I 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.
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.