The saviour of the lost world

At the turn of the century, FL Griggs sought to capture the vanishing world of England's countryside. Now a new biography and an exhibition of his work are revealing his vision of its luminous landscapes. By Roderic Dunnett
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The Independent Culture

"My love for the things Samuel Palmer loved is my first and last love, and I know no other artist who loved them so well, and whose love so showed forth in his work." Only last May, the Fine Art Society exhibited the complete Palmer etchings. They could have designed no more fitting curtain-raiser to herald their current exhibition of the work of another English visionary. An intriguing and illuminating display of etchings, watercolours and pencil drawings by FL Griggs is now running; a separate Griggs exhibition will be mounted at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, during November and December. Both are timed to coincide with the publication of an extensive assessment of his life and work: FL Griggs: The Architecture of Dreams by Jerrold Northrop Moore.

"My love for the things Samuel Palmer loved is my first and last love, and I know no other artist who loved them so well, and whose love so showed forth in his work." Only last May, the Fine Art Society exhibited the complete Palmer etchings. They could have designed no more fitting curtain-raiser to herald their current exhibition of the work of another English visionary. An intriguing and illuminating display of etchings, watercolours and pencil drawings by FL Griggs is now running; a separate Griggs exhibition will be mounted at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, during November and December. Both are timed to coincide with the publication of an extensive assessment of his life and work: FL Griggs: The Architecture of Dreams by Jerrold Northrop Moore.

It is more than 30 years since Francis Comstock's Griggs catalogue ( A Gothic Vision: FL Griggs and his Work ) took stock of a career that spanned five decades. A well thought-out reassessment has been long overdue. The earliest etching in the Fine Art Society exhibition ( Maur's Farm ) dates from l913, though (as with much of Griggs' best mature work) its roots can be traced to much earlier origins. His first known experiments in etching date from 1895, not long after Palmer's younger son, Alfred Herbert Palmer, published his revealing monograph on his father in 1892.

Griggs's gift for sketching and line-drawing, which led directly to his being trained as an architectural draughtsman under CE Mallows, had emerged while he was still a schoolboy in Hitchin. It was in his adolescence in the Hertfordshire town that he first sought out those images of loss and decay, and of an earlier England, that would haunt him, and which he would repeatedly invoke, and seek to reverse, in his mature work during and after the First World War.

His timing was apt. It was a fast-vanishing world Griggs sought to preserve, as had Palmer before him. If war and its aftermath quickened the process, the urban change and the proliferation of motor vehicles had already, by the turn of the century, signalled the end of an era. His illustrations for the Highways and Byways series (published by MacMillan) gave Griggs's concerns some outlet, while a series of articles on "Architectural Gardening" in The Studio permitted him to introduce an element of fantasy that fed into his later etchings.

But the disappointment and inadequacy of reproduction proved ever more irksome. It was this dissatisfaction that led Griggs doggedly to persevere with etching. Few etchers (Blake and Palmer were among the significant exceptions) retained the acute quality control that arose from not only visualising, but actually printing, their own work. In this, arguably, lay the key to Griggs's greatness - which peaked with such images as St Botolph's, Boston (1924-5), The Almonry (1925), and The Lanterns of Sarras (1932).

Two of Palmer's etchings - The Weary Ploughman (1858) and The Herdsman's Cottage (1850) - plus a clutch of Griggs watercolours can be viewed as part of the Fine Art Society's London Griggs exhibition. But it is in a dozen or so etchings dating from l913-20 - Maur's Farm (1913), Meppershall Chapel (1915) with its merging and juxtaposition of sacred and secular, The Cresset (1915) with its characteristic bridge and bastion, or Totterne Inn (1919) with its grasping shadows and glowering church - where one sees the evolving suggestive power that characterises his best work. They are massive, looming, possibly threatening, certainly disquieting edifices which embrace and merge the natural and the man-made and transform the observed into the visionary ("realism brought to the aid of idealism", as Griggs wrote in a letter to Russell Alexander). In particular, the artful distribution of light by the finest delicate touches (owing something to forerunners such as Palmer, but above all observed from nature).

Yet Griggs, as Jerrold Northrop Moore, his biographer, recalls, was "virtually self taught as an etcher. It was the one field where he had virtually no formal instruction. And he was at least as great a printer as he was an etcher. By the age of just 20 he had a proven command of watercolours, oils and, as an architectural draughtsman, his one and only failure in the early years was etching. That merely fired his determination. He deplored other methods of reproduction including photo-engraving. Etching was the one medium, Griggs maintained, where the printing actually improved on the original."

Moore is also an acclaimed biographer of Edward Elgar, whose work often evokes a similar quality of intense nostalgia. Griggs, he points out, made use of his county Highways and Byways drawings - forerunner to the Betjeman and John Piper photographic Shell Guides - much as Elgar used his notebooks. Ideas were laid down in them to ripen, only to resurface later, in a reworked form, in the mature etchings.

Time and again, set amid Palmer landscapes, Griggs evokes "a vision of the entire inheritance of vernacular and Gothic architecture, from Saxon church to 17th-century manor house. It was as if his depiction of them had the power to preserve such old and fragile survivals from every threat of change or decay or removal".

 

'FL Griggs: The Architecture of Dreams' is published by OUP (£70)

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