THE SOCIETY OF GRAPHIC ARTISTS
AN ACCOUNT OF EARLY DAYS
by Ernest Blaikley, M.B.E., F.R.S.A
The Society of Graphic Artists really had its beginnings in the Etching Class at the L.C.C. Central School of Arts and Crafts. This was, in the days before the First World War, a centre where a number of eager students foregathered in the evenings in an atmosphere that rather resembled in its good fellowship that of a club. There was, in those days, a healthy interest in etching resulting in what would nowadays be called a “peak” period of prosperity for those who practised the art skilfully. The School itself, with its various departments, was under the direction of Fred Burridge, R.E., who naturally saw to it that the etching class was efficiently run and received its full share of encouragement.
At that time the teacher was Luke Taylor, who was not only a good etcher but also a man of exceptionally high ideals. He had a burning desire to serve his fellow-men and at the earliest moment he was in uniform and went out to the war in the spirit of a crusader, losing his life after an all too short period of service.
Amongst the senior students was Frank Emanuel, who had already considerable experience of the technical side of etching and who was therefore asked to take over control of the class when Malcolm Osborne, Taylor’s successor, had also gone to the war.
Emanuel somehow managed to keep the class going through those very unsettled years, being a man of enormous energy and enthusiasm and serving, I think, in a sort of stop-gap capacity until more peaceful days arrived, when many of the former students were released from the Services and returned to this very friendly little group of enthusiastic workers.
Frank Emanuel had a passionate hatred of what he called Bolshie Art. He devoted all of his spare time and energy to a tremendous battle with the evil forces of futurism, jazz and other pernicious doctrines: and it was only necessary to throw out a chance reference to this form of activity to set him off on a most violent condemnation of the work of all its practitioners. It was during one of these tirades that someone in the group suggested that the time was ripe for the formation of a society whose aim should be the encouragement and practice of good draughtsmanship. The idea, so noble in its conception and objects, took shape and was eagerly discussed. Drawing was once more to be the standard by which works of art should stand or fall. As Ingres says: Le Dessin est la Probité del’Art. Drawing, like charity, was the virtue without which every work of art was but as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
My diary tells me that we talked first about this proposed society on the evening of November 16th, 1919 which may therefore be taken as the date of the inception of the Society of Graphic Art, as it was to be called*; and for many evenings afterwards the project was discussed, gradually taking shape and developing as we considered who should be asked to become members and debated other important matters.
But it was not until December 4th, 1920, that the following artists met at what my diary calls the “General Meeting of the G.A.S.” – Frank Emanuel, Hanslip Fletcher, Sidney Long, Ernest M. Lumsden R.E., Harold Nelson, Garth Jones, Charles Pears, and myself. I have no note of where this historic occasion took place, but I fancy it was at Emanuel’s house; and it was on January 1st, 1921, that the first exhibition was launched at the galleries of the Royal Society of British Artists.
I had succeeded Haigh-Wood – who had been much handicapped by ill health – as Hon. Secretary at the end of January. The society had been introduced to the public by means of a short pamphlet written by A.J. Finberg, one of the foundation Members and a distinguished authority on water-colours and the work of Turner. Brangwyn was the President and had contributed the well-known design of a windmill which was to be used as a poster and on catalogues. A number of distinguished artists had been elected Members and contributed, with non-Members to the first and subsequent exhibitions.
For the first few years difficult times were encountered, as Emanuel’s sturdy determination to give no quarter to any critic who showed the slightest sympathy for the detested “Bolshie Art” led to a good many uneasy situations and I was one of those who thought my old friend’s unrelenting attitude towards the press representatives was a mistaken policy and that the Society ought rather to welcome all sorts of publicity with open arms in the hope of making conversions whilst maintaining the strictest regard for its own principles. So, although Emanuel did a tremendous amount of hard work to further the success of the Society in its early years, it experienced a good many shocks and resignations to which, I unblushingly admit, I contributed my share.
But the Society of Graphic Artists has survived these teething troubles and, although it has yet to be fully representative of the admirable work done in this country in the sphere of draughtsmanship and the graphic arts, it has shown a sturdy growth and development through years that have certainly not been without their external problems and difficulties; and it is now, one ventures to think, well past the adolescent stage, and has reached the enlightened and broad-minded maturity of its thirty-sixth year.
* note: The Society’s name was changed in 1988 to The Society of Graphic Fine Art