Somewhere on the wrapper of this series of colour woodcuts will be a statement that Walter J. Phillips is introduced by Martin Hardie. It is quite certain, however, that everyone who reads my words will have looked —as indeed I should myself—at Mr. Phillips’ delightful prints before turning, with much less pleasure and much more sense of duty, to the so-called “introduction”. If you have come into touch with the prints, as with an individual person, you have already been won over by their sunny smile, their graceful movement and carriage, their charm of colour, and happy and sympathetic talk about Spring and Summer and the joys of Lakeland in Canada. You have made friends with those prints and their maker already without any cold formality of introduction. And the only use of the introducer is that you can come back to him, take him aside quietly, and ask for something further about the artist and his work.
First of all then about the man. Walter J. Phillips was born at Barton-on-Humber. His education in painting began at the Burton School of Art, and his general education at Bourne College, Quinton. During the three years spent at Quinton, he attended, irregularly, the Birmingham Municipal School of Art. His education was interrupted by six years sojourn in South Africa. There were no formal classes thereafter but he gained much knowledge from the artists with whom he associated; from Ernest S.Carlos especially. Carlos was killed in the Great War when his work was gaining recognition. He is remembered by his portraits and by his Boy Scout pictures. Then followed for Phillips a period of art teaching from which only recently has he become emancipated. He settled in Canada 15 years ago, and by the shores of Lake Winnipeg, on the great rivers, or up in the mountains he has found endless subjects for his water-colours and his colour prints.
And now about his work. He started as an etcher but, as he has said himself in his authoritative book on “The Technique of the Colour Woodcut”, he abominates the cold unresponsive nature of metal, the smell of acid and oil and the dirtiness of printing inks—in fact all the things that I most love myself. So Phillips abandoned etching for colour work from wood blocks, and anyone who has read his book and has studied his prints must realise that here is an artist comparable with those of old Japan, not only in his certain knowledge of his materials and technical details, but in the revelation of his personal vision.
The revival and development of the colour print from wood blocks is one of the most interesting movements in graphic art in recent times. In a way, I have grown up with it, for it is more than thirty years since my friends, Mr. J. D. Batten, Mr. F. Morley and Mr. Alan W. Seaby inaugurated the movement and showed that Japanese methods could be used with new life and purpose in occidental art. Their activities and their work have passed into the substance of artistic consciousness to-day; but though those three artists, together with Mr. W. Giles, will stand out as leaders, there are as there should be younger artists of brilliant accomplishment who carry on their work in a spirit of brave adventure and with a knowledge more perfect than theirs. High among these adventurers of to-day stands Mr. W. J. Phillips. Like his predecessors, he has realised the natural limitations of the method which he has chosen. Colour which is applied, not directly, but under pressure from flat spaces of a wood surface, will not respond to the artist’s intention like fluid colour applied with a brush. There is here no room for accident, no place for those chance half-tones, those blurred edges, those little pearly drops of translucent colour that give charm to the water-colour drawing. The maker of the colour woodcut has a deliberately restricted sphere. He must accept and overcome all the exigencies and limitations that his method imposes. He differs from the water-colour painter, or from any man who draws or even writes, in that he is never putting down with almost unconscious finger tips what brain and eye are telling him. He cannot, like the painter in oil or water-colour, see his work grow under his eye. He has to translate; he has to build slowly and carefully; he is bound to analyse and simplify, to search out a definite and constructive design; he must contract and concentrate, and never expand; he must extract the essence of colour, as the etcher extracts the essence of line.
A growing power of analytic design is manifest in each new series of Mr. Phillips’ woodcuts, and in each series we find a more triumphant conquest of the difficulties inherent in his craft. The new set of prints that goes out to the world herewith is marked once more by sound craftsmanship, happy invention, and charm of colour. In these colour prints, where lines are non-existent or lost, where no acid has ploughed its way into rigid metal, where no foulness of oily ink has soiled the printer’s hands, there is the glamour and tenderness that are the special quality of the colour woodcut at its best. The flower-piece, with its fine sense of decoration and harmony of colour, lends variety to the six other prints in which the artist has reproduced once more with affection and sympathy, in sunshine and in misty atmosphere, the warm precincts of landscape and lake in his adopted land.
And now, after having written up to this point, I have seen the proof sheets of what Mr. Phillips himself has written by way of preface to this series. More than ever, in face of Mr. Phillips’ own able descriptions of his exacting craft and in front of his poetical description of the subjects which he has depicted, this Introduction seems futile. It will not be futile if I can persuade anyone that the “Cineraria” is not so tame as its maker thinks, or if I can persuade Mr. Phillips never again to speak of his written words (which are just as synthetic as his print “Sunset”) as a “Dissertation” or a “Commentary” and never again to speak of visions that float on to Shogi or Goyu paper from blocks of cherry wood as the work of a “European chromoxylographist”.