George Soper, 1870-1942

Soper reputedly received fairly little formal training as an artist, though he studied, first, in Ramsgate and then began to work as an illustrator. Nevertheless, there was a direct link between him and the great John Ruskin, High Victorian art critic, social commentator, moral philosopher and no mean artist himself. The link between Soper and Ruskin came in the person of Frank Short, under whom Soper started to study etching, in 1905.

Frank Short, by training, was a civil engineer, but he joined the South Kensington Schools of Art (then called the National Art Training School[1]) in 1883 and was also a teacher at the Westminster School of Art, under Professor Fred Brown. Short was a gifted engraver and etcher. During the mid-1880s, he had developed his own graphic skills by copying and translating many of J.M.W. Turner’s 71 engravings of the landscape, which the latter had published as his Liber Studiorum[2] in the early 19th century. Given John Ruskin’s great admiration for Turner, it was, perhaps, not surprising that he praised Frank Short's remarkable and beautiful etchings and mezzotints after Turner. Furthermore, Frank Short was encouraged by Ruskin to publish a book, in 1890, Selections from the Liber Studiorum of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., for artists, art students and amateurs : a drawing book suggested by the writings of Mr. Ruskin. The significance of this tome is that it was a vehicle for Ruskin’s – and Frank Short’s – conviction that everyone, including the, ‘labouring classes’ could be interested in and learn about art: ‘the capacity shown by the Gothic workman had not entirely died out of the nation’, despite the ‘disease’ of industrialisation.

Soper, then – though already a journeyman illustrator, with some success to his name – was just one who benefited from Frank Short’s tuition (or, from 1902, the tuition of Short's skilled assistant, Constance Pott) and Short’s dedication to promoting the universal value – the transforming potential – of engaging in artistic activity.

Short’s own graphic work – in addition to his reproductions and translations of other works of art – has been described as amongst the best that was produced during what is often described as the, ‘etching revival’ of the late Victorian period. As well as learning from Turner, he clearly revered the delicate and pithy graphic prints produced by James McNeill Whistler and his brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden: indeed, in 1910, Short succeeded Seymour Haden as President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. And Short’s distinctively elegant touch, his sense of poise and pattern, his capacity to use just a few etched strokes to evoke a poetic scene, and his love of the rural scene, was, in turn, passed on to and adapted by George Soper.

Soper quickly developed a reputation as an expert artist and printmaker. His first great success was as the illustrator for Charles Kingsley’s 1908 edition of Water Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. This book, first published in its entirety in 1863, had been tremendously popular, both as a pretty tale for children and as a story of Christian redemption. It had been illustrated by several notable artists, including Linley Sambourne (in 1865 and ’68) and Arthur A. Dixon (in 1907). William Heath Robinson illustrated an edition in 1915 and Margaret Tarrant, in 1927. Thus, the Water Babies can claim a long list of very notable artists who dedicated their talents to enriching the story. Soper’s success was followed by further book illustrations, including for a 1910 edition of Kingsley’s 1856 The Heroes, or Greek fairy tales for my children.

It is clear that, like Frank Short – and like Ruskin before him – Soper had a dedication to his art and relished the opportunity to share, with others, his images of hope, of redemption, of heroism – of self-worth, achieved through hard work and skill.

Between 1916 and 1920, Soper returned to Frank Short (by now a full Academician with a knighthood), to learn more about various graphic techniques, especially the craft of wood engraving. This had been developed by Thomas Bewick, at the end of the 18th century, and had been employed by him to great effect to convey striking images of English flora and fauna, notably in Aesop’s Fables and A History of British Birds (1797-1804). Wood engraving is technically very demanding: it entails incising a line into the end grain of a piece of wood, usually hard boxwood, sometimes using a fine, sharp tool more usually associated with engraving into a metal plate[3]. Thus can be created a very bold print, with the degree of detail or breadth of treatment being under the control of the artist. It became a very popular technique in the 1920s and ‘30s; one only has to think of the wood engravings of Clare Leighton and Agnes Miller Parker, which continue to be sought-after today.

By the 1920s, Soper had at his command a wide range of graphic techniques, including wood cuts and wood engravings, etchings and drypoints: some of his most vivid impressions were captured with this latter technique, wherein the engraving tool, or burin, is applied directly to the metal plate, thus creating incised lines which are distinguished by their soft finish, allowing a variety of graduated tone[4].

Increasingly, Soper dedicated his art to rendering the lives of farmers, sailors, fishermen, smiths, shepherds, foresters, hauliers and manual workers, often revealing the hard work or the solitary life associated with their traditional tasks. Above all, he became passionate about depicting the heavy horses on which so much of this work depended. Time and again, he pictured these horses, in teams or merely on their own, working closely with men - some of whom must have started to become conscious that this way of life was on the wane.

In his mature years, recognised for his painting, including oils and watercolours, and his works in pastel, as well as his prints, Soper was an Associate of the Royal Academy, having been elected in 1918, and member of the Royal Engravers, from 1920. By this time, he was also father and teacher to Eileen Soper, a precocious artist, who first exhibited etchings at the Royal Academy in 1920, at the age of 15[5].

As well as being a powerful and very prolific artist, George Soper was a keen botanist and plant collector and was dedicated to the traditional patterns of country life. Thus he was, without doubt, a man attached to that long line of British artists who, throughout the second half of the 19th century and in the face of massive change, attached themselves to the importance of the lives, conditions and craft skills of the ordinary working men and women of Britain.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] This became the Royal College of Art in 1896. Sir Frank Short became Head of the Engraving School of the RCA.

[2] The Liber Studiorum (which, itself, was a response to the 17th C work of Claude Lorrain) was published between 1807-18 and explored a great variety of kinds of landscape composition, including graphic renderings of Turner’s own paintings.

[3] A wood-cut, in contrast, is created by cutting with the grain of the wood and is, therefore, less physically taxing.

[4] See Chris Beetles Gallery for a good cross-section of graphic work by Soper.

[5] Eileen Soper was the artist who illustrated many of Enid Blyton’s adventure books – notably the Famous Five, who must have brightened the days of many British children during and after WWII.