Master printmaker in the tradition of Edward Bawden
Thursday 15 December 2005
John Liddell, printmaker and teacher: born London 6 July 1924; married 1949 Joan Witchalls (two sons, one daughter); died Bournemouth, Dorset 11 December 2005.
John Liddell was an outstanding relief printmaker, draughtsman and teacher. His career upheld and extended into the modern era the arduous disciplines of woodblock and linocut printmaking. Inspired by the towering example of 20th-century British printmakers such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Norman Janes and Douglas Percy Bliss - the last two teaching him at Hornsey School of Art - Liddell excelled in the depiction of architectural detail and of rural idylls in Dorset, Norfolk and north Devon.
A long and influential teaching career culminated in his running postgraduate teacher training at Bournemouth College of Art and, after retirement, in the establishment of the co-operative venture Poole Printmakers in Dorset.
He was born in Wood Green, north London, in 1924. While parental encouragement meant no moral blocks to artistic ambition, which first blossomed at grammar school and then Hornsey, Liddell's lower-middle-class background was blighted by misfortune. One of two brothers and two sisters, he was the only survivor. But a paternal grandmother from Romford, the Slade-trained Rosa Braithwaite, had been a notable Edwardian figure painter; and Liddell's father, a travelling salesman, broadened young John's horizons by taking him on business travels around the country, an experience that fostered Liddell's later taste for varying topographies and local architectural features.
At Hornsey Liddell studied illustration, design and printmaking for the National Diploma. He later recalled how watching Norman Janes and Douglas Percy Bliss engrave a woodblock "sowed the seeds of my interest in print-making". During the 1930s Bliss, with his friends Bawden and Ravilious, was part of a precocious student group at the Royal College of Art. The example of Bawden was thus indirectly transmitted; Liddell's printmaking would follow Bawden's interest in the peculiarities of vernacular architectural detail and natural structure. Like Bawden, Liddell married an artist who provided professional as well as personal companionship, his wife Joan studying textiles at Hornsey and later producing coloured prints distinguished by an Arts and Crafts decorative vigour.
He lived with his parents at Southgate during the Second World War, witnessing the London blitz at a safe though still visible remove. A bout of eczema excused him from military service though he became a part-timer with the fire service and painted murals for RAF canteens at Hendon.
Inspired by the neo-romanticism of Graham Sutherland, John Piper and John Minton, he made drawings at bombsites, the interest in ruins fulfilling contemporary realist as well as traditional picturesque criteria. He was reprimanded by authorities for sketching Georgian buildings in Hampstead. Although Europe and modernism were inaccessible until after the war Liddell learnt much from the V&A and the British Museum, and from lectures at the National Gallery.
After completing his Hornsey training with a teaching certificate, Liddell taught art first at a grammar school in Banbury, then in the junior wing of High Wycombe School of Art, then at Reading School where, as head of art, he introduced printmaking and built a kiln which led to a foray into ceramics.
He lived at Wallingford in Oxfordshire and started a family. In 1954 he moved to Bournemouth College of Art where, as head of education, his printmaking responded to the ancient and picturesque Dorset landscape. Despite their traditionalism, Liddell's drawings and prints were not produced in an art-historical vacuum; he took senior pupils to see the epochal 1951 Festival of Britain many times and his home was decorated with furniture and Milner Gray wallpapers that reflected new post-war trends in design. Later, in 1963, he encountered the basic design experiments of Harry Thubron, Tom Hudson and Terry Frost on a Byam Shaw course in London.
Liddell's prints were, however, probably at their sharpest when using time-honoured techniques and a single block in black ink. Among these were topographic studies of Lee and other north Devon villages (made while visiting his son Ben in Barnstaple), a series based on Norfolk churches and boats moored on the Norfolk Broads, and recurring studies of the historically diverse buildings along Poole Quay. These were masterpieces of detail wrought, with graphic ingenuity, from an inventive and expressive use of black and white pattern.
John Liddell enjoyed a congenial milieu at Bournemouth under the wood engraver Fred Courtney. The etcher Frank Dodman, the painter John Spencer and the draughtsman Ken Hatts became close colleagues. Nearby Poole had, during the inter-war period, hosted a kind of art colony where local artists like Leslie Ward, Eustace Nash and Percy Wise had associated with, and grouped around, the Poole-based painters Augustus John and Henry Lamb. The Poole and East Dorset Art Society and Bournemouth Arts Club were testimony to this activity. Liddell's contribution extended to film and amateur dramatics and he acted as film and slide-lecture projectionist at the college, supervising visiting lecturers such as David Hockney, Reg Butler, Claude Rogers and Alan Bowness.
Living in a large Edwardian house in Queens Park, Bournemouth - which he maintained for the rest of his life even during periods of teaching at North London Polytechnic or summers spent at a pair of thatched huts on stilts at Hicklin Broad, Norfolk - Liddell was a generous host. Students frequently lodged with the Liddells, thereby erasing the distinction between college and home life. After Bournemouth closed its education department, he taught at Southampton and, opting for early retirement in 1979, taught part-time on foundation studies in Bournemouth.
In 1991 Liddell founded Poole Printmakers. Located in an old warehouse near the Guildhall in the heart of old Poole, the workshop ran courses and provided old iron hand-presses for members - some friends, some students. Through the workshop he kept active to the end.
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