Friday, 23 June 2017

Douglas Bliss and Phyllis Dodd, and the Blackheath School of Art

Cover of the Fleece Press Prospectus for Gargoyles and Tattie Boggles: The Lives and Work of Douglas Percy Bliss and Phyllis Dodd, 2017.
Courtesy of Simon Lawrence, Fleece Press.

Rosalind and Prudence Bliss in the Brockley Deli at the Conservatoire, May 2017. They are sat in front of works by their father (Lachrymae Rerum and a reproduction of The Figureheads) and the cover of the 1931-1932 Blackheath School of Art Prospectus designed by James Woodford.

It is perhaps the perfect time to focus on two of my favourite artists from the Blackheath School of Art of the 1930’s. I have decided that it’s time to write this entry ahead of the publication of the exciting tome focusing on the Bliss family of artists by Simon Lawrence’s Fleece Press written by Malcolm Yorke due to be released in September 2017: (more about this exciting book here) Planned to coincide with the release of the book there is an exhibition being put on by Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Having enjoyed the WW2: War Pictures by British Artists exhibition at the Morley Gallery recently (more about the exhibition here) and the stellar research Sacha Llewellyn put together in curating the Winifred Knights exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery - (more about the exhibition); it is an incredibly exciting chance for Bliss and Dodd to be reappraised and also gain the wider appreciation that their work certainly deserves. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting their daughters Prudence and Rosalind to show them around the Conservatoire (see above).[1] Works by Phyllis Dodd may linger in recent memories for some people as a photograph she took of Ravilious is in the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, and Nicola Sturgeon chose an image of Dodd’s as the Scottish parliament’s Christmas card in 2014 which was widely reported by various media outlets.[2]

I am not sure that I can add anything extra to the early lives of Douglas Percy Bliss and Phyllis Dodd that has been published recently and that will also appear in the forthcoming Malcolm Yorke tome. Suffice it to say that Bliss was close friends with both Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, having met at the Royal College of Arts in 1922.[3] At the RCA they took architecture classes together and were also taught by part-time tutor and artist Paul Nash.[4] The intake of new students for that year included, in addition to Bliss, Bawden and Ravilious many artists who would become well known in the history of British Art.[5] The three also became junior members of the Art Worker’s Guild having been signed up by Robert Anning Bell in 1924.[6]

Douglas Bliss, Edgar Allen Poe: Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination cover, 1939.
Collection of the author.

In 1925 Bliss’ first book illustrations were published in Border Ballads by Oxford University Press.[7]  At the RCA Bliss must have been aware of his future wife Phyllis Dodd who was in the year above, they later became closer and married in 1928. In the collection of the Conservatoire there are two original handwritten letters by Douglas Bliss. They were responses to letters written by Neil Rhind. Rhind had written to a number of former students and teachers prior to the school’s reopening in 1983. We can be thankful that Bliss was one of the few teachers still alive when the school re-opened in the early 1980’s and the letters provide an insight into the school in the 1930’s.

Douglas Bliss, They Visit a Hermit, illustration from The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abisinnia, 1925, p. 70.
Collection of the author.

Eric Ravilious, Church Under a Hill, illustration from Bliss' A History of Wood Engraving, 1928, p. 243.
Collection of the author.

Bliss taught book illustration and decoration, and wood engraving on Monday afternoons and evenings. In his letters Bliss refers to working at the school, and also filling in when needed in addition to his regular classes, because he lived nearby at 38 Lee Park having moved to Blackheath in 1932.[8] Bliss provided illustrations for many books including Edgar Allan Poe’s Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination, The Devil in Scotland, The Spanish Ladie by Cervantes, Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, and had even written an extensive book on the history of wood engraving published in 1928. In 1925 he lived with Ravilious creating illustrations for Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abisinnia, whilst Ravilious illustrated Martin Armstrong’s Desert.[9] In this volume Bliss included an illustration of Ravilious’ Church Under a Hill on page 243 (above) along with images by his RCA teacher Nash.

Douglas Bliss, Lachrymae Rerum, wood engraving, 1925.
Collection of the author.

He was best known for his wood engravings before the outbreak of World War II. Sadly the family was forced to move out of Blackheath following bombings in the area, moving to Uxbridge to join the RAF.[10] Whilst away their house in Lee Park was broken into and many of his engraving blocks were either destroyed or stolen. Thankfully prints from this period, before the war, do survive and one such example is Lachrymae Rerum (above). The title comes from the Aeneid written by Virgil before 19BC. It refers to tears for things past bringing a sense of hope and optimism for the future.

Whilst in Blackheath Bliss became increasingly concerned about the future of the built environment in Blackheath. Joining forces with Roger Martin he formed the Blackheath Society in 1937 in order to protect the natural beauty of the village and its surrounds. The Conservatoire still has an original membership form (see above).[11] Bliss’ concern for heritage preservation continued with his efforts to rekindle appreciation for Charles Rennie Mackintosh when he was Director of the Glasgow School of Art in the 1940’s.[12]

In his letters Bliss referred to some of his colleagues at the school including Charles Paine, James Woodford, Frederick Austin and the principal John Edgar Platt. He was greatly impressed by the work of James Woodford and later heaped praise on Woodford’s magnificent Queen’s Beasts carved for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.[13] Bliss also mentioned one of his students Beryl Laverick who had made an impression on him. This was the subject of my previous entry and I won’t go into detail here (see below entry). Bliss also remembered that the school, despite its small size was seen to be a success and wrote in response to the news of the planned re-opening:
‘It was a good little school and served a useful and agreeable purpose. Although possibly the smallest of LCC schools of art it was much approved by officialdom and deserves to be brought into being again.’[14]
Bliss goes on to add further detail about the students at the school by concluding that; ‘I sincerely believe that the old school justified its existence in its own day…’[15]

Phyllis Dodd, Portrait of Mrs Martin, mid 1930's.
On loan to the Conservatoire from the Bliss family.

Phyllis Dodd, Detail of the face of Mrs Martin, mid 1930's.

Phyllis Dodd, Detail of hand of Mrs Martin, mid 1930's.
Detail from photograph of Conservatoire Student's Party 29 February 1936. Mrs Martin is the woman in black and white dress.
Collection of the Conservatoire.

A couple of years ago the charismatic leader of the Conservatoire and the main reason why I became so interested in the history of the school, Sydney Thornbury, hung an interesting portrait of an older woman on the wall in her office. It looked like it came from the 1930’s and the signature at the top left, in capital letters, ‘P DODD’ gave me something to work with. I quickly discovered that the painting was by Phyllis Dodd. The portrait features bold brushstrokes depicting the features of the sitter, her clothing and jewellery (including necklace and ring). Initially I thought that the portrait was of Lady Robertson, who was one of the board members of BSA in 1930’s; however thanks to both Neil Rhind, and Simon Lawrence via Dodd’s daughters, Rosalind and Prudence Bliss, I have since been reliably informed that the portrait is of Mrs Martin. Mrs Martin was the mother of Roger Martin, the co-founder of the Blackheath Society, with Douglas Bliss in 1937. A photograph of a student party at the Conservatoire dated 29 February 1936 features a woman who looks very like Mrs Martin. Dressed in a dark coloured dress with white highlights her hair is pulled back tightly and she is wearing a black necklace very similar to the one in Dodd’s portrait (see above). The painting now hangs proudly in the Waiting Room of the Conservatoire alongside works by previous students and teachers from the art school.

We assume that this is the painting referred to in the meeting minutes from December 1984 as currently there is only one portrait at the Conservatoire by Phyllis Dodd. This was generously loaned to the Conservatoire in December 1984 by the Bliss family. Two paintings were brought to the Conservatoire at this time but unfortunately there is no record of the portrait of Beryl Laverick, which was the subject of my previous blog (see below for more info), in the meeting minutes of the Blackheath School of Art at this time. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to find any trace of it.[16] The portrait of Mrs Martin was displayed on the wall of the Principal’s Office.[17]

When the School of Art reopened in the early 1980’s it was decided that a scholarship was to be introduced in honour of Douglas Bliss’ tenure as a teacher. Regrettably I have not yet found any information regarding who was awarded the scholarship or how long it was available for. There is a note in the archives that ‘Mrs Bliss had agreed enthusiastically to a scholarship in her husband’s memory’.[18] It was a well-considered gesture which ensured that the legacy of the school pre 1940 continued into its new incarnation following its re-opening in 1983.

[1] The Conservatoire and Blackheath School of Art merged in 1991. Prudence and Rosalind Bliss visited on 25 May 2017. Thanks to Martin Murray for enabling me to display works relating to Bliss and his Blackheath contemporaries and for being such a fantastic host for afternoon tea.
[2] Dodd’s photograph of Ravilious can be seen here - The plan was for the print card to be sold through the National Galleries of Scotland in time for Christmas 2015 -
[3] Bliss, Douglas Percy, Edward Bawden, 1979, p. 18. Having earlier described his initial period at the RCA and his friendship with Bawden as one he ‘greatly profited’ from Bliss wrote: ‘Looking back I regret that I had not been banished from the Paradise of Painters (for we felt ourselves to be the Elect) into the Purgatory of the Design School. For my two best friends were in Design. The other best friend was Eric Ravilious.’
[4] Nash taught Design at the Royal College of Art part-time in 1924 and 1925. Russell, J. Ravilious: Exhibition Catalogue, London, 2015, p. 158. Nash and Bawden looked forward to their lessons with Nash at the RCA calling Fridays ‘Paul Nash day.’ Robert Upstone on Teaching Art for the Modern Times: 175 Years of Design at the RCA. RCA website -
[5] The other students enrolling in 1921 – 22 were Barbara Hepworth, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Henry Moore, Edward Burra, John Tunnard, Peggy Angus, Helen Binyon, Raymond Coxon, Percy Houghton and Vivian Pitchforth. Cooke, G, A Breath of Fresh Air: Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden & Douglas Percy Bliss, Fine Art Society, 2007, p. 5.
[6] Friend, A, Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship, Towner Art Gallerey, 2017, p. 45. During a visit to the Art Worker’s Guild in relation to Harold Nelson I did not come across any reference to Bliss as a full member of the Guild.
[7] It was most likely Paul Nash who recommended Bliss show his woodcuts to the publisher. Cooke, loc. cit., p. 43.
[8] Lee Park, as many readers will know runs just off Lee Road. As revealed to me by Prudence and Rosalind Bliss the house no longer exists as it was destroyed in World War II.
[9] Bliss and Ravilious shared a studio in their final year at the RCA, 1925 . Bliss’ qualification from Edinburgh University included an MA in English Literature and a medal in Art History. Cooke, loc. cit.
[10] Letter 6 April 1981 – The very next day after he left Lee Park for good, Bliss headed to Uxbridge to join the RAF.
[11] Letter 6 April 1981 - Bliss counted his friends and allies in conserving Blackheath Village and surrounds as Roger Martin, Jack Bullocke, Phillip Wayne, Moir Carnegie (who was also Secretary of the school), and William Davidge. The first meeting of what became the Blackheath Society was held in Blackheath Halls.
[12] Thanks to Lorne Campbell who mentioned that he referred to  Bliss as ‘Percy’ when he knew of him in Glasgow. It was quite some time after Lorne’s comment that I realised that the Glasgow School of Art still refers to him as Percy as can be seen in the notes regarding Dodd’s painting of Adam Gowans which was sadly destroyed in the fire at the school in 2014 -
[13] Rosalind and Prudence Bliss mentioned their father’s interest in the sculptures during a recent visit to the Conservatoire on 25 May 2017. It was nice to be able to reveal to them the fact that Bliss and Woodford were colleagues at the school in 1931 may have contributed to his enthusiasm for the sculptures.
[14] Letter 6 April 1981 – Bliss began the letter by saying how pleased he was to hear the school was re-opening.
[15] ibid. Bliss also revealed that most of the students of the school were ‘girls’ from well-off middleclass families and were ‘quite an industrious crowd’.
[16] The existence of this portrait only came to light from Simon Lawrence who relayed a message from Prudence and Rosalind Bliss. Phyllis Dodd initially offered the portrait to Laverick’s husband Reginal Maudling who declined it. Instead Rosalind brought it to the Conservatoire to be displayed on long term loan in memory of her husband along with the portrait of Mrs Martin. After meeting with Prudence and Rosalind we have come to the conclusion that the portrait of Beryl Laverick went missing before the meeting and that the painting referred to in the Blackheath School of Art Committee Meeting Minutes of 12 December 1984 was Mrs Martin.
[17] Even though there was no description of who the sitter was in the painting we must assume for now that it was Mrs Martin that hung in the Principal’s office (Blackheath School of Art Committee Meeting Minutes 11 March 1985). Interestingly the word loan does not appear in this entry rather that the ‘painting, that had been presented to the School of Art by Mrs Bliss…’ This does raise the question of why there is no record of the portrait of Beryl Laverick arriving in Blackheath as colleagues mentioned that the portrait of Mrs Martin hung in the Art Building offices, most likely the Principal’s Office, before the building was cleared in 2012 / 2013.
[18] Blackheath School of Art Trustees Meeting, 3 July 1984, p. 4.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Beryl Laverick

Blackheath actor, art student and sitter in a lost painting by Phyllis Dodd

Churchman's Cigarettes: In Town Tonight, Miss Beryl Laverick, no 20 of 50.
Collection of the author.

At thirteen years of age Beryl Laverick was chosen to play Alice in Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre, Adelphi in the West End. The woman responsible for the casting, Miss Price, described Laverick as having ‘… a wonderful future on the stage. I regard her as a remarkable discovery. She has never acted in any production yet, but already I can see greatness in her.’[1] She was also believed to have the closest resemblance to John Tenniel’s depiction of Alice.[2]

Photograph of Nova Pilbeam (holding a bouquet of flowers) at the screening of the Little Friend at New Cross Kinema, Beryl Laverick (wearing the dark coat) is stood immediately to the right of her.
Conservatoire Collection.

Laverick was one of three students who were extremely highly regarded members of Gertrude Burnett’s Elocution and Drama classes at the Blackheath Conservatoire of Music along with Nova Pilbeam and Elaine Smorthwaite (later Elaine Benson). All three students were awarded half scholarships for tuition sponsored by Gertrude Burnett.[3] Laverick accompanied Beryl Laverick to the special screening of The Little Friend held at the New Cross Kinema by Gaumont in 1934 (see above).[4] Laverick had also appeared in, by this time The Constant Nymph and The Unfinished Symphony, her best known roles.

As well as attending the BCM Laverick also studied at the Blackheath School of Art. Douglas Bliss remembered her attending classes in one of his letters describing the school in the 1930’s. By this time her acting career had taken off and she was very popular. The classes, which I am assuming were Book Illustration and Wood Engraving were taught by Bliss on Monday evenings were interrupted by various suitors and photographers. Beryl Laverick obviously made an impression on Bliss as he wrote many years later:
'I remember best one who was very pretty a dancer who was gifted in many ways. She was Beryl Laverick who soon married Maudling the Tory MP. She was acting in the West End as A[lice] in Wonderland when she joined my class. It was once or twice interrupted by Beryl’s “sugar daddies” and press photographers.'[5]

Phyllis Dodd, Olga in her flounced dress, 1930. 
Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art.
Phyllis Dodd, Beryl Laverick, mid 1930's. Current location unknown.
Image courtesy of Rosalind and Prudence Bliss.

Phyllis Dodd, Bliss’ wife, and accomplished portrait painter enjoyed keeping her skills fine-tuned by painting portraits when the opportunity arose. The sitters included teaching colleagues, Olga Whitton, in a stunning fabric dress being one such example (see above), and also students who were at the Blackheath School of Art. Dodd painted a portrait of Margaret Rattray, a pupil at the art school and also one of Beryl Laverick (see above). Sadly the portrait of Beryl Laverick has gone missing and all we have is a black and white reproduction although Rosalind and Prudence Bliss have confirmed that Laverick was portrayed wearing a striking, bright red sweater. The last we know of it is when Dodd’s daughter, Rosalind, brought it to the Blackheath School of Art to be loaned with along with Dodd’s Portrait of Mrs Martin in 1984. Records of the committee meeting minutes only describe one painting being loaned to the Art School and we assume that this was the painting of Mrs Martin (I will write more about this in my entry on Bliss and Dodd soon). If you have seen this painting or know of its whereabouts please do get in touch.

[1] 'Star Aged Thirteen as Alice in Wonderland', Daily Mirror, 12 December 1932, p. 4. Laverick was born on 12 June 1919.
[2] loc. cit. This is referred to in a caption below a photograph from the same article. It is also believed that this might have had something to do with her having a large size head. A drawing by William Kerridge Haselden of Laverick and various co-stars, which was reproduced in Punch, can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum - (the image is still in copyright so cannot be reproduced here)
[3] Laverick was described as ‘one of three little Elocution students at Blackheath Conservatoire of Music, who have been chosen for Christmas Plays in town this year.’ from 'Clever Children to Star in this Year’s London Stage Shows', Kentish Independent, 16 December 1932.
[4] This photograph is on display in the Waiting Room of the Conservatoire and is inscribed on the reverse:
‘Photo taken on the occasion of a visit to the New Cross Kinema, by invitation of the British Gaumont, of a party from the Blackheath Conservatoire, including Nova Pilbeam (pupil here for nearly 5 years), to see the film ‘LITTLE FRIEND’, in which Nova Pilbeam takes the principal [principle] part.Nova Pilbeam may be seen in the picture being congratulated by Mr William Dunn, Chairman of the BCM.’
[5] DP Bliss letter to Neil Rhind, Monday 6 April, 1981, p. 3. Laverick married Reginald Maudling in 1939.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Barnett Freedman and the Blackheath School of Art

Whilst Barnett Freedman isn't necessarily a household name like his more famous contemporaries, Ravilious and Bawden, his images and designs will be familiar to many people. He is perhaps best known for his 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters as well as his images for companies like the London Transport and Shell Oil to name a few.

Advertisement from the Blackheath Local Guide and District Advertiser for a Barnett Freedman lecture at Blackheath School of Art, Wed 6 March, 1940.

Freedman was invited to speak at the school by John Edgar Platt in March 1940 just six months before the school was the close, focusing on the subject of 'The Artist Today'. Platt invited artists to speak about their experiences in the art world and Freedman was one of a number of well known practitioners to speak to the students throughout the 1930's and early 1940's.

Barnett Freedman, Christmas Card 1950's and detail of signature above, signed, collection of the author.

Freedman also designed Christmas Cards and this is the main excuse for this entry to offer Christmas wishes to anyone who has taken the time to read my blog this year. Also thanks must go to friends and colleagues who have listened with interest to my mad ravings when I have made been able to make links between British Art and the Blackheath School of Art. 

James Woodford: Sculptor, printmaker and teacher at the Blackheath School of Art in the early 1930's

My best plans never quite work out and again I have gone further astray in an attempt to keep these entries chronological. I suppose discovering exciting connections will always pull me away from my best laid plans. On this occasion my focus has settled on the sculptor James Woodford.

Robert Austin, Portrait of James Woodford, 1926, red chalk with black chalk highlights.
Source: Liss Llewellyn Fine Art.
James Arthur Woodford was born in Nottingham in 1893. He studied at the Nottingham School of Art in the early 1910’s and won the Prix de Rome in 1922 for sculpture whilst a student at the RCA.[1] Robert Austin was also a Rome scholar having won the award in engraving in 1922 and the two would have known each other at the RCA. Austin produced a portrait of Woodford in chalk in 1926 which depicted him as an immense man with a strong sideways gaze. Woodford was later a model for the figure holding the crucifix in Austin’s Man and Crucifix and Man with a Cross (Liss Llewellyn Fine Art). The two were brothers in law through marriage[2] and the Austin – Woodford family connections continued as both Woodford and Robert’s younger brother Frederick Austin worked at Blackheath School of Art in the early 1930’s (more about Frederick Austin soon).

James Woodford, Blackheath School of Art Prospectus 1931-1932 featuring A Muse: Euterpe.
Source:Collection of the Blackheath Conservatoire.

James Woodford, A Muse: Euterpe (?), Wood block, circa 1931.
Source: Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - more here
Woodford taught sculpture and life drawing at the school between 1931 and 1934 according to the prospectuses produced for these years. This is where my interest in Woodford began as I have believed for some time that the cover of the 1931 – 32 prospectus, depicting a female muse in a landscape, playing an instrument was by designed by him. The influence of Eric Gill can be seen in the black and white silhouette of the figure. The connection and opportunity to securely attribute the work to Woodford became apparent when I discovered that the original woodblock still exists. Thanks to the Liss Llewellyn Fine Art website I have been able to see an image of the original block.

Hans Ladenspoder,  Euterpe from The so-called Tarocchi cards of Mantegna, 16th century.
Source: Courtesy of the British Museum.

Briseis Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 - 470 B.C.), and Brygos (Greek (Attic), active about 490 - 470 B.C.), Attic Red-Figure Cup, about 480 - 470 B.C., Terracotta, 11.2 × 38.9 × 30.7 cm
Source: Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Two wooden auloi (pipes), Greek, 5thC BC-4thC BC (?)
Source: Courtesy of The British Museum.

Focusing on the instrument played by the Muse it appears that Woodford depicted Euterpe, the muse of music, dance and lyrical poetry. She plays an aulos (also known as a double-flute via a mistranslation) a double-reeded instrument whose modern equivalent is the oboe.[3] Illustrations of Euterpe playing the aulos have been popular from classical Greek times onwards. A sixteenth century image of Euterpe inspired by Mantegna’s Tarocchi Cards is in the British Museum showing the pipes seemingly stuck closely together rather than held together by a bracket as depicted by Woodford.[4] A classical Greek cup in the Getty collection depicts a reveller playing an aulos similar in style to the one depicted by Woodford (see above). The above example of auloi pipes can be seen in the British Museum. The invention of the aulos was once attributed to Euterpe although the creation of this instrument is now credited to Marsyas. He had supposedly either crafted it or picked it up after it was discarded by Athena. This was the instrument that Marsyas played in his competition against Apollo, who played the lyre, ultimately leading to his flaying at the hands of the God.[5]

Woodford’s relief sculptures were influenced by John Edgar Platt (more about him soon – he is planned to be my next blog entry), the school’s principal, and vice versa as has been well described on the Modern Printmakers blog. More about this can be seen here.

James Woodford, Detail of RIBA doors, 66 Portland Place, London 1934.

One of my favourite works by Woodford are the bronze entrance doors of RIBA. They were installed in 1934 so Woodford must have been working on them whilst teaching here. The bronze cast doors are a record of twentieth century London and life along the River Thames. The motifs stand out through their strong lines which create a stylized simplicity of the objects. The stylised lines representing the currents of the river are particularly appealing to me which can be seen in the above image.

Works by Woodford can be seen throughout the UK from the City of London to Nottingham and beyond. He is also well remembered for his colossal plaster statues of The Queen’s Beasts installed at the front of Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 (granite copies of which can be seen at Kew Gardens in front of the main conservatory). Woodford was one of the foremost figurative and architectural sculptors of the twentieth century and it must have been a coup for Platt to have him as a teacher at the Blackheath School of Art. As with all of my entries I will add more information as and when it becomes available.

[1] He is listed as Arthur Woodford and as an ‘art student’ in the 1911 census. His address at this time was 36 Alfred Street, South Nottingham.
[2] James Woodford was married to Rose Harrison whose sister Ada Mae Harrison was married to Robert Austin.
[3] Hall, J, Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 2000, p. 217. Euterpe’s attribute is described as a flute, often double. It is also listed under ‘Pipe’ (p. 248) describing it as technically not a flute but a reed instrument like an oboe known in Latin as a tibia.
[4] Classical images do show the aulos joined together by a bracket so they are not tightly stuck together. 
[5] Titian's The Flaying of Marsyas depicts the story in gory detail and includes a dog lapping up the blood dripping from the flayed body of Marsyas. I first encountered this sunning picture in the Titian exhibition at The National Gallery in 2003. In this painting Marsyas' instrument, pan pipes not an aulos, hangs from the tree above his feet.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Alfred De Sauty bookbinder and printmaker

I have always enjoyed coincidences and for many years thought that they all had meaning. I am not so sure now, perhaps that is down to me becoming older and much less wise. My grand plans to write my blog chronologically went out the window despite trying to get a plan together to make it flow by date. In the end I chose Alfred de Sauty as my next subject firstly as he had intrigued me because there didn’t seem to be a lot written about him. Secondly I loved the prints he produced of Chicago (more on these later). Whilst trying to find out more about him I discovered that Harold Nelson produced an ex-libris bookplate for him providing a perfect segue to this entry.

Alfred de Sauty, Seda (Design for an Ornamental Chapter Heading).
Source: The Studio, October 1897, p. 65.

Alfred de Sauty was born in Gibraltar in 1870. His father Charles Victor De Sauty worked for the Atlantic Telegraph Company and served on the Great Eastern laying the Atlantic Telegraph. He died in 1893 and at this time Alfred De Sauty was employed as an electrician, following in his father’s footsteps.[1] Like his father he also spent lots of time at sea, and during his time off on the ships he developed his passion for drawing. His interest was furthered by subscribing to The Studio.[2] One of his earliest documented works appeared in the Studio Magazine in October 1897, reproduced as a part of their ‘Awards’ section for that year. It won the second prize in the Design for Ornamental Chapter Heading category.[3] By this point he was living in Balham, SW London. According to the 1911 census he lived at 30 Glebe Place, Chelsea and his profession was listed as bookbinder and teacher of bookbinding for LCC.[4]

It seems most likely that De Sauty began his career working on books with the Hampstead Bindery. At this time, in 1898, he was living in Hampstead.[5] During the early years of the 1900’s De Sauty had studios in central London.[6] In the decade prior to the First World War he was one of the senior teachers of the book binding department of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, described as one of the most important schools teaching bookbinding.[7] At this time De Sauty was known for his new technique of inlaid leathers and detail work and a leader in the field.[8] Many authors, including Tidcombe, have highlighted that De Sauty’s finest bookbindings come from the period from 1905 to 1914.[9] Many of his book bindings still exist and are incredibly intricate and beautiful. As these objects have been written about at length and my knowledge of binding is not great I won’t be focusing on them here. De Sauty also designed and carved his own bookbinding tools and also encouraged his students to do the same.[10]

Alfred de Sauty, Shakespeare Sonnets, 1910.
Source: The Studio, Vol. 49, no. 210, March 1910, p. 111.

De Sauty became interested in printmaking and produced etchings and subsequently one of his prints was exhibited at the Royal Academy. A collection of his works, featuring images of London, was given to the National Library of Wales in 1977.[11] The First World War brought about a temporary end to De Sauty’s artistic pursuits as he served both in the Special Constabulary and the United Arts Corps.[12]

Following the end of the war it appears that De Sauty had gave up his artistic work and sold his bookbinding equipment to John Mason.[13] According to the 1921 Prospectus Alfred de Sauty was the teacher of Bookbinding at the Blackheath School of Art. At this time the school was still located at its temporary address of 5 Lee Terrace. Harold Nelson was also a teacher at this point so perhaps this is where they both met. It is quite possible that they both met whilst teaching at the school if they had not already met earlier in their careers. The course timetable prior to the move back to the purpose built studios in 1922, from 5 Lee Terrace, showed that Black and White Illustration and Bookbinding both took place on Tuesday evenings between 6.30pm and 9pm. Once again other than the prospectus sadly I have not come across any other evidence to prove this.

Harold Nelson, Avancez: Ex Libris for Alfred de Sauty, Cornelia Neltnor Anthony and Frank D. Anthony Book Plate Collection, West Chicago Public Library.
Source: Courtesy of West Chicago Public Library.

The bookplate which Nelson produced for De Sauty depicts a knight on horseback charging through a landscape with the word ‘Avancez’ written above the knight and below ‘Alfred de Sauty’. As discussed in my previous entry on Nelson, the style appears to date it post 1900, with the image composed of strong lines and very little, if any shading on the figure. The page which the bookplate is mounted on shows Nelson’s address as 1 Hare Court, EC4 and it is also noted, in the same hand as Nelson’s address, on the bottom of the page, that it was given by the artist in 1923.[14] This may provide further proof that bookplate was made as a result of the two artists meeting at the Blackheath School of Art.

It seems quite likely that De Sauty departed the UK, on 21 September 1923, from the Liverpool Docks on the steamship Montlaurier, a part of the Canadian Pacific Fleet, to Quebec.[15] De Sauty was on his way to Chicago to work for RR Donnelley and Sons, who were leading printmakers in the US.[16] Working for their bookbindery, known as the Extra Bindery, he was responsible for many projects not least the continuation of traditional methods of book binding including hand binding of books. This was heavily promoted by Donnelley as one of the major selling points of products produced at the Extra Bindery. De Sauty hired three European trained bookbinders, William Anson, Basil Cronk and Leonard Mouteney[17] to be a part of the Extra Bindery, each well versed in traditional binding skills. In all, he spent over 11 very successful years running the Extra Bindery.

Alfred de Sauty, Floreat Chicago!, aquatint, 1930’s, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Whilst in Chicago De Sauty once again took up printmaking producing some stunning, atmospheric images of the city. These were the objects that first brought his work to my attention. The aquatint Floreat Chicago! (above) depicted the city as one huge, flourishing metropolis with skyscrapers appearing to have been built one on top of the other. Two other aquatints by De Sauty: Chicago by Moonlight, The Ward Memorial and Chicago Fair, 1933 highlight De Sauty’s interest in light effects and night time scenes.[18]

More research needs to be done on De Sauty’s travels to and from the USA as he, his wife Georgina and their children travelled back to the UK on a number of occasions. In 1928 De Sauty returned from the UK to New York on the Cunard Ship Carmania, leaving Southampton, 12 May 1928.[19] Sydney De Sauty travelled to the US on 23 August 1924, presumably to visit his parents.[20] Georgina, returned to the UK from New York on 7 June 1927, travelling on the Atlantic Line steamship Minnekahda.[21] She returned to the UK from New York again on 13 December 1927, perhaps to visit her son Sydney at Christmas, on the Cunard Line ship, Antonia, disembarking at Plymouth.[22] Sydney also travelled to New York, with his wife, in October 1930.[23]

According to Tidcombe, De Sauty returned to the UK in 1935 after retiring from his position at RR Donnelly. Following his retirement, the Extra Bindery was then led by Harold Tribolet, who started his career at RR Donnelley as an apprentice.[24] Initially, on his return, he lived in Land’s End and then moved to North London. In 1938 De Sauty is recorded living at 94 Priory Road, East Finchley.[25] Whether he returned to producing art is not certain although he trained as an air raid warden at the beginning of the Second World War and was awarded a civil defence medal for his efforts during this period.[26]

De Sauty died in 1949 at the age of 79 in North London. He is remembered as a fine practitioner of traditional bookbinding methods more in the USA than the UK. One can only wonder if two world wars did not impede on his career how prolific his output would have been. Without these interruptions he would now be better known and renowned in the UK, not just as a bookbinder of great skill but also as a fantastic printmaker. I hope to have the opportunity to look closer at his prints in the future and to add to this entry when I discover more about him.

[1] Charles Victor De Sauty died on 23 April 1893 in Gibraltar at 59 years of age. He was a superintendent of the Eastern Telegraph Company according to the entry in the National Probate Calendar of 1893. A portrait sketch of him, depicted top centre, drawn by Henry O’Neil, appeared with other members of the crew in the Eastern Telegraph (the ship’s newspaper in 1865). He left effects in excess of £7000 to his widow Jane Smith De Sauty and his son Alfred. His mother Jane Smith De Sauty died on 7 January 1927 at age 84 (National Probate Calendar, 1927). Tidcombe, ‘The Mysterious Mr De Sauty’, p. 329. Alfred de Sauty started working as a junior electrician for the Eastern Telegraph Company.
[2] Ibid. He served on the Eastern Telegraph Company’s ships for 11 years, travelling through Africa and India.
[3] ‘Awards in the Studio Prize Competitions’ in The Studio, October, 1897, pp. 61 & 65. The prize was half a guinea.
[4] 1911 Census – he was 41 years of age at this time and was married to Georgina although there is a line through his wife’s name and she was 34 years old. The census also refers to them having a child but they were not recorded in the census. This would have been his son, Sydney, who was born in 1899. Georgina Harriet Gangler was born on 13 September 1878 in Newland Street (40?) in the Parish of Saint Luke’s Chelsea.
[5] Tidcombe, op. cit., p. 330. De Sauty resided at 1a South Hill Park, Hampstead. Tidcombe adds that De Sauty was most likely reticent in mentioning this period as he was later to have problems with the Bindery’s owner Kerslake claiming De Sauty’s work as his own. It is in this passage that De Sauty’s learning of the craft of bookbinding is linked with Chiswick College.
[6] Loc.cit., p. 311. De Sauty had a studio space in 1901 at 4 Mays’s Buildings, St Martin’s Lane and in 1904 at 21 Archer Street works, Great Windmill Street.
[7] The school is described as being the leading place to learn the craft of bookbinding from 1897 to 1963. Conroy, T, ‘Training of Binders in England’ in Guild of Book Workers Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1 & 2, 1990, p. 13.
[8] ‘Mr De Sauty has succeeded in developing a new and admirable style of inlaid leathers, combined with delicate pointille work.’ ‘Bookbinding’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 4, 1911, p. 218.
[9] Tidcombe, op. cit., p. 332.
[10] Ibid., p. 332. He also designed the decorative tools used by the Society of Women Binders.
[11] National Library of Wales, Annual Report, p. 36. The titles of the works which relate to UK subjects are:
The Serpentine, Some Chelsea Roofs; A Zante Church (noted to have been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1913); On the Zennor Road - St. Michael's Mount; From Church Tower - Bungay; Dawn - Cornwall; St. Mary's - Penzance; Spiderwort; The Lights of London; Toll bridge, Shoreham; Shoreham Harbour and Norfolk Bridge – Shoreham. I assume that the London images date from the period before the First World War and the others, depicting scenes outside London, may possibly be from when he returned to the UK
[12] Loc. cit., p. 33. De Sauty transferred his drawings onto etching plates and printed them. Artists joined the United Arts Corps along with actors undertaking various military tasks throughout the city of London.
[13] Ibid. See also note 12 – which describes that De Sauty focused on a toy making business as it was more profitable and subsequently sold his bookbinding equipment to Mason.
[14] London Post Office Directory, 1934, p. 2504 NEI – NET shows that Nelson still had his studio at Hare Court at this time. The date on the bottom of the page on which the bookplate is mounted is 16 August 1923. Thanks to Annie Budzinski from the West Chicago Public Library for allowing permission to use this image.
[15] It seems most likely that he was number 50531 on the passenger list entered as ‘Alfred Sauty’ along with his wife Georgina. His last recorded address in the UK was Ivy Cottage, Joyce Green, Dartford and his occupation as ‘Farmer’. There is some doubt about this, not least his listed occupation, as their country of intended residence was listed as Canada. It does however seem more than a coincidence that the year of birth and the name of his wife both match.
[16] Tidcombe, op. cit., p. 333. Douglas Cockerell was consulted by RR Donnelly about British staff to run their bindery and recommended De Sauty. Cockerell had also recommended De Sauty take over his teaching at the Central School when he left for W.H. Smith.
[17] Coventry, K, ‘RR Donnelley & Sons Company: Its Role in the Development of Commerce, Craft and Culture in Chicago’ in Caxtonian: Journal of the Caxton Club, Vol. XV, no. 1, January 2007, p. 6.
[18] These two works are also in the Smithsonian collection and others from the edition are recorded in the National Library of Wales.
[19] De Sauty’s occupation is listed as ‘no info’ and his address as 32 Danvers Road, Hornsey. He was passenger no. P1921. His country of intended permanent residence was the USA.
[20] Sydney travelled on the George Washington, from Southampton. His recorded occupation was ‘engineer’ and address was 1 Hepton Road, Streatham.
[21] Georgina De Sauty was passenger no. 106 in the manifest and her proposed address in the UK was 12 Bishop’s Park Road, Norbury.
[22] On this occasion her UK address was recorded as 32 Danvers Road, Hornsey and she was passenger no. 117. Sydney was recorded as living at 32 Danvers Road, Hornsey when he travelled to the USA in 1930 (see footnote 18  for details) and in the 1935 Electoral Roll.
[23] Sydney and his wife Violet travelled to New York on 11 October 1930. They were passenger no’s 9441 (Violet) and 9442 on the Cunard Line ship Caronia. Their address was recorded as 32 Danvers Road, Hornsey, N8.
[24] Printing for the Modern Age, Craftsmanship by Example: Fine Binding, University of Chicago website -
[25] De Sauty lived at 94 Priory Road, London, N8 according to the 1938 or the Central Hornsey Ward. The following were also recorded at this address his wife Georgina Harriet De Sauty, his son Sydney De Sauty and his wife Violet Irene De Sauty. Two others are listed at this address: Doris Margaret Boswell and Gladys Irene Priscilla Ross.
[26] National Museum of Wales, loc. cit. The list includes a framed wood engraving entitled, Newlyn, Cornwall described as being dated ‘41’. This is the only art work I have come across so far that is dated after his return to the UK in 1935.