Yvonne Skargon: Artist celebrated for her wood engravings from nature

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The Independent Online

The title of Jenny Uglow's recent biography of Thomas Bewick, Nature's Engraver, could as well describe the work of Yvonne Skargon, who like Bewick engraved nature in all its forms with equal skill and sympathy.

Born on the east coast near Harwich, a makeshift schooling in wartime gave her a taste and some aptitude for drawing and painting. But life really began in 1948 when she got into Colchester School of Art. It had two distinguished wood-engravers on the staff, the Principal, John O'Connor, and her special inspiration, Blair Hughes-Stanton, visiting lecturer. She realised at once that wood-engraving was what she wanted to do, an instinctive reaction that she was later to observe in others when she came to teach it at the Royal College of Art.

Immediately, however, Colchester provided the essential grounding in design work that lead to her first job with W. S. Cowell of Ipswich, then one of the best and most innovative printers in the country. Under the genial eye of John Lewis she added typography and book-design to her repertoire. Transferred to Cowell's London office, she embarked on a career working for publishers or free-lance, illustrating or designing books and book-jackets.

Little of this involved wood-engraving, apart from two books on sub-Saharan village life, due to the photographer Howard Coster. But in 1967 Christophers, the wine merchants, started a monthly newsletter, to which Elizabeth David contributed and Skargon illus-trated with her own engravings. It was published as a book, Eat at Pleasure, Drink by Measure (1970). In 1976 she became visiting lecturer in wood engraving at the Royal College of Art, a stimulating task that only ended when the subject was dropped from the syllabus in 1980.

Moving to Lavenham the next year and creating her own garden provided new inspiration for engraving. First in the Observer magazine and then in Hortus, the gardening quarterly, flowers and plants seemed to grow out of the wood under her hand, so naturally that the fine detail seemed part of their structure. In 1990 she did roses for the Royal Mail commemorative stamps, adding watercolours of them for the special first-day cover envelopes.

Another unexpected success came from her engravings of her cats, The Importance of Being Oscar (1988) and Lily & Hodge & Dr Johnson (1991) becoming world bestsellers. The cats became the trademark of a chain of boutique shops in Japan, and were transmigrated into china and textiles, an unexpected spin-off. Watermarks (2003) was a complete change, a return to the objects and scenes of the sea and shore of her childhood. In this, as in all she did, she had the true engraver's gift of catching the universe in the small space of a wood block.

Yvonne Skargon, wood engraver, illustrator and maker of books: born Dovercourt, Essex 1 May 1931; married 1962 John Commander; died Sudbury 16 March 2010.