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antiques: LEGEND OF LINOLEUM; Christopher Proudlove on the artists who were a cut above.

LINOLEUM - once every home had at least one floor covered with it - is hardly the medium associated with striking images like the ones illustrated here. You'll have to take my word for it, though: without the muddy mixture of ground cork, solidified linseed oil and rosin rolled onto a coarse canvas backing - patented by its English inventor Frederick Walton in 1860 - the prints might never have been conceived.

I remember making linocut prints in school art lessons (they were pathetic), but no one knows precisely when serious artists hit on the idea.

Theoretically, it could have started from the date of its invention, but apparently wallpapers in Germany are said to have been printed from lino blocks in the 1890s.

German expressionists Erich Heckel and Christian Rohlfs were among the pioneers of linocut prints, Australian Horace Brodsky was another.

Brodsky lived in London from 1908 to 1915, during which time he produced several powerful linocuts and introduced the medium to the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska. A print by the latter called The Wrestlers was included in the first exhibition of British linocuts in a London gallery in 1929.

In 1910, American artist Max Weber created his first linocut from a length of linoleum he found in a rubbish dump in New York.

However, the greatest champion of the British linocut was Claude Flight, an artist and teacher who enjoyed huge fame at the height of his career but, by the time of his death, had fallen into obscurity.

Ironically, Flight had to contend with the linocut being held in low esteem among his fellow artists who perceived it as a childish method of print-making.

Because lino was so cheaply available and easy to cut, it was quickly adopted by schools to teach children art.

Viennese Professor Franz Cizek was a pioneer of this. He encouraged his pupils to experiment in their art classes and by the 1920s his approach was adopted universally.

Flight welcomed Cizek's initiative and campaigned for the recognition of the linocut as an independent art form.

He also adopted methods, which recalled the English Arts and Crafts movement, by advocating production methods of craft-like simplicity with a complete absence of machinery.

Common linoleum from household floors provided his blocks and he used gouges to cut them, fashioned from umbrella ribs and spoons.

He believed press printing produced "hard and mechanical results" and instead rubbed the back of the paper with his hands as it lay on the linocut to yield lightly textured effects in which quality and colour could be controlled directly.

The fascinating thing about Claude Flight, though, is that in addition to his relatively late start as an artist, his formal training was minimal.

He was born in London in 1881 and tried farming and bee-keeping on his parents' farm in Sussex for seven years (his neighbour was Rudyard Kipling), engineering for two years and for a year and a half was a librarian. He was a mature student aged 31 when he enrolled at Heatherley School of Art in London but his training was halted by the outbreak of World War I.

He volunteered as a farrier with the Royal Army Service Corps and then served for 3 1/2 years in France as a commissioned captain responsible for procuring horses and mules.

After the war he launched himself into a career as an artist, working first in oils and watercolours and, from 1919, in linocuts.

In 1927, Flight founded an interior decoration business in London and, together with close companion Edith Lawrence, another gifted linocutter, he designed murals, floor and wall tiles, screens, curtains, bedspreads and even pyjamas. The business continued well into the Depression.

Flight also edited The Arts and Crafts Quarterly from 1926-27 and contributed a series of articles on linocutting. These were expanded into his first book, Linocuts, which appeared in 1927, followed by a second handbook in 1934.

From 1926, Flight began teaching lino-cutting one afternoon a week at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London. Its founder was Iain Macnab, a progressive art teacher and wood engraver who had been joint principal at Heatherley's.

At Grosvenor School, Flight gathered around him a group of talented pupils and together they organised a series of annual linocut exhibitions both in London and to tour the UK and abroad - some as far as the US, China and Australia.

Flight taught a revolutionary method of linocutting whch dispensed with the key block. Instead, Flight used two, three or four blocks of almost equal detail, each of which laid down an image in a different colour.

Superimposing one colour over another allowed the picture to be built up gradually in varying strengths and in differing colours.

Because of its cheapness to produce, Flight saw the linocut as art for the masses.

His vision was a linocut in every home, at prices, to use his own words, "equivalent to that paid by the average man for his daily beer or his cinema ticket". He continued to teach through the 1930s and continued with his design work until his studio in Baker Street was bombed in an air raid in 1942. Most of his lino blocks were lost. Sadly, he did not produce any significant work after World War II and suffered a stroke in 1947, after which his health deteriorated. He died in 1955, aged 74.


Steeplechase (main) and Speedway riders (inset bottom) by Cybil Andrews, a pupil of Claude Flight, estimated at up to pounds 6,000 and pounds 18,000 respectively, and a print of a rowing eight (inset top) by another pupil, Cyril Power, estimated at up to pounds 15,000
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jun 14, 2008
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