Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Painted Frieze By British Illustrator Lawson Wood

My first encounter with artist Lawson Wood came unexpectedly upon realizing that a piece of his work was permanently fixed to my living room walls. It was spring 1988, I’d just bought a 1913 bungalow and I was still canvassing its many unique details when I realized that the frieze in the living room was actually a signed work of art. It’s not uncommon for bungalows to sport a frieze of some sort in the living room (a horizontal band containing a special surface treatment, like a distinctive wallpaper) but it's unusual for it to be original art.
I’d assumed that the series of agrarian scenes adorning the living room was a print of some sort, an eye-catching copy of an original illustration. Charming and unusual depictions of people and animals at work on a farmstead ran half way around the room just beneath the ceiling, broken up into distinct panels by windows and bays rising high in the walls. It was while perusing a pastoral scene of sheep grazing near an old-fashioned windmill that I came upon the distinctive signature block shown below, making the frieze - like the house itself - one of a kind. 

The frieze band, though occupying only a small expanse in a room with many wooden features, caught my eye the moment I first entered the room, which happened among a crowd of prospective buyers at a realtor's open house, all busily tallying the place's assets and liabilities. The frieze's unusual colour scheme and varied farm scenes added to the uniqueness of a room whose complex character was one reason I found myself making an offer later that afternoon. Habituated to modern rooms with their unadorned walls and stark volumes, I found one fitted out with wood panelling, beamed ceilings and a colourful frieze irresistibly atmospheric.

Bungalow friezes often consist of a horizontal band of printed wallpaper framed by a wooden rail or ledge so as to make them feel 'built-in', frequently in stylized motifs that are typically more spare than their Victorian predecessors. Some friezes are simply comprised of textured materials, like grass matting or even burlap, applied to a backing panel.

Wallpaper friezes serve to soften the extensive but decoratively chaste use of wood characteristic of the principal rooms in bungalows. Less often, a frieze will come with an element of original work, like hand stenciling, but only rarely is one a full-blown original illustration. I couldn't help but wonder how it had come to be on these walls, apparently fitted to the size of the room? Could it have been painted as an actual mural on site?

Discovery of the stylized signature block piqued my curiosity about Lawson Wood as an artist (I’d never heard of him before), so I visited the library to see what could be unearthed. I didn't learn much except that he’d enjoyed great commercial success as a caricaturist, in England and in North America, in the first half of the twentieth century. This didn't explain much to me because my frieze certainly wasn't caricature, more like muted watercolour illustration. Years later, with the advent of Google and the internet, a lot more emerged about Wood, who turned out to be a third generation artist who worked as an illustrator in many media, from magazines to commercial posters and even postcards. And, he was amazingly prolific.


The very first images to surface were of a popular, well-drawn (but to me disappointingly silly) series of cartoons featuring ape-monkeys, and one in particular named Gran’pop, who Wood’s British audience apparently found highly amusing and that subsequently became wildly popular in America too. Then there were examples of covers he’d done for Colliers (a successful mass circulation American magazine for four decades, with four million readers at its height), illustrations of striking quality, mostly without  monkey humour. Since then, more of the sophisticated side of his output has come to light, often featuring animals as subject matter.

It was a conversation with artist Rosemary James Cross, daughter of Oak Bay architect Percy Leonard James, that first lodged the thought that Lawson Wood may also have illustrated children’s story books. Rosemary knew the house well in her youth, attending social gatherings there with her father and her uncle, Douglas James, friends and colleagues of architect Hubert Savage. She recalled her fascination with the frieze as a child, whose figures she characterized as being ‘like something from a child’s story book’. This turned out to be a good clue to the varied talents and interests of its creator. While the scenes idealize a settled agrarian way of life that's aimed at adult nostalgia for a disappearing past, the colours and figures continue a tradition dating from the era of classic storybook illustration (eg. Sir Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, etc). 

The watercolours gracing my home have only been seen by residents and visitors over the course of nearly a century - this post is very likely the first publication of their details. I think you'll agree these farm scenes are absolutely delightful vignettes, conveying remarkable detail in simplified patches of distinct colours. Seeing them in situ is best, but unless one happens upon them at a moment when sunlight fills the room with indirect light, the whole tends to be taken in at a glance and the details remain elusive. Placed so as not to have light fall directly upon them, many of the panels are semi-obscured due to the light-draining qualities of the room’s darkened walls.

As to the painting's contents: all the scenes depicted here concern farm chores and operations that are evidently set in the British, rather than British Columbian, countryside. They all appear to embody a steady cooperation between animals and humans more typical of husbandry in the era of mixed farming, before the advent of specialization and 'production agriculture'. Figures, animals and scenery are done in a manner that is quaint, but not whimsical (a quality that prevails in his cartooning).

To a North American, the farmers here appear rather properly dressed for the exertive nature of their work (which remained the way in traditional English farming long after 1921). But what jumps to my eye is Wood’s profound empathy for the farm animals, who are portrayed with dignity and purpose (his control of animal proportions and movements is remarkable!). They are lifelike, well-cared-for and above all possessed of a trusting innocence, all of which shows despite Wood's simplified technique of rendering their colours in patches and blocks.

Motive power on this farmstead is supplied by the massive Clydesdale-like horses relied upon prior to the advent of tractors, which persisted long into the twentieth century in England. At the time these rural scenes were painted, farming in North America was already far more mechanized (leaving steam for gas-powered tractors) and well on its way to becoming truly industrial in nature.

The date of these paintings (1921) also places the work just three years after a European war that saw the advent of fully mechanized slaughter, a horrific carnage of men that also enveloped the vast number of cavalry steeds and the many dray horses used for lugging materiel around the battlefields. Lawson Wood would have seen these horrifying scenes firsthand as an enlisted man (he served as a spotter and was decorated by the French for valor at Vimy), and must have been affected by the cruelty inflicted on such helpless working animals.

For whatever reasons, Wood held a lifetime interest in the plight of domesticated animals and was sensitive to their potential suffering at the hands of humans. Obviously he was keenly interested in them as subjects too and, as the lifelike images in the frieze attest, he must have spent a lot of time closely observing their ways. While the array of colours sported by his dray horses, steers or even his chickens are unlike any seen in reality, other creatures, like crows and sheep, are rendered more sparely and abstractly in simple black and buff tones. 

So how did this decidedly English scenery come to grace a bungalow wall on Canada’s west coast? My surmise is that it was commissioned for the house, likely because artist and architect knew each other, perhaps as friends from Savage's upbringing in London. However it happened, this arrangement appears to have been devised expressly for this locale. Perhaps Wood actually visited the house after the war, but more likely Savage sent him the exact dimensions for each panel and invited him to imaginatively render some agreed themes.

I’ve found little recorded of Lawson Wood’s actual history with animal welfare, but it was apparently extensive. A current Wikipedia article reports that he eventually “established his own sanctuary for aging animals,” and that in 1934 he was “awarded a fellowship of the Royal Zoological Society for his work with animals and his concerns with their welfare”.

Animal sympathies notwithstanding, Lawson Wood wasn’t above commercializing their imagery for humour and gain. He’s known to have done very well from his popular monkey series, going so far as merchandising them with a line of wooden children’s toys known as the Lawson Woodies! There was even a contract to turn some of it into Hollywood film production, nipped in the bud by the second world war. But despite his commercial success with comedic art, Wood remained a serious artist whose brilliance shone through particularly in his print illustrations, including many delightful pieces for children’s fairy tales and stories.

Today Lawson Wood is enjoying a minor renaissance among the international community of illustrators. His work spans the Gilded Age right up to the advent of the Cold War, and even illustrators working in domains he may have found foreign are inspired by his creative technique and sheer mastery of drawing and water colour painting. Sadly, the lion's share of images in circulation today are still from the monkey cartoons, which are nonetheless very well drawn.

The Savage frieze clearly romanticizes a human-animal partnership characteristic of an earlier phase of the English agricultural landscape, showing it purposefully arranged, mechanized but not motorized, and decidedly not industrial in scale or technology. Animals retain a real dignity even if their ultimate raison d’etre is to provide or become food. In this sense the frieze’s contents fit well with bungalow (and Progressive era) themes, which harken back to earlier, simpler times that manifest a better balance between the human and natural realms. This was a disappearing reality at the dawn of mass production in fast-growing urban settings across North America. There is a certain irony in its appearance on a wall in a suburban home, itself a reaction against the rapid massing and mixing of peoples in the urban realm.

Modelling an ideal of agrarian balance is perhaps intended to serve as a star to steer the little ship of family by, as well as a way of capturing some of that innocent delight that accompanies the best of storybook illustration. I take the message to be one of enduring respect for agrarian (and pastoral) endeavour, idealized here as mutually beneficial cooperation between man and animal in a world where animals are treated with respect and enjoy their own place. As we now know in a world of poultry batteries and CAFOs, this was not to be the case for long.

Having a piece of art as permanent d├ęcor brings some unique challenges as regards conservation. There’s some damage to a couple of the panels, one context piece above a doorway is clearly not part of the original work, and there’s the unavoidable buildup of grime from a century of use that includes a smoky fireplace. I foresee a paper conservator being invited to recommend actions at some point in the future. There’s also the thorny question of lighting the panels for better viewing – whether and how to do it effectively but unobtrusively, so that their content can be better enjoyed when the room’s in social use.

As I've noted consistently in previous posts, stewardship of an older building is a long road and the tasks are many. I'm approaching the point where maintenance and repair of the frieze is on the agenda, once I can actually source the appropriate skills. Sourcing the right skill set, perhaps the biggest challenge facing owners of heritage homes who value authenticity, forms the basis of my next post.

For additional information about Lawson Wood, visit these sites: