Review: Slater’s Sussex, The Colour Woodcuts of Eric Slater – James Trollope

SLATER BOOK COVERI had the privilege last year of going to an exhibition of colour woodcuts by Sussex artist Eric Slater (1898-1963) which launched the publication of a new book, Slater’s Sussex by James Trollope.

As a child Slater led a comfortable life as the son of a noted silversmith.  However, his father was struck down by pneumonia and heart failure when Eric was only eight years old and he moved with his mother, grand-mother and aunt down to Sussex where they lived in Bexhill, Winchelesa and Seaford.  Young Eric was a sickly child and his health prevented him enrolling for the army and serving in the First World War, instead studying craft and design at Hastings School of Art.

While living at Pevensey, Eric Slater was taught how to produce colour woodcuts by a neighbour, Arthur Rigden Read, who was an accomplished artist in this a notoriously difficult and demanding medium, requiring considerable craftsmanship as well as artistic ability.   Images are cut out from a wooden block using knives, chisels and gougers with one block forming the “key” block giving the outline design and subsequent block forming blocks of colour to be overlaid one at a time to build up a printed picture with up to ten layers of colour.  Although this work is laborious, it can all be done in the home studio without the need for a printing press – the image is transferred to the paper by painting the raised surfaces of the block with watercolour paint then laying the paper on the block and rubbing the back of it.  With up to ten blocks (one for each colour) a print run of say 50 sheets would require 500 impressions to be made.

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

These techniques originated in 18th century Japan but were adapted and developed by Europeans and Americans throughout the 19th century and by the 1930s colour woodcuts had become very  popular in Britain and beyond.  Slater had a decade of success in the ’30s with a dealer in Mayfair’s Cork Street and sales in America and Australia.  Unfortunately the popularity of colour woodcuts was not so survive the War when less demanding printing techniques rose to prominence while the market for magazine and advertising illustrations grew.

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The Folio Prize and “Doodle Paris”

I don’t usually publish articles at weekend but wanted to recognise two items which don’t fit into my normal review schedule.

folio prizeThe first is this week’s announcement that the Literature Prize has gained sponsorship from The Folio Society and is now to be known as The Folio Prize.  The Literature Prize was first announced last October in reaction to general dis-satisfaction with the Man Booker Prize which seemed to have prioritised readability over artistic achievement. Andrew Kidd, the agent for the new prize told The Bookseller magazine, that the prize “will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition”.

He went on to say,  “We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.”

The Literature Prize people have obviously been busy since then and this weeks announcement about sponsorship shows that they have not only gained a substantial prize fund (£40,000 for the winner) but also established an Academy of 100 writers and critics including such names as Margaret Attwood, Colm Tóibín, Salley Vickers and Philip Pullman who will select titles to go on the short-list.  Each year, five members of the Academy will be asked to be the judges for the competition.

I am not usually very interested in literary prizes but this one looks like it will be well worth-while.  The Folio Society is a great match for the aims of the prize because, as Andrew Kidd says, “they are about recognising the books of today that will be in print in 50 or 100 years time”.



At a time when many of us are planning short city-breaks I’d also like to mention a little book that came my way called Doodle Paris, a sort of colouring book for grown-ups but just as much fun for a child. When I saw it I thought what a great idea this is for anyone who happens to be spending a few days in Paris.  You can take Doodle Paris with you and use it to record your memories of the visit.  The idea is simple,

“Each page comes with a simple illustration prompt inspired by the French capital, say  the window of a patisserie, a line drawing of the city’s skyline, or a series of picture frames hanging in the Musée d’Orsay, and encourages you to draw in the rest”.

Not many people would have the confidence to take a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and actually draw something while sitting at a café table or relaxing on a park bench.  This book may give you the prompt you need to begin sketching – no other equipment is required other than a pencil or pen.

There’s plenty of space in the book for recording your notes and comments too and I could well imagine that if you took Doodle Paris with you it’s one book you would keep on your shelves for years to come to help you remember your visit.

Review: Saturn – Jacek Dehnel

saturnSaturn by Polish author Jacek Dehnel is a historical novel based on the life of Spanish artist Francisco Goya.  The shocking cover illustration shows one of Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings” depicting Saturn devouring one of his sons.  When Goya was in his seventies, he painted the Black Paintings directly onto the walls of his house and they reflect the pessimistic and bitter outlook which he developed towards the end of his life.

In 2003, art professor Juan José Junquera published a book suggesting that the Black Paintings were not in fact painted by Goya but rather by his son Javier.  The book was received with scepticism if not anger by other Goya experts, but Junquera’s theories are not implausible (a summary of them can be found on Wikipedia here).

Jacek Dehnel has written a fictionalised account of the last years of the lives of Goya, Javier and Javier’s son Mariano, working on the basis that Javier did indeed paint the Black Paintings, and it makes for a fascinating read.  The book interweaves first person diary-style accounts from each of the three men; the embittered Francisco, the other-worldly and confused Javier and the scheming Mariano.  As the book progresses a very credible story builds up which includes Javier beginning to paint the first few of these 14 paintings.

Before I go any further, let me mention that this is another book translated from the Polish by award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones who was responsible for the translation of the four books by Pawel Huelle which have been reviewed on this website.  I admire the way she has achieved a very different style for this book when compared with the more Polish-sounding voices in Pawel Huelle’s work.  Antonia tells me that the Jacek Dehnel’s text was peppered with 18th-century Spanish words disguised as Polish which gave her quite a challenge.  Fortunately she had access to Jacek’s research books which provided the background she needed to create her translation.

To get back to the book, Jackek Dehnel shows that the relationship between the three men, father, son and grandson, is deeply flawed.  Francisco seems to have taken a dislike to his son from the start.  Javier did not want to paint with his father and he reacted badly to Francisco’s outbursts of anger and his erratic lifestyle.  Francisco writes of his son,

He drew like a woman.  For he grew more and more like a woman altogther . . . he just crept about the house with his nose eternally in a book, pale and unhealthy . . . he always sat on a mule or a horse like a sack, nor would he go to the bullfight – he avoided me, hid in corners.

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Review: Oak, One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings – Stephen Taylor

OakThe act of painting the same thing many times over a period of three years compels a level of observation which few of us have experienced, perhaps a meditation on the nature of “tree”, leading to rare insights denied to those who merely pass by on their daily walk.  In his book, Oak, One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings, Stephen Taylor demonstrates the results of his determined art, resulting in a unique record of his time spent in a field in North Essex in various weathers and seasons.

We see the 250 years-old oak tree in every possible condition whether in sunshine, snow, summer, winter, morning, night-time, from a distance and in close detail.  From his stained fingers and messy palette we see leaves and twigs emerging, not unlike the way that the debris of winter gives way to green shoots.

Oak Initially, the tree stood in a field of rape, the pods a “lurid pale green” and the early paintings contrast this sickly, fleshy plant with the statuesque oak rising above it in powerful contrast.  A few months pass and we see the tree having partly shed its autumn leaves, its branchy skeleton now showing through the brown foliage.  Stephen was by this time noticing that when he placed his tree portraits next to each other, “they appeared to be different trees”.  He found that as he looked at each iteration of the oak tree he observed a creation so different from the last that it was like looking at a different tree, his detailed observation stripping away preconceived ideas of “oak tree” and replacing them with a wholly new discovery each time he painted.

Each painting has a different title.  We see “Flints” when the new sown crop of winter wheat allows flints to be seen in the foreground field.  “Elm Sapling” shows little competing trees growing close to the familiar oak.  “Oak and Crows” shows a wintry scene with a branchy, twiggy tree with black crows flying over it.  In “Oak after Snow” we see patches of snow adhering to the trunk and a white covering of snow over the muddy field (and what a mastery of sky Stephen demonstrates from perfectly executed graduated blue washes, to complex cloud formations which take as much painting as any area of land.  He sometimes paints complex foregrounds with countless wheat stalks ready for harvest (tedious work surely?).  At other times the foreground is impressionistic, merely suggested by rough strokes of the brush.

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Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who’s work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris.  When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese netsuke carvings from his Uncle Ignace, he felt prompted to investigate their place in the family history.  The Hare With Amber Eyes is the result.

The book opens with De Waal studying in Tokyo in 1991 while on a two year scholarship, visiting his Uncle Iggie (Ignace) in his home in Tokyo, which he shares with Jiro, his partner of 41 years.  Ignace has a wonderful collection of netsuke which has been in the family since the late 19th century.  Three years later, Uncle Iggie dies, and Jiro writes and signs a document bequeathing the netsuke to Edmund once Jiro himself has gone.

When Edmund eventually owns the netsuke he finds himself greatly intrigued by the history of this remarkable collection, and realises that all he really knows are a few anecdotes, which become thinner in the telling.  The only answer is to carry out a proper investigation into their story –

How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me.  Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it.  Because it will complicate your life.  Because it will make someone else envious.  There is no easy story in legacy.  What is remembered and what is forgotten?  There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.  What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?

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