Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Printed Frieze By British Illustrator Lawson Wood

My first encounter with artist Lawson Wood came unexpectedly, upon discovering that a piece of his handiwork was fixed 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 many unique details when I noticed that the frieze in the living room was actually signed 'Lawson Wood 1921'. It’s not uncommon for bungalows to sport a frieze of some sort in the living room (a frieze is a horizontal band carrying a unique surface treatment, such as a distinctive wallpaper) but it is less usual for it to be signed art.
I had assumed that the series of agrarian scenes adorning this 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 below the ceiling, punctuated in 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 - potentially one of a kind. 

The frieze band, though occupying only a thin strip in a room with many wooden features, caught my eye the moment I first 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 various 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 found myself making an offer to purchase later that afternoon. Habituated to modern rooms with unadorned walls and unrelieved volumes, I found one that was loaded with wood wainscotting, beamed ceilings and a colourful frieze to be irresistibly atmospheric.

Friezes are not uncommon in bungalows but they tend to be horizontal bands of printed wallpaper with a repeating pattern; framed by a wooden rail or ledge, they often feel built into the room's woodwork. Friezes were in use prior to the bungalow era (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.

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 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 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 watercolour-like illustration. Years later, with the advent of the Internet, and then Google, 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, who Wood’s British audience apparently found highly amusing, and who subsequently became wildly popular in America too. Next 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, often involving animals, 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 Victoria 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 from her youth, having attended many social gatherings there with her father and her uncle, Douglas James, 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 that evokes an adult nostalgia for a disappearing past, the colours and the styling of the farmers and animals reaches back to a tradition developed in the era of classic storybook illustration (Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, circa 1890s). 

The colourful illustrated strips gracing my 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. 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 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 falling 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 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 done in a manner that is quaint, but not at all whimsical (a quality that prevails in his 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 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 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 long into the twentieth century in England. At the time these rural scenes were painted, 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. (Henry Ford introduced the wildly popular Fordson gas-powered tractor in 1917).

The date of 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 valor shown at Vimy Ridge), and with his sympathy for animals,  must have been sorely affected by the cruelty inflicted on helpless working animals by such intense, pointless warfare.

However this 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 rendering 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 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 wishful thinking on my part, but the arrangement did appear to have been commissioned for this locale. I even wondered if Wood may actually have visited the house after the war, and seen the room for himself before defining the work, but I now know it's far more likely that Savage framed the panels to fit the frieze. I also now know that the individual panels were cut from larger, continuous pieces, having now seen an original print of the threshing scene (opening photo) that 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 and for making 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 nonetheless 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, which hark 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 crudely crayoned in), and there’s the unavoidable buildup of grime from a century of use that included 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 already 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 on my 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:

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