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.

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