the Leicester College of Art probably are not true as he was at the Royal College of Art from 1924 to 1927 and Platt was at Leicester from 1923 to 1929. Most likely he came to work at BSA through more direct family connections, through his brother Robert or James Woodford.
Frederick Austin started working at the Blackheath School of Art in the Autumn Term of 1930. He started alongside two other teachers, Douglas Percy Bliss and Joan Herrin. He probably would have come across both Bliss and Herrin at the Royal College of Art as Bliss was a student there between 1922 and 1925 and Joan Herrin studied Design at the Royal College of Art from 1924 to 1927. Writing in 1981, Bliss remembered Austin, as one of his few colleagues at the school, still living at this time. His link with Herrin became initially apparent through an etching by Frederick Austin of the Adoration of the Shepherds, which is dedicated to Joan Herrin and dated 1926, when Austin was at the RCA.
Frederick Austin’s initial introduction to the BSA students and interested locals, like his brother, came through his works being exhibited in a show alongside Bliss and Herrin, described as ‘works by modern artists’. This exhibition was held in the lecture hall in October 1930 and Austin’s works were briefly described as follows:
‘The examples of Mr Austin’s works are also arresting. Whilst he strikes a modern note, he does not offend by being too extreme.’
|Frederick Austin, The Harvesters (4th state), etching, 1926.|
Collection of the author.
|Frederick Austin, Apple Orchard with Chopped Wood and Chickens, etching, circa 1936.|
Collection of the author.
Frederick Austin’s subject matter of his prints included both rural scenes and religious images. Two of the rural images include The Harvesters from 1926 and Apple Orchard with Chopped Wood and Chickens circa 1936. The strong lines and attention to detail like the apples, ladders, fences and even his initials put on a chopped log in the orchard are characteristic of Austin’s work. Whilst the monumental, statuesque, quality of the hard working women in the fields harvesting wheat gives the scene a timeless feel in they could come from any era.
|Ghislebertus, Christ Enthroned, central portal of the Tympanum, Twelfth Century, Vezelay Abbey.|
|Frederick Austin, French Sculpture (after central tympanum Vezelay Abbey), etching, 1954.|
Collection of the author.
Inadvertently my two year old son led me to discovering the link between Austin’s French Sculpture and Vezelay Abbey. Such is my wish to introduce him to art and the dual nature of a visual memory which is sometimes a blessing and a curse. Whenever we went to the local library in Deptford, I would take an art book to show him some pictures in between reading children’s stories. On this occasion it was a blessing as looking at the sculpture in the book, What Makes a Masterpiece?, I immediately realised where I had seen it before when looking at the photograph of the enthroned Christ . Austin’s print, depicts the reverse of the central portal of the tympanum of Vezelay Abbey, portraying Christ positioned on an elaborately decorated throne relaying his message to his Apostles. It is an incredibly powerful Christian image in both the sculptural and printed forms. Austin produced his print for The Print Collector’s Club in 1954. Vezelay also brought back memories of choices made in the past whilst visiting Burgundy about five years earlier. We chose to visit Autun rather than Vezelay in the summer of 2011. I do regret not visiting l’Abbaye de Vezelay but if I hadn’t been to Autun I wouldn’t have discovered the amazing Last Judgement of Ghiselbertus of been able to discover more about one of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden’s great patrons, Nicholas Rolin. I guess this will be a destination for future journeys.
Both Robert and Frederick Austin were two great exponents of the art of engraving and the Blackheath School of Art were indeed incredibly privileged to have them both on the staff as teachers. The calibre of these teachers is one of the reasons why the art school was held in such high esteem in the 1920’s and 1930’s. As with all of my entries I will continue to update information as and when I come across it in my sporadic research.
 Blackheath School of Art Prospectus 1931 1932 Session. Fred Austin taught Pictorial Design on Mondays 10am to 1pm and Tuesdays 10am to 1pm and Antique and Architectural Drawing on Tuesdays 2.30pm to 4.30pm.
 Nottingham Journal, 20 June, 1928, p. 1. There is a photograph on the front page featuring the brothers shaking hands entitled ‘Leicester Triumph’.
 Robert Austin and James Woodford married the sisters Ada Mae and Rose Harrison respectively.
 ‘Blackheath School of Arts and Crafts’ in Blackheath Local Guide, 4Oct 1930, p. 2. The article describes the artworks exhibited by three new members of staff at BSA Douglas Bliss, Frederick Austin and Joan Herrin referred to as an ‘exhibition of work by modern artists’.
 ‘Blackheath School of Arts and Crafts’ in Blackheath Local Guide, 19 Sep 1925, p. 18. Robert Austin is referred to as being newly employed and that some of his pictures from his time in Rome, as the Prix de Rome winner, and those of Margaret Holden Jones will be included in the student exhibition scheduled for 21 to 26 September 1925.
 Blackheath Local Guide, 17 Oct 1925, p. 10. I can only assume that Margaret Holden Jones’ works were included with the student exhibition as there is no mention of her exhibition being postponed. The article describes Austin as taking up teaching of the Life Class which would help enable students in gaining entry to the RCA, Slade, Royal Academy Schools and also various teaching certificates.
 Blackheath Local Guide, 31 Oct 1925, p. 23. Sadly I am yet to come across a record of any of the works that featured in the collection.
 Thanks to Paul Liss for providing me with an article titled ‘Brothers in Art’ in Antique Collecting, pp. 10 – 12.
 Blackheath Local Guide, 21 May, 1927, p. 2. Austin received a mention in notes about the school during the summer term referring to him as the teacher of the life and etching classes.
 ‘Blackheath School of Art Notes’, in Blackheath Local Guide, 12 Nov 1927, p. 38.
 Whilst there has been plenty written about Platt’s tenures at various schools I thought it would be nice to refer to the first page of his leaving gift from Leicester College of Art, a beautiful calligraphy dedication which reads: ‘We the undersigned members of staff at the Leicester College of Arts and Crafts wish to express our appreciation of your valuable work during the five and a half years you have been our Principal. We thank you for all of your kindness and for the trust you have placed in us throughout that period and while much regretting your departure, we hope that your future will continue to be a prosperous one.’ Thanks to Liza Axford for allowing me to view this exquisitely designed gift.
 Thanks to Neil Parkinson at the RCA who let me know that she graduated in 1927 with a Diploma in Design.
 DP Bliss, Letter to Neil Rhind, Mon 6 Apr, 1981, Collection of the Conservatoire. Bliss wrote: ‘Of the teachers of art I think that only Frederick Austin, the engraver is alive. He (‘The Times’ informs me) is holding a show of his works at present off Bond Street. He is the brother of the distinguished engraver and RA, Robert Austin, who engraved the Queen’s head on the first of the new-style bank notes.’ This adds further weight to Robert Austin having left before 1930 otherwise Bliss would have met him at BSA.
 Blackheath Local Guide, 4 Oct 1930, p. 2. Just like the review of Robert’s exhibition in 1925 sadly there is no clue as to which of Frederick’s works were included in the exhibition.
 Dell, C (ed.), What Makes a Masterpiece?: Encounters with Great Works of Art, London, 2010, pp. 76-77. I was initially attracted to the book as some of my former colleagues and teachers at the Courtauld Institute of Art featured in it.