The Importance of design.

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The Importance of design.


Butler, Roger


Butler, Roger, Sydney by design: Wood and Linoblock prints by Sydney artists between the wars. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1995, pp.3-11.

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The Importance of Design
By Roger Butler

In September 1927 Art in Australia published an article titled 'The Importance of Design and its Relation to the Student' in which the author, H.H. Fotheringham, declared:

during the last forty years which we might consider as a period inspired almost exclusively by impressionism, one important element of artistic practice has been almost universally neglected, an element which with justice might be held to lie at the root of all great achievement in pictorial art. This element, the lack of which in either literature or music we might conceivably have been more conscious of, is that of design.

Fotheringham then proceeded to define his terms:

Broadly considered, design is the structural basis which materialises a conception, and is concerned with the vital process of selection.[1]

This broad simplification of form (and colour) was one of the characteristics of modernist art; its clearest and earliest manifestations are to be found in the graphic arts. By the mid-l 890s the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec in France and the Beggarstaff Brothers in London were well known to the more progressive artists working in Australia, largely through reproductions in magazines and journals. Then, in 1897, a selection of international and Australian posters was included in the Society of Artists annual exhibition in Sydney, and Australian artists could no longer ignore the poster's graphic power. The prologue in the catalogue stressed the importance of poster design 'in teaching the alphabet of art'.[2]

Among the women exhibitors in the 1897 exhibition was Thea Proctor.[3] Margaret Preston was also interested in poster design at an early stage; she is known to have studied it in Germany while on a trip to Europe in 1904-06. These two artists were singled out by Fotheringham in his 1927 article. They were the exceptions to the rule: 'Margaret Preston insists fiercely on the importance of design'; and Thea Proctor 'by fine drawing and scrupulous design has presented the example of a considered art' .[4]

Design, Commercial Art and 'Serious' Art
The most innovative and highly visible form of graphic arts in the 1920s and 1 930s was the colour cover for magazines – especially The Home in Sydney and Women's World in Melbourne. These two magazines were aimed at chic middle-class women, the 'taste-makers' in society. Publisher Sydney Ure Smith frequently commissioned women artists - Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, Hera Roberts and others - to design covers for The Home , while Ethel Spowers and Edith Alsop were among the artists who worked for Women's World.

The fact that the images for the magazine covers were often identical to those presented in exhibitions was met with some anxiety by male contemporaries like Norman Lindsay. Lindsay pleaded with Sydney Ure Smith:

You must not Syd, put any of these flat primitive things of Thea Proctor's into the [London Exhibition at Burlington House] show ... OK for Home covers but not for art.[5]

But for others this phenomenon was part of the interrelationship between art and commerce in the modern world. Henry Gibbons, a teacher at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School, commented in his introduction to the School's retrospective exhibition of 1933:

it is noteworthy that in the turmoil of modern life, while the painter and sculptor have been confused and their work frequently aimless, the commercial artist has had a clearly defined objective which has been pursued so effectively that the line of cleavage is hard to discover between his art and the so-called fine art.[6]

The exhibition lived up to Gibbons's rhetoric. It featured pottery by Mildred Lovett and Myrtle lnnes, jewellery by Dorothy Wager, a bronze by Daphne Mayo, poster designs, linocuts, etchings, paintings, watercolours and drawings. Well over half the exhibits were by women artists.

Wood and Linocuts - 'Friendly little crafts
The technique of woodblock or linocut printing was rarely taught in art schools; it was generally considered to be part of the design course.

In relation to woodblocking, Margaret Preston declared it to be:

one of the easiest of all the crafts in the way of materials. Anyone can have them. A piece of wood, a knife, some ink, and a sheet of paper ... It is a comfortable kind of craft. The materials can be carried in a small space. No huge piano, no etching press or potter's kiln. It is a friendly little craft ... also if you are lucky a paying one.[7]

The linocut process was even simpler; the ease of cutting lino and the cheapness of the materials made it especially popular. Thick brown linoleum was used in government buildings and discarded pieces were easily procured; cutting tools could be improvised from umbrella spokes.

Linocutting as a means of teaching design in secondary education had been introduced to Australia as early as 1921, based on its application in Professor Cizek's Children's School in Vienna.[8] Linocuts by Cizek's young students were exhibited widely in Europe and England, and reproductions also appeared in Art in Australia in 1927, where it was noted:

They suggest what early and intelligent instruction can accomplish, and certainly for those intended for an artistic vocation such instruction in design should furnish an early basis for future work.[9]

Linoleum also had appeal as a modern product: the possibilities of using it as a printing matrix were appreciated early. Its first recorded use for printing was for wallpaper manufacture in Stettin, Germany, in 1890; and the material was used to make artists' prints in the early 1 900s. Australian expatriate Horace Brodzky produced some of the earliest examples in England in 1912; while Vojtach Preissig, a Czech, had introduced the process to the United States in 1910.[10]

By the l920s linocutting was widely used in Australia. Tradition has it that Napier Waller, who learnt linocutting while convalescing in London during the First World War, brought the technique to Australia on his return in 1918. This of course is pure invention: linoleum had been used for printing posters in Melbourne by Blamire Young in the late 1890s; and Tom Ferry and L. Roy Davies employed it for the same purpose in Sydney in 1915. In 1924, Gladesville Hospital in New South Wales recorded that its patients had been making linocut Christmas and New Year cards for ten years,[11] and the technique was common enough to be described in a Melbourne secondary educational magazine in 1921.[12]

In secondary schools in the 1930s, artists such as Adelaide Perry, Ruth Ainsworth and Ysobel Irvine taught simple linocut techniques as design exercises for children.

Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Adelaide Perry
Some isolated experiments in wood and linoblock printing by artists took place in Australia (such as work by Betty Arnott in 1923), and a few artists learnt the technique overseas - among them were Gladys Owen, Maud Sherwood and Ann Gillmore Rees. But the popularity of both wood and linocut printing by Sydney women between the wars can be attributed to three women - Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Adelaide Perry.

Unlike Proctor and Perry, Margaret Preston never held formal classes, but her example underpinned the development. Preston had been one of the artists included in the exhibition Woodcuts held at Tyrrell's Gallery in Sydney in 1923. The exhibition, supported by articles in Ure Smith's Art in Australia, was seen to mark 'the revival' of the technique. Departing from her earlier colour work, Preston contributed a number of bold, vigorously cut black and white works. They were in direct contrast to Lionel Lindsay's delicate wood engravings that evoked the spirit of the eighteenth-century English artist Thomas Bewick.

This was not lost on Ure Smith, who declared that Preston was 'the modern note' in the exhibition; her works expressed 'vitality and rebellion' with their 'conscious crudity' and 'affectation of the primitive'.[13]

Whilst in London Preston and Proctor did not move in the same art circles, but in the smaller confines of Sydney these two experienced modernists maintained a productive working friendship. It was probably at one of Proctor's drawing classes that Preston cut the block for Nude 1. Preston taught the technique to Proctor in 1925; and their collaboration culminated that year with joint exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne.

The exhibitions were enormously popular with the critics:

The modern note in the work of both these ladies comes as a breath of fresh air to liven up the staleness of our Australian Art atmosphere.[14]

The woodcut prints in the Chinese red frames selected by Thea Proctor were equally appreciated by the public. They were the perfect form of decoration for a modern home or inner city apartment. Prices were temptingly low: Preston's black and white woodcut Circular Quay sold for one guinea; Thea Proctor's The peep show for one and a half guineas. This was very cheap in comparison with the price of etchings at the time -those by Lionel Lindsay, for instance, ranged from two to six guineas.

It seems likely that the prints featured in these exhibitions prompted Adelaide Perry to cut her first woodcuts on her return to Australia in 1925.

Thea Proctor – Teacher
As a sixteen-year-old, Thea Proctor became a student at Julian Ashton's 'Academic Julian' (later the Sydney Art School). She was a student for only two years (1896-97), but in her works from this time the beginnings of her mature style can be discerned. In 1897 she exhibited poster designs with the Society of Artists, and her ex-libris designs published in 1899 brought about her trademark combination of simple flat shapes and decorative detail.

Proctor's drawing skills were refined during many years in London (1903-21), and her insistence on the pre-eminence of design was reinforced by her study of Japanese prints. On her return to Australia she lived in Melbourne briefly before moving to Sydney at Ure Smith's instigation to work on The Home magazine.

Proctor had been invited to teach at her old school in 1926, and her classes in design were an instant success. The actual process of cutting the limo was taught by Henry Gibbons,[15] while Proctor concentrated on developing students' awareness of composition through the simplification of line and form,[16] qualities which were exaggerated in simple linocut prints.

By 1927 William Moore was able to report:

The making of prints from linoleum cutting (which are known as lino cuts) has developed considerably during the last two years. It has been mainly taken up by students of Thea Proctor's class for design at the Sydney Art School. Owing to the softness of the material, a lino cut is much easier to manage than a wood cut, but it is not possible to get such fine lines as are obtainable in the latter medium. The design to be cut is drawn or transferred on to a block of linoleum, and with a knife and gouges the white spaces between the black lines of the design are cut away. After being inked, the block is ready for printing.[17]

The Sydney Art School student exhibition of August 1927 was dominated by linocuts produced by Proctor's students. Proctor's achievements were praised by H.H. Fotheringham in his 1927 Art in Australia article:

To Miss Thea Proctor it has fallen to make the first practical efforts to prepare students for the change of outlook which Australian Art is assuredly approaching. In private classes for design and more recently under the auspices of Mr. Julian Ashton, she has endeavoured to install the principle of balance, of the rhythmic play of line and the satisfying juxtaposition of masses.

That she has succeeded in such a short time in producing from students work of the calibre of that reproduced here is significant of the possibilities if the principles inculcated are allowed the fullest possible development and expanse. Their application to ... painting should be a matter only of modifications necessary to spatial, arrangement.[18]

Among Proctor's students were Margaret Arnott, Violet McKee, Adrian Feint, Vera Blackburn, Antic Kingston, Gladys Gibbons, Ailsa Allan, Ruth Ainsworth, Jessie Digby, Ysobel Irvine and Edgar Ritchard.

Adelaide Perry and her School
Like Thea Proctor, Adelaide Perry was invited to teach at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School. She took up the position of drawing teacher in 1930, but was dismissed in 1933 after a disagreement with management.

Later that year Perry set up her own school, many of her initial students being recruits from the Sydney Art School. Of around a dozen students, only three were men. Perry was regarded as a good teacher; she strongly emphasised the need to structure a painting and encouraged her students to adopt bold, flat patterning in their work.

Most of Perry's students produced linocuts as 'homework'. They were presented in special exhibitions of students' work,[19] the Society of Artists exhibitions, and those held by the Contemporary Group. The prints by Proctor's and Perry's students that were included in the Women's Industrial Arts Society exhibition of 1935 were the highlight of the show.

The connection between Sydney and Melbourne was not strong but both Proctor and Perry had dose links with artists in Tasmania and Queensland. Ailsa Allan, Joyce Allen, Mary Cooper Edwards and Muriel Foote worked at some time in Brisbane, while students Amie Kingston and Mildred Lovett were from Tasmania.

Working Together
It is important to stress that Preston, Proctor and Perry were not competing with each other either as artists or teachers. In fact, there was a considerable amount of cooperation between the three women. Students who started with Thea Proctor at the Sydney Art School, for instance, would be directed by Proctor to Perry for more advanced tuition. Vera Blackburn was advised by Thea Proctor that:

if she wished to study art seriously she would have to attend life classes and study oil painting, and recommended The Adelaide Perry School…Vera remembers walking straight into a life drawing class, and though Miss Perry was annoyed at the interruption of a class without making prior appointment, she was accepted as a student.[20]

Margaret Preston gave critiques of students' work for Proctor and Perry. Interviewed later Ainsworth remembered her comments:

Ainsworth presented The tightrope walker and recalls that Preston was impressed not only with the ariel perspective but also the fact that Ainsworth had resisted Proctor's influence.[21]

Proctor and Preston contributed both images and articles to various magazines and publicly promoted women's activities in the arts. Preston's images were published in the student magazine Undergrowth, while Proctor wrote an enthusiastic article for the Preston special number of Art in Australia. Preston lectured to the Society of Women Writers, and illustrations by Preston and Proctor appeared in Ink, the Society's magazine. Each artist wrote articles that were directed to women, for Art in Australia and The Home, and they opened exhibitions by other women artists.

The difficulties women faced in making a career of art were understood by Proctor and Preston. On opening an exhibition of work by Alisa Allan and Gladys Gibbons, Proctor remarked:

A woman who has the care of a home and family needs special courage and determination to practise as an art which gives self-expression … An artist's work is often discouraging enough when one can give one's whole life to it. [22]

Nor should one forget the role played by the partners of these women artists. A few were of an artistic inclination, and others were supportive in a practical way. Bill Preston found the patternmaker to make up Margaret's huon pine blocks; 'Scotty Allan', sharpened Alisa's engraving tools.

Changing Roles
Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor belonged to the generation that had grown up at a time when women's roles were rapidly changing. Preston's home state, South Australia, was the first in Australia (and one of the earliest in the world) to grant voting rights to women. In 1911 Preston was commissioned to paint the posthumous portrait of Miss Catherine Helen Spence, the feminist and social reformer who was the first women in Australia to contest a seat in a legislative body..

Proctor too portrayed the new woman in her covers for The Home:

The woman gaily stepping out with arms akimbo in Proctor's cover for the issue of March 1923 is a metaphorical transmutation of an attitude of mind as much as a model wearing the new svelte style of the 1 920s clothes ... this female can be read as the embodiment of a new subjectivity. [23]

The 'students' of Proctor and Perry on the whole were privileged women whose parents had professional backgrounds or businesses. Many attended university and the majority had travelled overseas, to England and to Europe, especially Italy, where they could informally study the traditions of western art.

Of the women represented in Sydney by Design, over half married- some retained their maiden names as their working names; while others took up theft husbands' names (Ailsa Allan twice did this).

The subject matter of their prints reflects a leisured lifestyle - views from their homes, pleasant walks through the streets, boating on Sydney's beautiful harbour, and shopping at smart department stores like David Jones. Although most of the works in the exhibition were produced during the years of the Depression, there is no sign of social hardship or distress.

After the Second World War both Proctor and Preston continued to teach privately, but the initiative was now taken by a younger generation that included a number of their students.

The Double Bay Studio of Design (1945-51), set up under the auspices of the Art and Craft Society of New South Wales, attracted:

a variety of people - some who have had no previous training in drawing or craft work, but who are interested in design and colour and want to use it in their own homes, theft clothes and theft children's education; some who have already had a sound training and are already proficient craftsmen, but find their knowledge dated and are anxious to refresh themselves with a contemporary method.[24]

Teachers induded Ysobel Irvine, Amie I(ingston, Muriel Medworth, Margaret Oppen, Margaret Richmond, Ann Gillmore Rees and Dora Sweetapple.

The Legacy in Print
The printing of illustrations in publications was, and still is, a costly business. As most small magazines were printed by letterpress up until the l960s, the incorporation of wood and linocut blocks, to be printed along with the text, was possible.

Many of the wood and linocut works produced by artists in the 1920s and 1930s were printed in magazines direct from the original blocks and, as such, had a wide circulation. There was also an element of the Arts and Crafts movement in these works - the artist taking responsibility for at least one part of the production.

The Sydney Art School produced the magazine Undergrowth (1924-29) and later The Art Student (1931-33). Both carried many original graphic works by students, teachers and other independent artists such as Margaret Preston. Student magazines in other states confirmed the burgeoning Australia-wide interest in the linocut.

In Adelaide, student linocuts appeared in The Paint Pot (1925-29), published by the students of the School of Fine Arts. Students of the South Australian School of Arts had their own magazine, The Forerunner, which often printed linocuts; and other students' art works appeared in Phoenix, published annually by the Adelaide University Union.

Melbourne linocuts by T.V. Carter's students at Prahran Technical College were featured in The Art Student in 1932 (not to be confused with the Sydney publication of the same title).[25] Napier Waller, who began teaching design at Melbourne's Working Man's College in 1932, set his students the project of making linocut illustrations for an alphabet book - one student for each letter,[26] and at Swinburne Technical College, senior art lecturer Allan Jordan wrote an article on 'Linocuts' for Manuscripts that was illustrated with linocuts 'designed, cut and printed by students'.[27]

The example set by Manuscripts in producing a high quality magazine with original illustrations was carried on by The Bookshelf Miscellany, published by Fuller's Bookshop in Hobart in 1933, and the Chapbook which was published in Adelaide in 1935 and in 1936. The Bookshelf Miscellany reproduced linocuts by Tasmanian artists H. Keith McNiel, Dorothy Stoner, Phyllis Pitman, Robert Montgomery, Amie Kingston and Roy Cox, while each issue of Chapbook included a signed and numbered frontispiece by Noel Wood and illustrations by Mary P. Harris and Dorrit Black.

Other magazines to publish linocuts included Ink, the journal of women writers, and Art in Australia - the covers by Ysobel Irvine being particularly memorable examples.

The tradition of using linocut illustrations was continued by Mean/in Papers. In 1943 it published a woodcut by Perry student Muriel Foote, a practice revived in the 1960s when the wood and linoblocks of a younger generation were printed in the magazine.

Although I have shown how the work and the influence of these women continued into the 1960s and beyond, it cannot be denied that it was between the wars that they had the greatest impact. It was during these years that women artists created a cohesive form of modernism -a modernism that included commercial arts, decorative arts, photography, painting, sculpture and wood and linoblock prints.

© Roger Butler



[1] Art in Australia, series 3, no. 21, September 1927, p.46.

[2] 'Prologue', Society of Artists Catalogue, Sydney, 1897.

[3] For more details see Roger Butler, Poster Art in Australia. The Streets as Art Galleries. Walls Sometimes Speak, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1993.

[4] Art in Australia, series 3, no. 21, September 1927, [u.p].

[5] Norman Lindsay to Sydney Use Smith [1923], Mitchell Library, MS 31/6/419.

[6] H.C. Gibbons, 'Foreword', The Sydney Art School Retrospective Exhibition 1890-1933, Sydney, 1933.

[7] Art in Australia, series 3, no. 34, October-November 1930, p.27.

[8] See W. Viola, Child Art and Frank Cizek, Vienna: Austrian Junior Red Cross, 1936.

[9] Art in Australia, series 3, no. 21, September 1927, p.48.

[10] See FrederickC. Moffatt, Arthur Wesley Dow, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1977, p.150, footnotes 288-290.

[11] Hospital Tidings, Sydney, Gladesville Hospital, 1924. Mary Eagle kindly passed on this reference.

[12] The Point, Melbourne, no. 2, 1921, pp.48-49.

[13] Sydney Use Smith, 'The revival of the woodcut', Art in Australia, series 3, no. 4, May 1923, u.p

[14] Triad Australian, vol.11, no.2, December 1925, p.79.

[15] Helen Maxwell in conversation with Ruth Ainsworth, 1988.

[16] See 'Design: Miss Thea Proctor's talk to the students', Undergrowth, Sydney: Sydney Art School, September- October 1926, u.p.

[17] Brisbane Courier, 24 September 1927, p.22, col. 2.

[18] Art in Australia, series 3, no. 21, September 1927, pp.46-47.

[19] 'Paintings, woodcuts and linocuts by past and present students of the Adelaide Perry School of Art, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney', Sydney Morning Herald,3 March 1937. p.11.

[20] Roger Butler, Vera Blackburn, Melbourne: Deutscher Galleries, 1979.

[21] Helen Maxwell, 'Ruth Ainsworth: Printmaker and teacher', Australian National Gallery Association News, January-February 1989, p.13.

[22] 'Women artists, Miss Thea Proctor's view', Sydney Morning Herald,14 May 1937, p.9.

[23] Mary Mackay, 'Almost dancing: Thea Proctor and the modern woman', in Maryanne Dever ed; Wowsers and Witches. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, l994, p.32.

[24] Dora Sweetapple, 'Introduction', Design and Colour, Sydney: David Jones' Art Gallery, nd.

[25] The Art Student [Melbourne], no. 4, June 1934, p.18.

[26] An Alphabet, Melbourne: Working Man's College, 1932.

[27] Manuscripts, no.11, November 1934, pp.23-25.

Last Updated

13 Aug 2012