Edmund Blampied - an interview
Of the several distinguished artists that Jersey has produced, none has had a deeper insight into the countryman's way of life in the Island than Edmund Blampied. Partly for this reason, none has had a greater affection for, nor depicted with greater understanding, the Jersey country scene that has vanished at an accelerating pace since the first World War.
Born into a family of three brothers on 30 March 1886 at Ville Bree, St Martin, Jersey, a few days after the death of his father, Edmund lived for most of his youth in Augres, Trinity. He went to Trinity School under a much respected headmaster, Ernest Gruchy, who however, overlooked the boy's peculiar ability.
Fortunately, this did not mar a youthful enjoyment of the many-sided country life, intimate acquaintance with the farm people, the gossip, the hard-working and musical Breton seasonal workers; then the cows, the horses, potato-planting, the festivity associated with ploughing and cider-making. At a very early age the desire to draw the personalities and the farm animals manifested itself: the Jersey cows with their grace and beautiful colouring, and especially the big farm horses upon whose power and suppleness the whole programme of farm work depended.
When he was 15 some of his drawings were seen by a French Alsatian lady, Miss Klintz, who had an art school in St Saviour's Road in the town. She recognised his outstanding talent and offered him lessons, which he gladly accepted, and for which he has always been deeply grateful. He avers that he learned more from her than from anyone else. After working in Advocate Philippe Baudains's office for a short time, Edmund went to London in 1903 with a memory stacked, at the most susceptible and retentive age, with the life and movement of the farm.
At Lambeth Art School he worked under difficulties. Money was short and whether he remained, or returned to Jersey, depended upon whether he got a scholarship in his second year. He was awarded one at the London County Council's Art School in Bolt Court, where he began to learn the art of etching under Walter Seymour. At the same time he earned a little money by doing black and white drawings for the Daily Chronicle.
Other students at Bolt Court were J Nicolson, R C Peter and S van Abbe, his future brother-in-law, all to become, like Edmund, members of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers.
The years from 1904 to 1913 were a hard struggle. There was a first show of his etchings at the Leicester Galleries in London in July 1913, but he could not afford a bicycle until the end of 1913, when he began to draw for The Sphere, The Bystander, and The Sketch. There was another gleam of success in March 1914, when 17 Blampied etchings appeared in the catalogue of the work of students of Bolt Court. Many of these aroused the enthusiasm of that fine critic, Malcolm Salaman.
On 5 August 1914, the day after the declaration of the First World War, he married Marianne van Abbe. It is not possible here to pay adequate tribute, not only to her loving care but also to her artistic appreciation, which have contributed so much to his welfare and success. In 1916 the Blampieds returned to Jersey. Edmund was soon in uniform and later, with medical category B2, was put on garrison duties. An extra duty was the painting of some quaint panels in the dining room at St Peter's Barracks. His Commanding Officer tried to get him commissioned as a war artist, which he would most willingly have accepted, and for which he was admirably qualified.
After the war, they returned to London and in 1919 Brown and Philips of the Leicester Galleries gave another public exhibition of Edmund's etchings, along with those of other artists. In 1926 the Blampieds set off on a year's foreign travel, going first to Paris then to Tunisia, the Riviera and back to Paris. The drawings and etchings of Tunisia with their gateways, tents and supercilious camels are not easily come by now. With many drawings of Paris they were for the most part acquired in 1927 by Mr Wiggin, an American, and are now in the Boston Public Library with the rest of Mr Wiggin's big collection. This Library had, in 1952, over 300 Blampied drawings, those from the sketch books having been mounted individually.
Between the wars, summer holidays were always spent in France, and often part of the winter was spent on the Riviera. It is therefore easy to understand why the French atmosphere in many of his works is so convincing. Drawings, etchings and paintings were also done in Holland, Belgium, and Spain.
Then, in 1938, Blampied settled in Jersey, staying there during the German occupation. It should be added that as far back as 1920 he became interested in lithography, which appealed to him for its tone values and atmospheric qualities, and as a variant from the line of drawing and drypoint etching. In 1925 he took a course with A S Hartrick and some years later attended the London Central Art School for two or three years studying the medium with his former teacher, also studying etching under the guidance of Malcolm Osborne.
His skill in lithography won him the gold medal at the Exposition des arts decoratifs in Paris in 1928, the motif being French peasants in a wine cellar with beautiful light effects. Many more lithographs were done. Blampied's greatest love, however, is for the pencil and the drypoint needle.
In 1926 Halton and Truscott Smith of 57 Haymarket, London, published a Complete Catalogue of the Etchings and Drypoints of Edmund Blampied compiled by Campbell Dodgson,Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. The edition was limited to 350 copies and was a complete, or nearly complete, illustrated compendium of work up till then. Blampied executed a magnificent set of illustrations in 1931 for Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
With the exception of the frontispiece, which is in the possession of the writer, these original drawings, too, are in the USA at the Brooklyn Public Library, which has also acquired some fine Blampied watercolours.
During the German Occupation of Jersey, Blampied did many beautiful paintings in oil and watercolour in spite of a shortage of materials. Some fine drawings were even made on wallpaper. There was also the unusual assignment for designs for the local currency notes and local postage stamps executed for the States of Jersey.
Recognition by other artists is not lightly granted but Edmund Blampied has been elected without application on his part to membership of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers, the Senefelder Club of Lithography, the Royal Society of British Artists, and the Society of Graphic Arts.
For exhibition he greatly favours the Royal Scottish Academy and was greatly honoured by Prince Philip having bought a 30in x 25in there a few years ago.
The work of Edmund Blampied has many facets, appreciation of which by the public has lagged behind that by other artists and discriminating collectors in Jersey and elsewhere. One reason, and not the least, is the self-effacement of the artist himself, for he is by nature the most retiring and kindliest of men. Another reason is that having returned to his native island in the autumn of 1938, he found himself isolated by the German Occupation from outside contacts.
One can say with certitude that his black and white works - there are many - are those of a master of draughtsmanship. In them are to be found something of the dignity and humour of Daumier (who, like Blampied, was a caricaturist at the outset), the powerful yet humble structure of Millet, and the pity for humanity of Forain, all expressed with that fluidity of line which is found only in a master of drawing. There is often a breath of the earth, a whiff of Ostade or of Bega, and occasionally something of the atmosphere and nobility which reaches its climax in the great master Rembrandt himself.
Blampied is, however, no copyist and his work is in many ways unique. In most of his drawing there is an underlying spirit of happiness, and the sheer joy of living exudes from the vitality of the subject. Where Forain inspires pity for the injustice and misery of the sordid life of the city, so vividly and with such feeling that one feels the shadow of life, Blampied supplies the sunlight. His technique has a cachet, a freshness, a living force, in its own right. It has its own attribute of greatness. Here is the gift which with simplicity and the utmost economy of means shews humanity amidst its complexities and the nobility of living things. The country folk and the farm horses are so convincing; you feel you are there. From his earliest boyhood he has drawn them.
He conveys the movements of the horses, the ripples under their skin, the distribution of weight upon the legs, the play of light which lends that luminous gloss that delights the eye, and that infinitesimal alteration of posture which anticipates movement. All this is achieved with the flowing line of the etcher that can only come from real knowledge combined with accurate draughtsmanship and inspiration from the love of the living, man and beast.
Sympathy is portrayed in the varying degrees of fatigue, of interest or delight. Anger is so rarely depicted that one has difficulty in recalling a single instance of it; there is no jarring note to disturb the serenity of Blampied's art. Humour flutters like a butterfly in the offing and is seldom absent.
The earlier humorous drawings and caricatures, often tinted with watercolour, were good clean fun and had great topical impact, especially those with Jersey subjects. A portfolio incorporating the village choir, the parish meeting, the knight of the bannelais, Saint Martin blessing the Jersey cow, assortments of tourist types, together with the accompanying quips, would do a lot to cheer up a convalescent.
But Blampied is no simple recorder and reproducer of Nature. He draws from memory and from the heart. Each line is planned in advance, is executed in a flowing sweep, and no line is ever erased. Thus the scaffolding around which imagination can weave its atmospheres, its distances, its sunlit mists and shafts of light.
Etching imposes its own stern discipline. The copper plate resents mistakes, and much unnecessary toil is the penalty for making them. If an artist is exact when he takes to the drypoint, he becomes even more so when he has done much of it. Too often drypoints are regarded as mere reproductions of drawings, or classified vaguely under the general term "etching", which would include the other process of biting into the copper plate with acid.
One of the distinctive features of the drypoint is that the depth of incision can be varied and the points of special interest and beauty emphasised to the exact degree required for the correct quantity of ink into the line. Solidity can be well indicated and the beauty of the burr, that slight wave of copper thrown up by the needle which results in a lovely distribution of the ink, is obtained by no other method.
Blampied has even done drypoints with a sharpened nail on a cigarette tin; with a little printing ink rubbed in with the finger the effect is very beautiful. It may be worth mentioning here that only a limited number of prints can be made from a drypoint plate because the burr is rapidly worn down by passage through the press. The earliest impressions are therefore usually the best. The number of "going to press" is frequently shewn at the bottom of the print. Thus 12/60 would indicate that it is the twelfth successful print of a limited edition of sixty. The plate is then destroyed.
Watercolour and oil
Many very fine watercolour drawings and oil paintings, and some portraits have been done by this versatile artist, the most versatile Jersey has yet produced. They embrace Jersey, Brittany, France and Spain, and are mostly genre subjects but include some fine flower pictures. Gazelle-eyed cows, pollarded trees, holed granite gate posts, the coarse grass of the sandhills, the groups over their petit uerre, labourers of the fields and docks: they are all there behind the artist's eyes to emerge later upon paper or canvas to join with quiet glimpses of sunlight, or the great fat clouds, or the hazy atmosphere of distance.
His heavy farm horses clop along majestically to work or, more ponderously, return rather tired to the stable; or friskily, imitating the thoroughbred, they prance to their Sunday morning dip in the sea-their short interval for fun and games when they recall their coltish days perhaps with some regrets like the rest of us. The Martello towers, the seaweed¬covered rocks, the rippling in-running tide, provide the nuances oflight for his brush. The interior of a farm, or the bistro with the patron and his friends over a bottle and someone putting a spigot in the barrel for good measure: it is all a happy ensemble.
Blampied has filled whole sketchbooks with watercolour drawings of the quais and bridges of the Seine. The twisting curves of the ironwork railings on the balconies of old French houses give him great pleasure while in the poorer quarters he picks out variations in colour from the flaking plaster, the aspidistras on the ledges, the coloured shutters and the signs Charcutier, Sage Femme, Byrrh. Then there are the oxen of the carts of the Basque country methodically plodding along the dusty road guided by a tap on the horns and swinging gracefully into the darkened entrance of a building to emerge into sunlight again in the courtyard. The weight of the loaded creaking cart is reflected in the powerful muscles of the oxen and the sure¬footedness of their gait. Blampied reveals the beauty of these mauve-brown oxen as they slink along as iffor all eternity.
In watercolour, as opposed to wash drawing, he often conveys a hazy softness and atmospheric quality-the mystery of damp trees receding into distance, the ethereal translucency of flowers. Recently, possibly owing to a visit to Spain with its sun-drenched atmosphere, he often employs a more vivid rendering laid on in brush marks of pure colour. The total effect is obtained in the manner of the Impressionists, by the proximity of separate colours to be blended by the eye of the observer. The restricted palette is still employed where suitable but the devotees of Blampied will delight to see work in a higher key. Intense colour brings a new power of its own.
Phillipps - Your pictures always seem to contain life and movement, human or animal, with the landscape, one might say always subservient. I do not recall any work by you of landscape alone. Why is this?
Blampied - Life and movement: the old masters gloried in it, and to my idea art without them can be as dormant as a "frozen asset". Vivacity in technique, too, can be exciting. Take for instance an oil sketch of Constable. Note its aliveness, its vigorous earnestness-well, it's just thrilling! I am actually quite keen on landscape painting but like to introduce some touch of active life into it, whether a horse or a human being. It then somehow identifies landscapes' companionship with humanity. I'm under the impression that a landscape can be lonely.
P - Features of your early environment-the farmhorse, the Jersey cow, the farm worker, and other aspects of country life dominate your early drawings and have persisted throughout. Would you regard those early years spent in Jersey as the most formative of your life?
B - I was born in a Jersey surely two centuries behind the times. The men had side whiskers and fancy waistcoats and most women took snuff and wore too many petticoats. These folk were all so friendly, so amusing, so hardworking. Their happy chatter and laughter, the horses and the noise of cartwheels, the cackle of poultry, the bark of friendly dogs, potato-planting, the cider-making, and what else. The happy noise of it all! And I am forgetting the lighting which was mostly from candles or paraffin. To a youngster hungering to be some day an artist, this jungle of happy life was of great educational worth. When in London some years later and desperately homesick, my imagination was very pleasurably exercised in re-living those precious memories. I treasured and loved them. And it was during those very early years in Jersey that I taught myself to draw a horse in all its movements.
P - Coupled with your supreme ability to draw, your works are marked by their simplicity and organisation, and an underlying feeling of happiness. Is this a true reflection of your own thoughts and feelings? What do you feel about the quite different trends in modern art?
B - Yes. I have a strong belief in the simplicity and economy of line and statement. The "so much" that can be said in a few strokes does add attractiveness to work. To draw a parallel from another realm completely different from visual art, consider the ten commandments - the genius of presentation, and with enough sense and wisdom to govern a people. And all contained in such an amazingly short statement! Phil May, likely as good an artist as Punch ever had, used to say: "the fewer the lines in my drawing the more I ask for the work". Then economy too in speech-making: "keep it short please". And in humour-the shaft of wit.
You ask regarding today's trends. They are certainly disturbing. A kind of slum poverty and a touch of vulgar realism seems at times to come into it. Is perchance bad housing the cause? A starvation of some kind may be taking place. When one looks at Rubens's paintings and compares their live happiness, the excitement, the healthy vigour, then it doesn't seem to be at all the same humanity. But there is, however, still some very presentable modern art.
P - Nowadays you would be described as a conventional artist and not an experimental one. What are your feelings about abstract art? Do Picasso and Paul Klee mean anything to you? Do they interest or enrage you?
B - That I should be thought conventional does not bother me in the slightest. I am continually studying and learning. I am still a student. To be an arrivé can be a condemnation. Today, so many are attempting to be Picasso, Matisse, Klee or what else; and so many are losing their way, so many, so queer! Attempting to paint with a clothes brush or a donkey's tail, or pouring paint out of a kettle, as a rule produces a result as ludicrous as heavy artillery shelling peas! But there are some great moderns - Picasso in his Sunday best is one. He has produced some great works. I believe he loves doodling with paint and what not and etceteras.
But however much you may dislike most of his work the fact remains that he can draw a crowd so numerous to see his work, as would astonish the most fervent lover of a cup final. I have seen much abstract work that I like, but somehow most of it lacks a pinch of salt. I have myself ventured into a few attempts after an illness when I felt too lazy to draw. But it can be, and is, an exciting exercise and quite a few have scored successes in it. Curiously enough I have often wished the titles given to abstracts were in Chinese, just to further that feel of abstract! But I strongly believe abstract has a future. It is certainly making headway in politics ...
P - Confining ourselves to Jersey artists who have passed on, would you care to say something about Le Cappelain, Monamy and others?
B - Le Cappelain's sweet smoothness often robs his work of what might in some instances have been great. Maybe his sketchbooks contained much that was virile and lacking that sweet manner that evidently appealed to Queen Victoria. He would have been a greater artist had he shewn temper in his technique. I am rather taken up with Monamy. He is so Elizabethan. He and Hogarth were friends, I'm told. Very likely he was influenced by the contemporary Dutch school like so many others of that time - the Norwich school for instance. Monamy hangs well with old furniture and polished pewter.
Sir John Millais was an excellent Jerseyman, but a sad note is that rough weather prevented his mother crossing back to Jersey and this caused him to be born in Southampton. A very notable painter and a notable President of the Royal Academy. Spoke the Jersey patois whenever possible. He spent much of his younger years at Rozel Manor and traces of his love of Jersey can be found in his handling of landscape. Frank Le Maistre has to his credit some fine works. I have seen him quite wildly excited watching rough seas at St Ouen. He would then rush back to his studio and attack a canvas aflame with enthusiasm. He was a very sensitive artist. The paint quality of his work is worth a study.
John St Helier Lander. He's plastered the earth with portraits of, notably, most of the Royal Family of his time, also most of the First World War generals and officers, of ambassadors and select Americans. Really quite a host. In our own Island there is in the Royal Courthouse a large canvas of the Assize d'Heritage painted, I believe, at the early age of 20; also a superb portrait of Bailiff Venables Vernon. Lander at his best was a really excellent portraitist. He was a great raconteur and his humour often amused Queen Mary. They loved him in Scotland. A really great friend and one of the best men I've known.
P - It would be interesting to hear something about the several phases of your development. In the earlier phases caricature undoubtedly put a lizht and happy touch into all your work, as it did with Daumier, and indeed into the work of many great artists. Then came the etchings, lithography, modelling, painting still life, and latterly a tendency to hazy effects. How pressing has the demand of the market been upon you?
B - I have experimented a great deal in caricature and some time in the '30s had a "Laughter Show" in London. Caricature often exposes an extra truth which the normal portraitist occasionally misses. I admired Daumier with his grandpire humour. His Don Quixote pictures have now joined the Old Masters crowd, I think. His art was fine and distinguished.
As a young student I studied pen work - first that of Rembrandt, then Durer, then the orientals. Quite a system of study that took me some time. I finished by being able to depict in line work such a thing as a fog. Then oil colour. I studied masters like Goya and the foreign schools. Curiously enough, I always felt French in outlook, which possibly was inherited. Because of my knowledge of pen work, etching came easily enough. Similarly with lithography for which between the two wars I received from France, the Gold Medal for Lithography. Of modelling, I have possibly not more than nine or ten pieces. A show at the Leicester Galleries in London of "Degas Dancer" models in wax excited me to the attempt.
As regards the marketing of my work: from 1904 to 1912 I had a "near poverty" time. After the first World War, though, things were difficult for two or three years, from then on to the present day life has been comfortably easy. By the way, I cannot remember ever having asked anyone to buy one of my works. Cigar merchants please copy!