Sunshine & Shadows: A B Webb and the Poetics of Place
8 August - 5 December 2004
Challenge Bank and Sue & Ian Bernadt Gallery
Known for his delicate watercolours and woodcut prints, A.B. Webb was a poetic interpreter of the Western Australian landscape. Webb attempted to define the almost indefinable qualities of the place in which he lived, and his work has resonated with generations of audiences. Born in 1887 in Kent, England, and trained in the fine and graphic arts in London, in 1915 Webb migrated to Australia where he established himself as a major contributor to the artistic community. A painter, printmaker, craftsman and graphic artist Webb worked almost exclusively in the landscape genre. Focusing on the river environment around his home, he depicted the activity on the Swan River: the early morning fishermen casting their nets, cormorants drying their wings on marker posts in the river and small yachts zipping across the water. He chose quiet, still and moody subjects and imbued these with a Japanese sense of design derived from ukiyo-e prints of the nineteenth century.
Despite these inflections in his work, it was described as ‘thoroughly West Australian’ and a ‘poetic reaction to nature’. This combination of a poetic sensitivity to landscape and his relationship to the specific place in which he lived has ensured the popularity of A.B. Webb’s work into the twenty-first century.
A B Webb, Trees and shadows
watercolur and pencil,
Art Gallery of Western Australia
Webb chose to work almost exclusively in the landscape genre and managed to successfully represent the external physical reality of the local environment and an imagined internal idea of place. He rarely introduced figures or buildings into his images, the place he described was still, unruffled by wind or intruded on by human presence. Tranquility and spaciousness are key values that Webb promoted in numerous small watercolours and woodcut prints of river scenes, winding tracks or forest pools. They are empty but inviting places and viewers of his images are enticed to enter and move through a space where individual memories and connections with landscapes can be re-experienced or personal daydreams enacted. Although depicting an exterior space – the landscape – Webb’s images encourage the viewer to participate in the construction of an intimate interior space of exploration that draws on associations we all have to landscape.
Landscape is a key component of the poetics of place, but it is not just a passive construct within which a stable and benign world is romantically viewed. To describe A.B. Webb’s work in overly romantic terms would be to deny the important role landscape imagery has in the social and political construction of place and identity. Artists shape and ‘landscape’ the image they wish to project through processes of selection, emphasis and omission. Webb’s watercolours and colour woodcut prints are characterised by a consistent rendering of the stillness and beauty of the Australian landscape. In the society of the interwar years where ‘foreign’ and modernist influences were keenly resisted, A.B. Webb was an influential advocate for traditional and naturalistic approaches to image making. Like so many other artists working in Western Australia, Webb chose not to refer to the effects of war, modernisation, unemployment or social and personal relationships, instead projecting a reassuring image of natural beauty. His work reveals the artist’s relationship to place as much through the absences as by what is depicted.
His impact within Western Australian culture is heightened by his multiple artistic roles. Highly trained in graphic and commercial design as well as fine art, Webb played an important role through his activities as a teacher and professional artist and provided a role model for many students. Keen to maintain a professional profile on a national and international level, his work was publicised in national and international magazines that led to purchases by major collections including the British Museum and the National Gallery of Victoria. In his work as a graphic artist for the British Empire Marketing Board in the late twenties, Webb visualised aspects of Australian primary industries that were marketed across the globe and seen by tens of thousands of people. These public activities together with a large body of work that specifically constructs the nuances of place, contribute to his importance in the history of the visual arts in Western Australia. That as a recent British migrant, his work could so quickly be assimilated as quintessentially local, is in itself an interesting phenomenon.
At a time when a growing number of Australian artists were interested in interpreting modernism within an Australian context and even local Western Australian artists such as Harald Vike and Herbert McClintock were experimenting with social realism and surrealism, A.B. Webb remained dedicated to naturalistic landscape. An idea of what ‘place’ meant to him connected with a receptive local audience and ensured his work was widely appreciated. His commitment to a poetic vision of Australia, untroubled by social and physical ructions was reassuring and aligned with broader social imperatives of maintaining an illusion of consensus. Through his harmonious images of nature, A.B. Webb internalised and reflected a broad social desire to connect deeply with a distinctly Western Australian idea of ‘place’. With artists such as Linton and Pitt Morison whose work offered alternative but sympathetic interpretations of the Western Australian landscape, Webb contributed to the dominance of romantic landscape imagery in Western Australia that would not be seriously challenged until after the Second World War.
Much of A.B. Webb’s popularity is based on his colour woodcut prints that he began experimenting with in the early 1920s. The adaptation of his commercial design and graphic design skills was a natural progression for Webb and the use of restricted colour palettes and simplified design was ideal for relief prints. His technique was based on the Japanese method of colour printing using a different block for each colour and hand applying the colour to achieve graded colour. Exhibited in the 1922 West Australian Society of Arts exhibition, the reductive The fisherman, misty morning clearly shows the compositional influence of Japanese ukiyo-e prints The influence of Japanese methods and design was frequently commented upon by reviewers who found the work ‘slightly suggestive of Japanese art.’ Interestingly, commentators found no paradox in describing Webb’s work as having a Japanese inflection and yet still being thoroughly Western Australian in character.
It is possible that Webb may have visited the large exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e prints displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London shortly before his departure and he certainly had access to the London based magazine The Studio that regularly published articles on Japanese design and printmaking methods. However Webb’s work is closely aligned with late nineteenth century British aesthetic and art nouveau ‘Japonisme’. Elements of Japanese composition and style - the high horizon lines, truncated forms, use of silhouette and asymmetry - are evident in the work of artists such as Whistler and Webb’s designs that were ‘slightly suggestive of Japanese art’ are more likely to have derived from contact with British aestheticism than direct study of ukiyo-e prints.
In producing his prints, Webb followed advice found in detailed articles on colour printing techniques published in the London based magazine The Studio. J.D. Batten in 1894 advised artists to ‘design, from the first, a print, not a painting.’ Once the design was finalised Webb made copies of it using a photo-chemical process called Vandyke printing, then pasting these paper templates on to each block to provide the guide for his cutting. Using a block for each colour and cutting along the grain rather than using the end grain as in wood engravings allowed Webb to maximise the painterly effect of colour and textured surface. With limited access to artists’ materials in Perth Webb improvised. Angus McKail who met the artist in the 1930s said Webb preferred persimmon wood, ‘but owing to the increasing difficulty in getting this he was experimenting with various W.A. hardwoods’. Webb made his cutting tools from ground down hacksaw blades and re-tempered umbrella ribs. And, he experimented with watercolour paint mixed with rice paste and other mediums before eventually printing with oil paint. An article on Webb’s prints in The Studio in 1924 elaborated on his technique:
Mr. Webb always uses brushes for pigmenting the blocks either with printer’s ink or oil paint instead of the orthodox water-colour. The printing is done by hand, the paper being placed on the block and rubbed on the back. Many difficulties were experienced in printing by this method, and only after countless experiments with different papers, sizes, inks and colours were any satisfactory results obtained.’
The coloured woodcuts of A.B. Webb’, Art in Australia, third series, no. 8, June 1924
His daughter Delys recalled that he would hold one corner of the paper in his mouth, then ‘meticulously fit the top corners of paper on the block and then let the paper fall from his mouth in place and quickly press and smooth on the block with the tool he had made and covered with fine pigskin for the purpose. With up to seven individual blocks used to form one image the registration of each printing had to be exact and in this Webb excelled.