Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Printed Frieze By British Illustrator Lawson Wood

My first encounter with artist Lawson Wood came unexpectedly with the discovery that a piece of his handiwork was affixed to my living room walls. It was spring 1988, I had just bought a 1913 'character home' that turned out to be a bungalow, and I was still canvassing its unique details when I happened to notice that the frieze in the living room was actually signed 'Lawson Wood. 1921'. It’s not uncommon for bungalows to sport a frieze panel of some sort in the living room (a frieze is a horizontal band carrying a unique surface treatment, often a distinctive wallpaper or a textured surface) but it is less usual for it to be signed artwork.
I had assumed that the series of agrarian scenes adorning my new living room was a print of some sort, an eye-catching copy perhaps of an original illustration. Charming and unusual depictions of people and animals at work on farmsteads ran half way around the room just beneath the beamed ceiling, punctuated 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 above, making the frieze - like the house itself - potentially one of a kind. 

The frieze band, though occupying only a thin strip in a room with numerous wooden features, caught my eye the moment I entered it. I happened to be among a crowd of prospective buyers at a realtor's open house, all of us busily tallying the place's assets and liabilities according to our varying priorities. The frieze's unusual colour scheme and variety of farm scenes added to the uniqueness of a room whose complex character was one of the reasons I would find myself making an offer to purchase later that afternoon. Habituated to modern rooms with unadorned walls and unrelieved volumes, I found one so loaded with wooden wainscotting, beamed ceilings and a colourful frieze to be irresistibly atmospheric.

The friezes decorating bungalow living rooms tend to be horizontal bands of printed wallpaper with some sort of repeating pattern. This in turn is framed by a wooden rail or ledge, so it feels built into the room's woodwork. Friezes were in use prior to the bungalow era (running from roughly 1905 - 25) but those in bungalows tend towards motifs that are typically more spare than their Victorian precursors. Some bungalow friezes are simply comprised of textured materials, like grass matting or even burlap, applied directly to a backing panel. These decorative touches hark back to the bungalow's early use as a lodge or cottage-like structure in remote locations.

Wallpaper friezes serve to soften the extensive but decoratively chaste use of wood characteristic of the principal rooms in bungalows (almost as if the walls were being treated as furniture, a la Gustav Stickley). Less often, a frieze will come with an element of original work, like hand-stencilling, but only rarely is one a continuous, non-repeating illustration. I couldn't help but wonder how the art had come to be on these walls, apparently fitted to the size of the room? Could it have been developed as an actual mural on site, I wondered early on? But that was an idea that would not withstand closer scrutiny.

Discovery of the stylized signature block piqued my curiosity about Lawson Wood as an artist (I had never heard of him before) so I visited the library to see what could be unearthed. I didn't learn much except that he had 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 a lot to me because my frieze certainly wasn't caricature per se, more like stylized illustration. Years later, with the advent of the Internet, and then Google's search engine, a good deal more emerged about Lawson 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 monkeys, one in particular called Gran’pop (see above) that Wood’s British audience apparently found highly amusing, who subsequently became wildly popular in America too. Next there were samples of covers he executed for Colliers (a successful mass circulation American magazine for four decades, with four million readers at its height) illustrations of striking quality, often involving animals, but mostly without any monkey-humour. Since then, more of the sophisticated side of his output has come to light, again often featuring animals as subject matter.

But it was a conversation with Victoria artist Rosemary James Cross, daughter of famous architect Percy Leonard James, that first lodged the thought that Lawson Wood may also have illustrated children’s story books. Rosemary knew the Savage bungalow well from her youth, having attended many social functions there with her father and her uncle, Douglas James, both friends and colleagues of architect Hubert Savage. She recalled her fascination as a child with the frieze, whose figures she characterized as being "like something from a child’s story book". This conjecture turned out to be a great clue to the varied talents and interests of its creator. While the frieze's scenes idealize a settled agrarian way of life evoking adult nostalgia for a disappearing past, the colours and styling of the farmers and animals reaches back to a tradition dating from the era of classic storybook illustration (cf. Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, circa 1890s). 

The colourful illustrated strips of paper gracing the living room walls have only been seen by those who have lived here, and their guests, over the course of nearly a century now. So these pictures of the frieze likely represent the first publication of their details as found today. I think you will agree these farm scenes are absolutely delightful vignettes, conveying remarkable detail through 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 the full force of its indirect light, the whole tableau 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, especially at night.

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 in the British Columbia, countryside. They all appear to embody a kind of steady cooperation between animals and humans that's more typical of husbandry in the pre-industrial era of mixed farming, before the advent of specialization and 'production agriculture'. Figures, animals and scenery are presented in a manner that is rather quaint, but not at all whimsical (a quality that often prevails in Wood's cartooning).

To a North American, the farmers here appear rather formally 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 here depicted 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 that relates to a distinct form of husbandry, all of which appears through Wood's simplified technique of rendering colours in patches and blocks. Had I possessed more knowledge of art techniques, I would have grasped that this implied they were designed as prints to be drawn from a master engraving.

Motive power on this farmstead is supplied by the massive Clydesdale-like horses relied on prior to the advent of tractors, an era that persisted well into the twentieth century in England. At the time these rural scenes were depicted, farming in North America was already far more mechanized (having deployed steam-tractors to break the land, it was now beginning the move into gas-powered tractors) and well on its way to becoming truly industrial in nature. (Mass manufacturer Henry Ford introduced the wildly popular Fordson gas-powered tractor in 1917).

The date on these illustrations (1921) also places the work just three years after a European war that saw the advent of fully mechanized slaughter, involving horrific carnage of lives to no tactical purpose. The war also enveloped the cavalry steeds and the army of dray horses used to lug materiel around the battlefields. As an enlisted man, Lawson Wood would have seen these horrifying scenes firsthand (he served as a spotter and was decorated by the French for valour shown at Vimy Ridge) and with his manifest sympathy for animals, must have been sorely affected by the cruelty inflicted on helpless working horses by such intense, pointless warfare.

However his sympathy for animals originated, 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 is fanciful, his renderings of other creatures, like crows and sheep, are depicted more sparely and even abstractly in simple black and buff tones. 

So how did this decidedly British country scenery come to grace a bungalow wall on Canada’s west coast? My original surmise was that it was commissioned for the house, likely because artist and architect knew each other, perhaps as friends from Savage's upbringing in London. This may have been no more than speculative thinking on my part, but the arrangement did appear to my naieve eye to have been commissioned for the locale. I even wondered whether Wood had visited the house after the war, and seen the room for himself before defining the work, but I have since come to realize that almost certainly Savage framed some pre-existing frieze panels to fit the space available. I have recently confirmed that the individual panels were cut from larger, continuous strips, having been shown an original print of the threshing scene (second photo, at the top) that in fact is far wider! And so I can confirm that Wood in fact must have run a copy of work he had already designed, colouring it to serve as a frieze expressly for the Savage bungalow.

I’ve found little recorded about 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 obviously wasn’t against commercializing their images for humour in order to make a living. 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 a Hollywood film production, but that was nipped in the bud by the advent of the second world war. Yet despite his commercial success with comedic art, Wood remained a serious artist-illustrator whose brilliance shone through perhaps particularly in his print illustrations, including many delightful pieces for children’s fairy tales and stories.

Today Lawson Wood is enjoying something of a renaissance among the international community of illustrators. His work spans the period from 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 illustration. Sadly, the lion's share of images in circulation today still involve the monkey cartoons, which are nevertheless very well drawn.

The Savage frieze clearly romanticizes a human-animal partnership characteristic of an earlier phase of the British agricultural landscape. It depicts it as 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, harking 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 of all types 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. People and animals working alongside each other, in purposeful, caring relations. As we now know in a world of poultry batteries and CAFOs, this was not to be the case for much longer.


Having an artful representation as permanent d├ęcor brings some unique challenges as regards conservation. There is some damage to a couple of the panels, one context piece above a doorway seems not to be part of the original work (or to have been rather crudely added), and there’s the unavoidable buildup of grime from a century of use that included a smoky fireplace (and some unknown incidence of tobacco smoke). 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 is in social use.

As I've noted before in previous posts, stewardship of an older building is a long road and the tasks are many and challenging. I'm approaching the point where maintenance and repair of the frieze is creeping onto my agenda, if 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:

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