Buckland Wright, John

Buckland Wright, John (1897-1954)

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John Buckland Wright was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1897. The family moved to England in his childhood and he began drawing at the age of thirteen. His schooling was at Rugby School. In 1914 he volunteered for active service but was refused because of his stammer, an affliction that later in his life disappeared . In 1916 he joined a Scottish ambulance unit attached to the French army and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. France was also to be of great importance for his art.

At Magdalen College after the war, he studied for a history degree, but spent much of his time practising his drawing skills at the Ashmolean Museum, where the classical statues gave him the opportunity to develop his skill at drawing the female form in the romantic classical context which was to suit him so well. Many of his works were to be in poetic pastoral settings, inhabited by nymphs, dryads and satyrs.

The early1920s saw Buckland Wright studying to be an architect and also having a love affair with Julia Strachey, later to be a writer and novelist, and who was the niece of Lytton Strachey. He had no wish to continue with architecture which offered a prospect which he saw as “mainly concerned with drawing drains”. However, the discipline and organisation that he was then subject to may well have served him well in the precision and technical requirements needed for engraving.

He began to study wood engraving and around the same time travelled to Paris and Italy, settling in 1925 in Brussels. He invested considerable study and practice in the art of depicting the human figure, whether in life classes or in the drawing of female statues. This continued later on in Paris, a city that provided a multitude of opportunities. The move to Paris was in 1929 and here he was influenced by the avant garde and by cubism, though the latter style proved to be too restrictive.

In 1929 JBW (as he is often known) married a young Canadian musician, Mary Bell Anderson. Their home was in Paris up until the Second World War and JBW’s son Christopher Buckland Wright describes it as “the happiest and most productive period” of his father’s life. JBW had already met and formed a good relationship with A.A.M. Stolls, the Director of the Halcyon Press and began illustrating for him with wood engravings for the ‘Collected Sonnets of Keats’ (1930). Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death & Other Tales’ followed in 1932.

In 1930, his work in another technique, that of copper engraving, was greatly helped by the teaching of Roger Lacourière, who was to be a lifelong friend. By 1933, JBW had achieved mastery in both wood and copper engraving and considered whether he had chosen to work so much in the medium of wood engraving because it suited him to make life difficult for himself! This, along with the extra challenge of frequently depicting the nude in his subject matter. However, he said:

“….my preference for the figure does not lie purely in its difficulty, but in the fact that it possesses more plastic possibilities than any other motif, that its constant variations provide the richest matter for the study of formal relations and the resarch for abstract synthesis.”

At this time, Buckland Wright produced the white line wood engravings for the Algernon Swinburne poem ‘Dolores’, in an edition privately printed by A.A.M. Stols. These images completely follow his own vision, but match the brooding and darkly erotic intensity of the verses. They also show a distinctly Art Deco quality.

JBW joined L’Atelier 17 under William Hayter in the early 1930s and commenced a period of great productivity, interacting with some of the most exciting artists of the time, including Miro, Matisse and Picasso. He was surely inspired by this environment and during this time his art took on the forms and ideas of surrealism and abstraction. In this, the line engraving on copper provided the most fluent medium, though he continued as well to engrave on wood.

Book illustration continued, and in this he maintained his preference for images that captured the atmosphere of the story rather than the straight depiction of a particular scene, something that in fact he abhorred. It is partly for this reason, that the engravings for books that were printed for availability outside of the published volumes, are so admired and collected in their own right. Many of them bear the artist’s signature and sometimes, as well, annotations. JBW was still executing commissions for Stols at the Halcyon Press, and also, now, the Oriole Press. He produced the books ‘Cupid’s Past Time’ and ‘The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche’ at his own expense and under the imprint of ‘JBW Editions’.

A very successful and productive association with Christopher Sandford’s ‘Golden Cockerel Press’ followed and lasted until JBW’s death in 1954. There were two hundred illustrations for seventeen books. The period before the war saw published the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a tour de force of copper engraving, the erotic and richly tropical wood engravings for Powys Mathers’ ‘Love Night’, and the copper engravings with aquatint for ‘The Vigil of Venus’.

The advent of The Second World War caused a return to London and to war work, though in the evenings, at home, amidst the chaos and destructiveness of the Blitz, his creativity gained perhaps its finest rewards. There was Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, and often considered his masterwork, the evocative and romantic, fifty eight wood engravings for Endymion by John Keats, JBW’s favourite poet.

In contrast to the idyllic romanticism of Endymion, there were also engravings of war-torn London and the people suffering there, though even his renditions of women sleeping huddled together for shelter in the London Underground show that the pleasure in depicting the female form had not been suspended.

When the war ended, tastes changed and the popularities of the private press publications and indeed, of printmaking in general were diminished. JBW, with a young family, needed to take on regular and secure commercial work. He became a teacher at the Anglo-French Art Centre, then Camberwell School of Art, and then the Slade where he was an inspiring teacher of printmaking until his death.

Though JBW had previously not enjoyed the technique of etching, he came to explore and utilise the medium in the last years of his life. Much of the subject matter was again female and his young students often became his models, depicted on the beach during their Summer trips to Canver Sands.

JBW died in 1954. He left a magnificent body of work that can be viewed and admired in the private press publications, as well as the numerous ‘free’ artworks, and the illustrations that were printed extraneously to the books that they illustrated.

William Rose for Talisman Fine Art. January 2020.

With substantial reference to the biography by Christopher Buckland Wright published in ‘The Engravings of John Buckland Wright’, Ashgate Editions, an imprint of Scolar Press (1990). ISBN 0-85967-850-4 (standard edition). ISBN 0-85967-862-8 (limited edition).