Blaker as Artist

The cause of my failure to “make good” in any single branch of knowledge is that I have too many interests. Had I been isolated in my youth at a time when there was demand for artistic expression, I should have been an artist of repute. I was dumped into a generation which did not care a damn for art – apart from popular art. I just happened. I was an Old Master, born centuries late. No kid ever had greater equipment. No kid ever faced greater frustration. Centuries ago I would have been apprenticed to a painter – as a boy well fitted to make good in a prosperous trade. Instead, at that period of my development, I was the veritable curse of damn-fool schoolmasters at my “public school”, Cranleigh. I was a wondrous fair kid, strong, and good at games. I got something out of them. In the gym I builded up a body as strong and fair as that of any sweet boy of the ’80s.

Hugh Blaker Journal 25 February 1932

HUGH BLAKER WAS ENDOWED WITH ALL THE ADVANTAGES required to succeed as a painter – a natural ability as a draughtsman and an art school training in London. Paris and Antwerp. Blaker was determined, self-confident and held enormous faith in his own talents. He also had influential and wealthy friends in the art world who could have helped, had he sought their support.

However, Blaker was not blessed with a single-mindedness of vision, which is probably why his painting did not develop beyond the experimental. His personality, despite creating fascinating biography, took him in too many different directions at the expense of his becoming an artist.

Blaker as Student

Hugh Blaker studied at art schools in Worthing, Teddington (London), at the Académie Julian in Paris, and Antwerp School of Art.

Hugh Blaker ‘Art School Life Study’ sanguine conté, c.1892 (Aberystwyth University) 

Hugh Blaker ‘Golfers’ ink, c.1894 (Aberystwyth University)

Blaker as Illustrator

Blaker relocated from Paris to Worthing in 1893. There he worked from a studio above his father’s office. He eked a living as artist. At age eighteen he began contributing ink drawings – ‘amusing without being vulgar’ – to Comic Cuts, a magazine for boys and girls.

Blaker in Search of a Style

Blaker was excited by the challenges presented at the turn of a new century. Traditional values in British art represented by the Royal Academy of Arts were being challenged as artists came to terms with European modernism. Though many still held on to the values formed during Victoria’s sixty-year reign, Blaker stood against the establishment and such officialdom.

Hugh Blaker ‘Woodsmen’ oil, 1910s (Gregynog Trust)

Hugh Blaker ‘A Cavalier’ drypoint, 1912 (Aberystwyth University)

Blaker as Printmaker

Blaker xxx

On his death in 1936, the contents of his Isleworth studio passed to his sister Jane at Gregynog. After Jane’s death in 1948, some 140 Blaker artworks remained at Gregynog until Margaret Davies died at which point they passed to the University of Wales in 1963 and to Aberystwyth University in 1989.

The early life drawings bear the labels of the South Kensington School System Examining Board and were probably made around 1895. They are executed in the traditional academic manner and attest to the fashion for charcoal on a laid Michallet paper. The ink pen illustrations suggest that Blaker once attempted to make a living from his work. Judging by the inscriptions, they were intended for publication. Stylistically they vary from the sketchy manner of George du Maurier and Charles Keene for Punch magazine to more consciously arranged areas of black and white recalling the artworks of Charles Robinson and the Edwardian gift Book illustrators.

In search of a style, Blaker used a wide range of materials and explored different techniques. His attempts to be ‘modern’ led him in unexpected directions stylistically. He emulated the work of painters whom he admired, borrowed from their vocabulary, adopted their means of expression, and often their subjects too: from Franz Hals (Le Lion Comique) and Théodore Rousseau (Kew from the Thames at Isleworth) to the French Symbolist Carriere (Jack, 1912 and Woman Reading), painted in the year that Gwendoline Davies bought her first Carrieres. The correspondences between the paintings that Blaker acquired for the Davies sisters, and his own stylistic experiments, are especially evident in his paintings influenced by Daumier (A Conversation and Two Men at an Easel) whose works the sisters collected between 1912 and 1922.

Blaker’s ‘squarist’ paintings and drawings are probably the most resolved of his experiments with modernism. There appears to be evidence of a sustained effort to interpret the principles of the Vorticists, adopting the angular simplification of English painters such as Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts and David Bomberg. ‘Squarist’ paintings such as Woodsmen are somewhat more cuboid than Cubist. Blaker never took the contemporary idiom as far as the Vorticists by abstracting or rearranging the objects in a non-representational way. He goes no further than to impose their angularity on to an otherwise traditional subject without interrupting the arrangement of the objects.

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