Walter Claude Flight (1881-1955) was born in London, a cousin of Rudyard Kipling, and his early life included stints as an engineer, librarian, farmer and beekeeper. In this period he used to describe modern early 20th century life as a call to action. Even in 1925 he wrote “Time seems to pass so quickly nowadays. Everybody is in a hurry… this speeding up is one of the psychologically important features of today.”
Crossing the road
From 1913-1914 he studied at Heatherley School of Fine Art, one of the oldest independent art schools in London, where he met and married Clare James in 1915 with whom he had two daughters. With the arrival of the First World War he departed for France where he served as a captain in the Army Service Corps. He returned to Heatherley in 1918. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1921, in Paris in 1922 and in London at the R.B.A. from 1923.
He felt that a new form of art was needed that celebrated the speed, movement and hustle of this new post war world, and he turned to the linocut. Due to ease of use, the linocut was and still is widely used in schools to introduce children to the art of printmaking, using it to complete many tasks in the art lesson rather than always going straight for the pencil. Similarly, non-professional artists often cut lino rather than wood for printing.
To explain, linocut is a printmaking technique, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum is used for a relief surface. A design is cut into the linoleum with a sharp knife, V-shaped chisel or gouge, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal of the parts to show printed. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller called a brayer, and then impressed onto paper or fabric. The actual printing can be done by hand or with a printer. This process gave Flight the speed and vitality that he desired. Influenced by Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, his work expressed dynamic rhythm through bold, simple forms and his linocut prints show his interest in depicting speed and movement.
Linocut was first used as an art medium in the early 20th century by the German Expressionist artists, Erich Heckel, Rohlfs and Gabriele Munter and by members of the Russian Constructivist movement such as Wassily Kandinsky and Alexander Rodchenko.
In the contemporary art world the linocut had become an established professional print medium, popularised by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Picasso had even demonstrated that colour prints could be achieved using a single piece of linoleum in what is called the ‘reductive’ print method. Essentially, after each successive colour is imprinted onto the paper, the artist cleans the lino plate and cuts away what will not be imprinted for the subsequently applied colour.
Flight began teaching at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in 1926 and it was from here that he established and popularised the technique as a major and dramatic new art form. The school became a major force in the production and promotion of modern printmaking works, shaping the talents of students who responded with works characterised by clean-cut blocks of colour and a sense of dynamic movement and design, with sport and urban transport featuring as popular subjects.
Flight’s enthusiasm for the linocut was infectious and he passed on this enthusiasm to his students, such as Lill Tschudi, Cyril Power, Eileen Mayo and Sybil Andrews. Known collectively as the ‘Grosvenor School’, Flight and his pupil’s work is held in major collections around the world, principally in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London as well as the Museum of Modern Art in new York.
Textile designs printed on Scottish wool
He was a member of the Seven and Five society in 1953, whose other members included Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth; he was a member of the Grubb Group in 1928 and he had an interior design business with Edith Lawrence. During his lifetime he produced over 64 different prints and published 9 books on lino cutting techniques. He also mounted the first exhibition of British linocuts in 1929 and the Grosvenor School had an ethos that advocated ‘art for all’ so the prints were priced accordingly, from £1-£3, making them accessible to many. He moved to Wiltshire with Edith Lawrence in 1930 and lived at Wood Cottage, Pigtrough Lane, Donhead St. Andrew, until his death in 1955. By 1939 the popularity of the Grosvenor Group and linocuts faded somewhat but during the 1970s their work became sought after and pieces have recently commanded high prices at auction. ‘Speed’ pictures below, sold for £49,250 in 2012.
As part of our Creative Wiltshire project we have purchased two books by Claude Flight, detailing the techniques and process of lino cutting. This craft is currently undergoing a much deserved revival and if you are interested in ‘having a go’ you might like to learn some of the skills from one of the masters.
‘Lino Cutting and Printing’ and ‘Lino-Cuts’ by Claude Flight. ZFL.743 can be viewed at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, during our normal opening hours as found on our website www.wshc.eu and are now part of our Local Studies collection.
All illustrations are from the two purchased publications.
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