John O'Connor

Artist and wood-engraver
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The Independent Online

John O'Connor, artist and wood-engraver: born Leicester 11 August 1913; Head, Colchester School of Art 1948-64; married 1945 Jeannie Tennant (one son); died Dumfries 5 March 2004.

John O'Connor was the last of the "heroic" generation of wood-engravers, those pre-war figures whose early numbers had included Edward Gordon Craig, Eric Gill, Robert Gibbings, Paul and John Nash and Eric Ravilious.

It was Ravilious who spotted his pupil O'Connor's early engraving talent at the Royal College of Art in 1933, and sent him to T.N. Lawrence's shop in Fetter Lane to buy boxwood and engraving tools. When visiting the Raviliouses at Castle Hedingham in Essex O'Connor was captivated both by the directness of the wood-engraving technique, and by the simple domestic scene in which Ravilious engraved by a lamp in one corner of the room while his wife Tirzah played with their small son by the fire in another.

Ravilious sent John with glowing references to see Christopher Sandford of the Golden Cockerel Press, who gave him his first commission, to illustrate Here's Flowers (1937), an anthology of flower poems made by Joan Rutter.

John O'Connor was born in Leicester in 1913, where he attended the Leicester College of Art, and many holidays were spent with his twin brother on their uncle's farm in the Vale of Belvoir. Here John developed his intense love of the English countryside and the people and animals who inhabit it.

He used wood-engraving to represent this in an imaginative rather than a realistic, Bewick-like, way, deploying the engraving tool to produce patterned textures, geometric shapes, expressive lines and strong contrasts of black and white which give his work a sparkle and freshness that jumps out of the paper. This technique is already well developed in a series of large engravings of the London parks done in 1938 while he was still a student at the Royal College of Art.

O'Connor's other passion was for Gothic architecture. When he was 12 he was sent away to Hereford to recover from TB, and there still survives a minutely detailed pencil drawing of the cathedral in which he detailed all the finery of the masons' work. He had an intimate knowledge of European medieval architecture, and Alec Clifton-Taylor claimed that O'Connor was one of the few people with whom he could hold a well-informed discussion on the subject. The occasion on which a certain printer once referred to Carlisle Cathedral as Victoria redbrick is still remembered with horror by the O'Connor family.

From 1940 to 1946 O'Connor served in the RAF, but still managed to engrave. Just before he joined up he did a wonderfully impressionistic series of large engravings of the Yorkshire dales, the blocks for which, scarcely ever proofed, only recently came to light. He illustrated two more books for Sandford, Together and Alone (1945) and We Happy Few (1946), but he and Sandford could never see eye to eye on the portrayal of the female figure, O'Connor referring a more restrained, Gothic, line, while Sandford favoured the more full-blooded approach of John Buckland-Wright, whom he increasingly used.

O'Connor became head of the Colchester School of Art in 1948, and at that time began to introduce colour into his wood-engravings by overprinting coloured linocuts. This was something of a revolution, as wood-engraving had till then been largely considered a black-and-white process. Canals, Barges and People (1950) was the result of this, as well as the outcome of a lifelong interest in barges and their inhabitants. It was an immediate success, but only 1,000 copies were printed by Shenval Press and the colour made a reprint impractical. An Essex Pie (an anthology compiled by T.M. Hope, 1951) and A Pattern of People (written and engraved by O'Connor, 1959) used the same background colour technique to equally good effect.

In 1964 O'Connor retired from teaching to concentrate on painting and engraving and in 1975 he and his wife, Jeannie, went to live by Loch Ken in Kirkcudbrightshire, where his love of light and water inspired his many watercolours and oil paintings. He was the author of several instructive books, Landscape Painting (1967), The Technique of Wood Engraving (1971), Introducing Relief Printing (1973) and Landscape Drawing (1977), and continued, too, to engrave. The Wood-engravings of John O'Connor (1989), with a commentary by Jeannie, reproduces a selection from five decades of engraving.

His engraving continued into yet another decade with the imaginative commission from Richard Ingrams for O'Connor to produce a monthly illustration for The Oldie magazine. These pieces - 36 of which were preserved in hard covers in People and Places (1999) - have all the sparkle and wit of the early work, and he only laid down his tools in 2001, a 65-year span which is surely unique.

John O'Connor's last book of engravings, The Country Scene, a collection for the Whittington Press of his early and largely unknown work, was on the press when he died. As printing was about to begin, the instruction came from his hospital bed that colour was to be introduced wherever possible. Proofs were hurriedly made by his son, Mike, and taken to him, and delightedly approved days before his death.

An exhibition of O'Connor's watercolours, "Essex and Suffolk in the Fifties", opens at Abbott and Holder in Museum Street, London, on 15 April.

John Randle