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.
Slater spent his final years in relative obscurity living in ever smaller houses in Sussex and ending up in an old-people’s home in Hove, his death not even being reported by the local newspaper. The major exponents of the craft had passed away before him and as a man who depended on the encouragement of other artists Slater seems to have retreated into obscurity, his work largely forgotten.
I am very grateful to James Trollope for researching Eric Slater and his work and producing this very attractive book in conjunction with the Towner Gallery. James has a very interesting website containing samples of Slater’s work and some videos including television features on the artist. James appreciates Slater’s “simple, direct appeal”. He writes, “for me, looking at the best of his colour woodcuts is like walking into a perfectly proportioned room, they produce a sensation of well-being; of all being right with the world”. James goes on to suggest that with art and craft being back in fashion, that Slater’s time has come again and if the acclaim given to his book and to recent Slater exhibitions is anything to go by he could well be right.
Note: There is a leaflet for the SLATER TRAIL which is downloadable from James’ website. It’s a 2 hour walk featuring approximate points of view of five of Eric Slater’s prints.
James rung a Facebook page containing many examples of Slater’s work and other information about colour woodcuts. It also gives information on forthcoming talks including:-
- Lecture Theatre, Worthing library, Tuesday, May 6, 7.30pm;
- Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, Friday, May 23, 2.30pm,
- Rye Art Gallery, Tuesday, Nov 18, 7.30pm.