Mabel Alington Royds, 1874-1941

Royds spent much of her childhood in Liverpool. Anyone familiar with that city, even in much more recent years, will know that, in the late 19th century, she must have been introduced to the excitement of travel, meeting different peoples, feeling that Britain (and, in this context, the docks of Liverpool) lay at the heart of the world. It is reasonable to speculate that these early years encouraged her to think of visiting new and unfamiliar places, and also to reject the offer of a place at the conservative, Royal Academy Schools, and enrol, instead, at the Slade - known, in the 1890s, as the place where young, adventurous artists should study.

Royds was taught by Henry Tonks and this must have been one of the most formative influences on her working life. Tonks was a medical doctor, working at the Royal Free Hospital, in London, from 1888. He had also taken evening classes under Fred Brown at the Westminster School of Art. In 1892, when Brown took over from Alphonse Legros, as Principal at the Slade, he persuaded Tonks (and Philip Wilson Steer) to join him, as a teacher; Tonks (who became Principal in 1917), supervised the Life Class for 38 years, bringing with him his intimate understanding of human physiognomy. Thus, Tonks was – in part, at least – responsible for the education of several generations of remarkable and ambitious artists, whose work displays great graphic skill - at once, bold, concise and subtle[1]. Tonks’ reputation was as a fierce critic, who challenged his students to draw swiftly from the human form, to consign the details accurately to memory and then sketch, with rapidity and confidence. Students were trained to acquire technical facility and encouraged to combine that with personal expressiveness. Furthermore, in the context of the period, women at the Slade were given unusual freedoms, including being allowed to study in the life room with their male colleagues. This, then, was a demanding training which stood Royds in good stead for the rest of her career.

With this firm artistic foundation, Royds – like many others at this time – travelled to Paris, where she must have expected to find some of the most exciting art being produced in Europe. She continued her studies there, under the English artist, Walter Sickert. In the early 1880s, Sickert had worked with James McNeill Whistler, whose dandified persona hid a dedicated artist. Sickert had learned much from Whistler - including an enthusiasm for the compositional poise of Japanese prints and the vigour, colour and expressiveness of avant-garde French art. In the first decade of the 20th century, Sickert produced some of his most dramatic and robust work, and much of this was exhibited in Paris. It is said that Sickert had an affair with Royds - as did so many young models and students. Certainly, she acknowledged her artistic debt to him. Royds’ next move – to a teaching post in Toronto – suggests a desire to get a long way from home. But, in 1911, she returned to Britain and began to teach at the Edinburgh College of Art, which had been opened in 1906 and fast built up a reputation as a forward-looking School, with close links to Paris. Royds remained there – with intervals for travelling – for many years.

Director of the College was Frank Morley Fletcher, who had, himself, studied in Paris in the late 1880s and had there discovered the delights of the Japanese print. Also at Edinburgh, by 1920-23, was John Edgar Platt, Head of Department of Applied Art. He, too, specialised in engraved woodblocks and coloured woodcuts[2] and his enthusiasm for Japanese prints remained with him all his life. Platt had studied Japanese techniques with the artist Urushibara, who had first visited London to demonstrate printmaking in the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition of 1910. Urushibara stayed in Europe until the 1930s, and taught woodblock printmaking to many British artists: those who had been brought up with a respect for the craft techniques that lay at the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement; those who were conscious of the commercial possibilities of printmaking; as well as those who were aware of the democratic significance of multiple prints, making art available to the many. Deeply influenced by Urushibara, these were the philosophies and techniques that Platt practised and taught in Edinburgh. There is no doubt that Royds, too, developed and refined her own vision in these years. It was, however, even before Platt’s arrival in Edinburgh that Royds met and married a fellow teacher, who specialised in printmaking, Ernest Lumsden.

Lumsden had been inspired by the graphic work of both James McNeill Whistler and the latter’s brother-in-law, Frank Seymour Haden. He does not seem to have mastered their boldness or capacity to convey much in a few marks, but he had acquired some of their delicacy and poetry. On meeting Royds, he must have recognised the appeal of an artist whose work was already simpler, bolder and much more direct than his own. Her swift grasp of the human form, her mastery of formal pattern, and closely-toned, resonant, colour was already apparent in what seem to be her earliest coloured woodcuts, such as Choir Boys, dating from c.1910[3]. Following their marriage, in 1913, the two printers embarked on a journey, through Europe, the Middle East, India, Nepal and Tibet. The impact on their work of this, and later, travels, was considerable.

There is little doubt that, for Royds – already well-travelled and now nearing 40 – these years marked the beginning of her mature work. In India and Nepal, in particular, she found peoples who were asserting their own cultural identity and grasping at self-rule; where both wealth and extreme poverty were much on show; and where glorious light and luminous colours captured the mystery and poetry of this ‘other’ world. Royds sketched extensively during this trip, taking advantage of what was, by now, a wonderful capacity to produce swift and vibrant ‘snap-shots’ of the bend of a body, the grimace of a face, the colour and pattern of flowing garments. These drawings and paintings are exceptionally powerful and evocative. What she learned in India infused her work for the rest of her life.

Royds’ woodcuts were produced in the studio, on her return from her travels. She made 61 colour blocks in total, drawing from her many sketches, employing transparent watercolours to print on fine paper, sometime rice paper - a technique which lends each of her prints an individuality and luminosity. She showed at many different venues, being a regular contributor to the Society of Scottish Artists, the Society of Artist Printers, the Graver Printers in Colour and the Royal Scottish Academy, where she had no fewer than 45 works on display during her lifetime. The majority of her Indian subjects were produced from 1920-30 and, from c.1933-38, she focused on exuberant flower studies, as well as some religious themes.

One anecdote, regularly trotted-out, is that, for her woodcuts, Royds used ‘sixpenny bread boards (bought from Woolworth’s) for the sake of economy’, rather than the pear or cherry wood, which had traditionally been employed, in Europe and Japan[4]. That Royds might have used cheap bread boards for her prints has tended to highlight her work as the creation of a domestic and economical woman. It can be argued that this, in turn, has supported an analysis of Royds’ work as slight, decorative and cheap - in other words, the artist was a model of sensible womanhood. But this quarrels with everything else we know about this artist. What the ‘bread board’ story is more likely to reveal is that Royds rejected the fine line and detail obtained by producing a woodcut with durable fruit wood. Instead, she searched for a material that gave her a softer, broader line, which thus created a greater variety and individuality as each layer was printed. We should not forget, either, that, in India, she would have seen woodblock printing in numerous workshops, where the imprint of the well-worn block (on cloth or paper) would have been characteristically soft, slightly erratic - and clearly a product of the human hand. It is also more than likely that this capable and well-travelled woman was interested in the idea of using every-day materials for her work, producing images that could be purchased by many.

Royds’ work is beginning to attract the attention it deserves. Her luminous images offer a curious combination of reticence and directness, of flat pattern and human emotion. Compressed within the small compass of her prints is the intensity and human understanding of a woman who lived a rich and very full life.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] In the early years, his pupils included Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Augustus and Gwen John and Edna Clarke Hall.

[2] Wood engraving is cut into the cross-grain - a more difficult process, usually, than cutting into the grain of the wood, and producing a wood-cut.

[3] This early work shows the strong influence of William Nicholson, whose powerful woodcuts were first produced in the 1890s.

[4] It must be said that it is hard to believe that a working woman in her 40s, whose husband also brought in an income and who embarked on several extensive periods of travel, would have found pear wood too expensive.