Lucien Pissarro in England, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Pissarro fils experimented with Camille's pointillism. but it was as a printer that he made his own mark
Sunday 09 January 2011
Happily for visitors, the Ashmolean Museum owns Lucien Pissarro's Eragny Church, painted in 1886 when the artist was flirting with pointillism.
That gives you the bare bones of the work – a spire, dots – although no indication of its charm. The rules of pointillism could be deadening, provoking bouts of stiffness in even the great Seurat. Lucien's churchscape has none of that, though. Eragny Church dances on the canvas, all rustle and flicker. Needless to say, it is outnumbered 20 to one on the Ashmolean's walls by works of Lucien's father, Camille.
Which makes Eragny Church a good place to start your visit to the museum's small new show, Lucien Pissarro in England. Had it been called "Pissarro in England", we would naturally have assumed Camille, one of the reasons for Lucien's transplanting himself to London in 1890. Even this was not the liberation it seemed. He had already been sent to England by his father in 1883, the Pissarros having passed the Franco-Prussian War en famille in Upper Norwood. For ever after, Camille would wear tweeds and eat marmalade for breakfast. Forbidden by his bourgeois Jewish family from marrying his unlettered Christian mistress when she fell pregnant in 1860, he found the courage to do so in London. England had meant liberation for Pissarro père. Now, Pissarro fils would escape there as well.
One result of this need to get away was the Eragny Press, the subject of the Ashmolean's show. If Lucien wanted to distance himself from his father, then switching artforms was as good a way as any. Camille had never done a woodblock print, and he never would. Lucien would be the family printer. Not only would books provide a steadier living than pictures, woodblock printing came with a good left-wing pedigree. Part of England's attraction for Lucien lay in William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the radical socialism of the Vale and Kelmscott presses. And so, in 1895, Lucien and his English wife, Esther – Camille had helped arrange the marriage – launched the Eragny Press, set up in Vale typeface lent by the artist Charles Ricketts.
As always in Lucien's life, there were problems; and, as always, they involved Camille. It was the elder Pissarro, himself hardly flush, who paid for the press, and who reminded Lucien, in ever more exasperated letters, that his first duty was to be a Pissarro. This meant being an Impressionist, working à la mode d'Eragny, the Norman village where the family had settled in 1884. If Camille shared his son's fondness for English radicalism, he did not share his taste for English woodblocks – "that religiotic-anaemic Anglo-style", in his withering terms.
And so poor Lucien, ever good-natured, tried to please everybody by being an Arts and Crafts printer and an Impressionist painter at once. The results are often beautiful, if not marketable. Of the 32 books which the Eragny Press would publish between 1895 and 1914, none sold more than a couple of hundred copies and not all as many as that. Buyers were largely bibliophiles, and mostly English: although Lucien published everyone from Nerval to Flaubert, there was no French market for his books. His drawings for the first, Nerval's Queen of the Fishes, show something of the problem. The black outlines which anticipate printing sit oddly with the painterliness of The Woodcutter's Nephew with the Fisher-girl, its soft colourism and receding landscape. The image is trying to be a pointillist woodblock, an oxymoron that Camille helpfully spelled out when he dismissed Lucien's prints of his own Travaux des Champs as "stained-glass windows". Les Sarcleuses ("The Weed-Pickers") suggests he had a point.
It is the Eragny Press's more English books that are the most visually successful. The border of Francis Bacon's Of Gardens tempers the workmanlike solidity of William Morris with the lightness of Lucien's Eragny Church. Tellingly, the book was published in 1902, the year of Camille's death. Only then can Lucien begin to work as he would have liked to, even designing his own type – Brook – when Ricketts withdrew Vale on closing his press, also in 1902. For the next 12 years, Lucien and Esther would make some of the loveliest images in this show. The Great War put paid to Eragny's books, and Lucien returned to painting, although now in the tradition of the Camden Town Group of which he had been a founding member. That is how we remember him if we remember him at all, so that this lovely show – like Lucien himself, modest and good-natured – comes as a gentle corrective. In 1947, three years after her husband's death, Esther Pissarro sailed to the middle of the English Channel and dumped Lucien's presses overboard, the entente at last cordiale.
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