Return to the Table of Contents / About this book

Colour Woodcuts

John Platt

"LOOKING back on the long and varied achievements ... of the colour print, we are impelled to marvel more and more at the extraordinary amount of artistic genius devoted to this art. As pure design, this body of work is unrivalled in any other country, unless perhaps by the Greek vases . . .

"It is this devotion to design, this refusal to be seduced by the lures of picturesque naturalism, which give the colour-prints their unique distinction.

"Yet if we think of the chief masters of the colour-print in relation, not to the society which produced them and for which they worked, but to the art of the world, we are led to the conclusion that it is in Utamaro and in Hokusai that Ukiyo-e finds its summits, the one supreme in figure-design, the other in landscape. And this not only because of their creative invention and a range far exceeding the other masters, but because in these two, even more than in Harunobu and Kiyonaga, there is a capacity to divine and to communicate the elemental powers in man and nature and to rise at times into an imaginative world where life is more deeply felt and its mystery more deeply apprehended."


Laurence Binyon and J. J. O'Brien Sexton
by kind permission



THE problem of printing in colours is one which has engaged the attention of engravers during almost the entire history of the art in Europe. From the fifteenth century to the twentieth, as students of that history are aware, a series of experiments has been made at various times, in various countries, and with various materials: experiments with the wood-block, the engraved copperplate, the lithographic stone; experiments in etching, in mezzotint, in aquatint, in stipple, and in the complicated gravure aux outils which yielded exquisite results in the hands of Janinet and Debucourt.

I use the word experiment, though in several cases experiment resulted in prints of a ripe and accomplished beauty, because none of these attempts ever succeeded in establishing colour-printing securely as a traditional and generally practised technique. More than the various processes of which the aim is an impression in black and white, successive varieties of colour-printing have succumbed to change of fashion, to expense, or to commercial exploitation, and have fallen into abeyance.

There was greater permanence in the colour-printing process, with the use of wood-blocks, brought to perfection in Japan by such artists as Harunobu, Utamaro, and Kiyonaga, for that country had no rival method of producing prints to compete with it. The colour-prints of the Ukiyo-e School represent one of the world's great achievements in the sphere of the graphic arts, and their beauty has inspired Western artists since they became known in Europe after 1860. Japanese colour-printing flourished, in the strict sense of the word, for about a century, and, after nearly two centuries since its invention, is still in use, though long past its prime. As practised in Japan, it differed from European colour-printing, by reason of the division of labour involved. The Japanese designer neither engraved nor printed his blocks. When the Japanese method of producing colour-prints was introduced into England about 1895, by Mr. Frank Morley Fletcher, working in collaboration with the late John Dickson Batten and under the tuition of a Japanese craftsman, it became necessary, in the absence of a body of craftsmen trained and expert in the second and third stages of the process, for the English painters who practised this method not only to design but in addition to master the technique of cutting and printing in colours. The annual exhibitions of the Society of Graver-Printers in Colour have shown for many years past with what degree of success they have done so, though that is not the only kind of technique used by members of that Society. The British Museum possesses, in addition to an almost complete set of the incunabula, dating from the 'nineties, of the Japanese process as first practised in England, a representative collection illustrating the best results achieved by Mr. Morley Fletcher's pupils and successors. Among these the colour-printed woodcuts of Mr. Platt occupy a distinguished place. His earliest experiments date from about twenty years ago. The illustrations of this volume will show how his style has evolved from a stage in which the key-block, with its firm and sometimes elaborate design, was conspicuous, to one in Which linear structure has been largely superseded by a balance of smooth and well-related, but comparatively little modulated, tones. Mr. Platt has gone farther than most of his fellow artists in achieving a happy blend of Eastern technique with Western design.

But it is not for me, on this occasion, to praise or to criticize his colour prints. He claims my attention as an author. In this treatise he expounds the craft of which he is a master with an equal mastery of words. He handles the instruments of a writer with the same foresight in planning, the same neatness in execution, with which he wields the knife, the gouge, and the baren. Nothing could exceed the completeness or the lucidity of his exposition. No pupil can learn an art by reading, but, as a supplement to such indispensable direct instruction as Mr. Platt, by long experience, knows better than anyone else in England how to impart, his handbook should be of great utility.


Formerly Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum

Move on to Author's Note / Return to the Table of Contents