Winifred Marie Louise Austen, 1876-1964

Austen is now much admired for her etchings and dry-points, usually images of animals and birds. She depicted those that are familiar, from our native countryside, and the more exotic, which she studied in the zoo.

She was born in Ramsgate and, in 1892, the family moved to Hornsey, near London. Austen began her training as an artist, attending the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where the young Cuthbert Edmund Swan was a teacher of drawing, especially animals. The latter was Irish, the son of John Macallan Swan, who had himself built up a career as a painter of animals, mainly big cats. Cuthbert followed in his father’s footsteps and he, too, was preoccupied with the study and depiction of zoo animals, notably the lions, jaguars, pumas and other big cats, which he regularly exhibited at the RA and other venues. All this suggests that Austen was here embarking on a period of conventional study, finding a good teacher to guide her ability to draw animals and thus become an applied artist - illustrating, decorating and following a suitable path for a young woman. The story is, however, a bit more interesting.

It seems that Cuthbert and his brother, Edwin Swan[1], probably in the late 1880s, had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris - part of that tide of British students washing over the Channel, eager to become acquainted with some of the most radical art and art teaching available in western Europe at the time. Here, of course, students would meet fellow artists from many different countries and would also encounter some of the most exciting art of the day, notably, the work of the Impressionists. Within the Académie, the emphasis was on scrutinising an image, memorising, recalling and drawing from memory, until the student acquired considerable fluency and could then – of greatest importance – employ that skill as a vehicle for personal expressiveness. Furthermore, when Cuthbert and Edwin Swan arrived back in England, they settled in Camden Town for a while[2] and met and painted with Walter Sickert, Lucien Pissarro and the young Robert Bevan (also lately returned form the Académie Julian). Thus, when examining one of Cuthbert Swan’s many paintings of big cats, it is not surprising to find not only great accuracy, but also a mastery of dramatic composition and vigour and freedom in the manipulation of the paint.

Cuthbert Swan, then, was not a conventional teacher. Moreover, if Austen learned much from Swan, then it is likely that she learned still more - especially about the business of being a young, female artist - from Louise Jopling, with whom she also studied. Jopling was a friend of fashionable artists and poets, including James McNeill Whistler (who executed a wonderful portrait of her in 1877) and Oscar Wilde. Jopling herself was a successful portrait painter and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy; but she was also conscious of the constraints put on her career simply because she was a woman. She was keen to encourage young artists, and especially women; hence, in 1887, she set up her own school. She insisted on hard work and diligence. She encouraged the women to study from the life – which was hardly allowed anywhere else in England at this time – and she undoubtedly acquired an admiring following for her ability as a teacher[3].

With such support – and with regular trips to the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park – Winifred Austen developed into a skilful and expressive artist. She painted in oils and watercolour but was also, from the outset, interested in graphic media, working especially with etchings and dry-points.

This was a period, of course, when etching was flourishing in Britain[4], with remarkable images being exhibited and published by Whistler and many of his associates: his pupils, Walter R. Sickert and Mortimer Menpes; his brother-in-law, Seymour Haden; and his biographer, Joseph Pennell. The real distinction of these etchings was that the artists worked on the plates themselves - quite different from the pattern of a generation earlier, when artists usually handed over drawings for professional printers to translate onto the plate and print. The results achieved by the artists were, almost always, very much more lively, expressive and individual.

Austen was probably also inspired by meeting the twins, Charles Maurice and Edward Julius Detmold. From an early age, they took up etching and, from c.1899, they started to work closely together on the same plate. Reputedly, the Detmold twins introduced Austen to Japanese prints and the very striking compositional devices found there. In truth, no young artist at this time could have avoided learning about the art of Japan, including the woodblock prints, which had flooded into Britain from the 1860s. Many artists of the period, on both sides of the English Channel, were inspired by the rich colour, incisive line and striking compositions of Japanese prints - Austen's teacher, Louise Jopling, not least amongst them. Nevertheless, whilst it is highly unlikely that the Detmold twins were the first to introduce Austen to the bold images issuing from Japan, there can be little doubt that their own work was of real importance to her. Any glance at the few, remarkable, prints the Detmold brothers produced, between 1899 and 1906, will be rewarded by evidence of a profound fascination for the natural world, especially its birds, and a capacity to create stunningly dramatic and ornamental images. Austen's contact with the Detmold brothers and their work can only have been beneficial to her art.

From about 1906, Austen began to work on her own plates. Over her long life, she produced about 200. In 1902, she was elected to the Society of Women Artists, in 1907 to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1933. She was also a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society from 1903. She was widely admired and collected; even the naturalist Sir Peter Scott - himself so able a wildlife artist - said Austen was, 'certainly the best bird-etcher of this century'.

Austen retained an interest in experimenting with her medium, developing a sophisticated control over the quality and character of the impressions she produced. She explored the effects she could achieve with aquatint and colour printing and, from 1922, she increasingly worked with dry-point, rather than etching. The latter technique usually depends on 'drawing' into a wax ground, laid over the plate, and then putting the plate into a bath of acid, which cuts into the metal along the incised line. The resulting print has a crisp, ink line, of consistent colour. Dry-points, in contrast, are incised directly into the plate, thus allowing more flexibility but also demanding great certainty of touch. The needle throws up a burr of metal, the extent being carefully controlled by applying the needle at different angles. Dry-point can thus create a printed image which has a more varied depth of colour and softer, more feathery, line than the crisp, incised line of an etching. The two methods can be combined - which Austen often did - and she was thus very successful in conveying something of the softness and delicacy of down and fur.

Driven by her own inclination and, perhaps, the demands of the market, Austen increasingly focused on birds. Her images are always tremendously evocative, capturing the character of the bird - in flight, creeping through the undergrowth, singing, courting. At the same time, the compositions are often bold, dramatically asymmetrical, commanding the foreground, contrasting the strong, spiky black lines of the etched plate with the muffled greys of the dry-point.

From 1922, Austen lived and worked in Suffolk and then Kent. She kept a printing press in the kitchen and continued to work into old age. She had, without doubt, established herself as one of the foremost graphic artists of her generation. Winifred Austen died, in Kent, on 1 November 1964.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Edwin Swan became a well-known portrait painter. Like his brother's pictures, his betray a strong painterly touch, reflecting his enthusiasm for the lessons learned in the years around 1890, in Paris.

[2] Cuthbert was still recorded as exhibiting from the Camden Road Studios in 1905.

[3] It is interesting to find that, in c.1902, the young Duncan Grant studied with Louise Jopling.

[4] P.G. Hamerton's invaluable tome, Etching and Etchers, was first published in 1868 and reveals the wealth of contemporary artists working in this medium.