A visit with Simon Brett by Margaret Adams Parker

A longer post for you to enjoy over the weekend!  This article is reprinted with permission from the Washington Print Club‘s Summer 2007 Quarterly.  It was written by one of our current exhibiting artists, Margaret Adams Parker, after a visit to our January 2011 Invitational artist, Simon Brett, at his home in the UK.

"Three Torsos" by Simon Brett, Wood Engraving, 200x250 mm, 2000.

I was fortunate last fall to visit the home and studio of Simon Brett, one of the foremost contemporary English engravers. (He is one of a handful of artists whose work is always included in any publication on British wood engraving.) He and I have been corresponding since 2005, having “met” by mail over a discussion of relief prints, and the visit to his studio was one of the highlights of a trip to Europe in 2006.

Brett and his wife, painter Juliet Wood, live and work in Marlborough, a small market town in Wiltshire, almost exactly in the middle of a line—or the old road—between Bath and London. Brett’s studio stands at the far end of a long “row-house” garden. A short walk takes the visitor from the lovely flower garden, through arched openings in a yew hedge, into the kitchen garden and the studio beyond.

This small structure is filled—floor to ceiling—with Brett’s tools, his art, and his books. There are two platen presses (one large, one small), engraving tools, inks, and papers of many kinds. His prints are organized in wooden file drawers and his carved wood blocks are lined up on shelves. Drawings and proofs are pinned to the walls,along with framed prints. Windows overlooking the garden provide light for Brett’s workbench, where his tools are laid out in remarkable order amidst the random clutter of studio objects. The latter include tiny toy knights and horses for a current project, illustrating the Parsifal legend.

The many shelves of books in his studio house the more than 40 Brett has illustrated as well as those he has written. Self-effacing when speaking about his own work, Brett is an enthusiastic promoter of the wood engraver’s art. He has served as Chairman of the Society of Wood Engravers (from 1986 to 1992) and is a frequent contributor to Multiples, its publication. In addition to Engravers (1987) and Engravers Two (1992), in which he profiled the work of wood engravers in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, Brett is also the author of one of the definitive books on his art form: Wood Engraving: How to Do It. First published in 1994 and then redesigned and republished in 2000, this beautifully illustrated and intelligently written book includes Brett’s philosophical musings on his craft, so it goes far beyond the “How to Do It” scope suggested by the title. Brett’s most recent publication, An Engraver’s Globe (2002), is an entirely new compilation of the work of 225 wood engravers from 23 countries. The “engraver’s globe” of the title was a 19th-century device—a glass globe filled with water, which concentrated the glow of a candle or oil lamp into an intense beam of light by which the engraver could work. Brett uses it as a metaphor for this latest compendium, which likewise brings into focus the work of wood engravers worldwide.

Simon Brett was born in Windsor in 1943, brought up in London, and educated at Ampleforth College in Yorkshire. His primary field of study at London’s St. Martin’sSchool of Art was painting (1960-1964); he traveled as a painter to New Mexico, Denmark, and Provence (1965-1970); and he taught at Marlborough College Art School in Wiltshire (1971-1989). While at St. Martin’s, Brett had also learned wood engraving, from Clifford Webb, and he has worked almost exclusively in that medium since 1981. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers since 1991, having been elected Associate in 1986. In addition, he is an editorial consultant for the journal Printmaking Today and for Primrose Hill Press, publisher of books about wood engraving.

Brett’s own books include several he published between 1981 and 1988 under his own Paulinus Press imprint, winning the Francis Williams Illustration Award (National Book League/Victoria and Albert Museum) for the first, The Animals of Saint Gregory, in 1981. In 1989 he left teaching to work as a self-employed artist. His commissioned  illustrations include, for The Folio Society, such classics as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Clarissa, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, The Poetry of John Keats, and The Folio Golden Treasury (which he also picture edited.) He also created wood engravings for The Reader’s Digest Bible. Musing on the titles of books he has illustrated, Brett remarked, “Publishers think of me when they want illustrations for the heavy hitters.” Indeed, in Wood Engraving and the Woodcut in Britain, c. 1890-1990 (1994), James Hamilton describes Brett as “in the first rank of the creators of allusive religious imagery.”

Today Brett is exceedingly busy with commissions for book illustrations (the poems of Shelley for The Folio Society) as well as projects of his own (an illustrated, letterpress edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles.) Nevertheless, he was extraordinarily generous in sharing his time and his expertise with me. I arrived with questions about a printing technique called “make-ready.” Brett explained that it is a method by which printmakers can render a designated section of a print darker by adding slips of paper, either under the block or under the paper, to increase pressure there during printing. He then took a print of Parsifal on horseback in the snow, which he was working on, and he showed me, step by meticulous step, how he could create subtle but important shifts in its tonal range. For me, this was a living demonstration of Brett’s maxim that engravers are not carvers of blocks, but makers of images: “The print is the point.”

Marcus Aurelius III, Wood Engraving by Simon Brett, approx 6x3.5 in, 2002

Brett sent me home with tangible treasures as well as new knowledge: all the test prints of Parsifal from his demonstration, the Parsifal print pulled on good paper, and three engravings which I had particularly admired when we looked through his set of 13 for The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (The Folio Society, 2002). These images, based on ancient sculptures of the Roman philosopher-emperor, are characteristic of Brett’s work. In Marcus Aurelius III, we notice the wide range of Brett’s marks; the way they seem to sculpt the form; and the contrast between the lit side of the face, where the black marks read as dark lines against the white of the page, and the shadow side, where, in the most natural expression of the wood engraver’s art, the artist seems to “draw with the marks of light.”

In writing about his engravings, Brett makes a distinction between his work as illustrator and as printmaker. Looking at his prints I am moved to quarrel with this distinction. Indeed I am reminded of N. C. Wyeth’s admonition, cited by Max Winkler in his article on the Kelly Collection of American Illustration for the Winter 2006-2007 Quarterly. Responding to a student who had declared his ambition to be an artist rather than an illustrator, Wyeth declared, “You have to be an artist first.” To my mind there is no question that Simon Brett is always working as an artist, even when he is making an illustration.

If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to look into membership at the Washington Print Club.  Also be sure to stop by through January 2 to see Two Artists, Many Journeys with work by Margaret Adams Parker and again between January 4-30 for Bewicks Legacy: Six Contemporary British Wood Engravers curated by and featuring the work of Simon Brett.

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