A LONG-SERVING MEMBER OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, Sydney Lee RA RE RWS SWE (1866-1949) was regarded as a ‘pioneer’ printmaker ‘foremost’ among his contemporaries. He was active in numerous professional bodies dedicated to the encouragement of fine art printmaking. For 45 years, he was an exhibiting member of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. At Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he taught some of the first wood engraving classes to be offered by a London art school, Lee did much to stimulate interest in the medium as an original expressive art form. In 1920, he was a founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers. He also pioneered the colour woodcut in Britain, using Japanese techniques. His experimental and innovative mezzotints, aquatints and roulette-toned etchings pushed the boundaries of traditional practice. Few early 20th-century British printmakers were in command of such a broad range of graphic media.
Yet despite his many achievements and professional associations, Lee did not achieve lasting critical acclaim. As history painter Benjamin Haydon observed, the ‘great difficulty is first to win a reputation; the next to keep it while you live; and the next to preserve it after you die, when affection and interest are over, and nothing but sterling excellence can preserve your name.’ In Lee’s case, excellence alone did not suffice. After his death, the contents of his studio were dispersed piecemeal by public auction and the name Lee had made for himself all but died with him. His stature has been reduced to little more than a footnote in the history of 20th-century British art.
I knew nothing of Sydney Lee when, in 1992, I purchased his aquatints A Mountain Fortress (1914) and The Sleeping Square (1928) from Mike Goldmark in Uppingham. As a teacher of printmaking practice and history, I was drawn to their technical and aesthetic qualities. Lee’s prints were also eminently affordable to a young collector with modest means. In the intervening years, I acquired further works. The advent of online shopping, and eBay in particular, opened for me the rich European and North American markets. As my collection grew, I began to record Lee’s prints in other collections and endeavoured to recreate a life through art that languished in museum stores or private lofts. Lee had no children to help ensure his legacy. No archive material appears to have survived: letters, diaries, record books and photographs were seemingly discarded. Little did I imagine that my interest in Lee would, some 20 years later, lead to an invitation from the Royal Academy of Arts to curate an exhibition and publish a catalogue raisonné of his prints.
Born in Manchester in 1866, Lee belonged to an old, prominent and entrepreneurial Lancashire family that had founded mills across the county and into Yorkshire, Cheshire and the Wirral. His forebears, brothers and cousins made significant contributions to British industry, design, commerce and politics. Lee studied at Manchester School of Art and worked for a while at the Atelier Colorossi in Paris. By 1895, he had positioned himself among London’s artist elite with a house and studio on Holland Park Road in Kensington.
Lee travelled near and far, throughout Britain and on the Continent in search of ancient buildings, geological formations and epic natural prospects. Gordale Scar and Rievaulx Abbey, the Colosseum in Rome, a mountain fortress high in the Swiss Alps, the city walls of Segovia and the Basilica de San Vicente at Avila all provided him opportunities to explore the play of light on crumbling stone, brick or plaster. He was acclaimed by critics such as T W Earp for his paintings and prints of ‘picturesque old buildings’ that were ‘rich in the patina and atmosphere of history’. Lee honed his engraving technique to such a degree in The Limestone Rock (1904-5) that Malcolm Salaman heralded it as an ‘example of landscape interpretation in the language of wood engraving comparable with fine landscape painting in the modern conception with its search for structural expression.’
The mastery of craft was no doubt instilled in Lee when he was a student at Manchester School of Art; the School’s Director of Design, Walter Crane, was instrumental in fostering his appreciation of Japanese prints. Lee became one of the earliest followers of Frank Morley Fletcher who, with John Dickson Batten, adapted Ukiyo-e methods of the late Edo period and demonstrated his techniques to students at Central School of Arts and Crafts. Lee not only emulated methods of Japanese printmaking but also studied the Japanese sense of design and composition. One such print is The Bridge (1904), a Yorkshire subject handled in the Japanese manner. Lee’s decorative colour woodcuts of St Ives, in particular, demonstrate that he understood the Japanese use of unexpected angles, flattened backgrounds and high horizons.
It was not until 1913 that Lee began to exploit a variety of intaglio processes. Ambitious in their experimentation and imposing in scale, these aquatints are distinguished by their exciting tonalities. Visiting the lakes of Switzerland and Italy, traversing the St. Gotthard, Simplon and Grimsel Passes, Lee found inspiration in the mountain villages and desolate landscapes of bare hills and distant rocky peaks. Burnished to near abstraction, his aquatint The Grimsel Pass (1929) emulates in technique the stone-strewn and weather-beaten terrain it depicts. Once the composition was planned, Lee acted in response to his materials by scraping away, burnishing and reworking his plates to their limit. It was more important to Lee that artists possess manual dexterity and fully understand the techniques of their craft in order to respond to the subject and experiment with the process. Detail and design evolved as work progressed. ‘I simply try to reproduce objects as I feel they are,’ Lee asserted, ‘and my methods are adopted to this end.’
Whether burnishing back to white from a blackened mezzotint plate or teasing light out of the darkness of a woodblock, Lee made the most of media that are eminently suited to the romance of nocturnes. A keen exponent of the white-line technique, his unusually large, finely wrought wood engravings display a painterly attention to tone and texture. At least one of these he claimed to have engraved outdoors in front of his subject in a Spanish courtyard. Like many northern European painters, he was also drawn to the Mediterranean light. For some of his last prints, he chose Venetian views. In his tour de force wood engravings Ponte Paradiso (1927) and A Venetian Merchant (1928), his textural engraving technique reached its zenith.
Lee’s prints are now represented – albeit rarely on view – in major museum collections from Australia and New Zealand to Canada and the United States of America. Until my 2013 exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts, there had not been an exhibition of Lee’s works since 1945. There had never been a publication devoted to him; his prints had never been catalogued or documented and there had been virtually no critical appraisal of his many and varied accomplishments. My research redressed this oversight to posit Lee within the broader context of print practice. The exhibition and catalogue raisonné aimed to showcase previously unseen artworks by one of Britain’s most underrated painter-printmakers. Nearly seventy years after his death, Lee is finally received the attention that his consummate skill and experimentation so clearly deserved.
[First published Printmaking Today 2013, revised and expanded 2019]
Periodically updated list of Sydney Lee oil paintings shown at Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibitions, the New English Art Club, etc., and a where are they now. HERE
Sydney Lee prints at the Annual Exhibitions of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers HERE
Robert Meyrick. Sydney Lee RA. Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013). 160pp. ISBN: 978-1907533402. Hardcover £29.95.
Robert Meyrick. ‘From the Shadows’. Printmaking Today Vol.22, No.85. (London: Cello Press, 2013) pp. xx-xx
Robert Meyrick. From the Shadows: The Prints of Sydney Lee RA.
Royal Academy of Arts, London. 27 February – 26 May 2013.
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University. 17 June – 6 September 2013.