Joan Hassall, Wood-engraver
Wood-engraver, typographer and book illustrator Joan Hassall is well-known to collectors of twentieth century illustrated books. Perhaps less well-known, is the fact that this otherwise London-based artist stayed in Edinburgh for five years in the 1940s. It is interesting to consider whether this Scottish sojourn influenced her work.
She was born in 1906, the daughter of illustrator John Hassall and his second wife, Constance Brooke-Webb. During her last two years at the Royal Academy Schools where she was enrolled from 1928 to 1933, she began evening classes in engraving at the School of Photo-engraving and Lithography in Fleet Street. Her teacher there, R. John Beedham, taught her the skills and techniques which she used for the rest of her life. By the late 1930s the quality of her wood engraving was widely recognised. Proof prints of some work from this period were purchased at the time by the Scottish Modern Arts Association.
When the Second World War began, teachers in many institutions in Scotland left their jobs to take part in the war effort. Among them was Kingsley Cook, a tutor of Book Illustration and Drawing at Edinburgh College of Art. At his suggestion, the principal asked Joan Hassall to act as Cook’s replacement for the duration of the war. She accepted the invitation.
Her first years in Edinburgh were not easy for various reasons. There were the anxieties associated with war. Demanding teaching duties were split between the art college, where art students and printing apprentices prepared their designs and blocks, and Heriot Watt College, where the printing was carried out. She seems to have been an exacting critic of her students’ work: ‘… I was pained to see how the students roughly dug out the deep places. So long as it did not print the appearance did not matter to them’. In 1943 she asked to be ‘relieved of teaching, on medical grounds, in the Drawing and Painting School’.
According to Ruari McLean in The Wood Engravings of Joan Hassall, ‘the appointment of a Southerner’ had been met with ‘hostility from certain of the Scots’. Joan had arrived there at a time when the relationship between nationalism and art was being hotly debated. Hugh MacDiarmid took every opportunity to challenge artists in Scotland to embrace both modernism and a sense of national identity. Others like Agnes Mure Mackenzie sounded a note of caution, ‘We are in danger just now, in serious danger, of mixing national art and nationalism in a way that may do grave injury to them both’ (The Arts and the Future of Scotland, Saltire Pamphlet 2, 1942). Furthermore, J. D. Ferguson, in Modern Scottish Painting (William MacLellan, 1943), posed the question ‘Should Scotland have an Independent Art?’
In the early 1940s the Saltire Society started to plan a series of Saltire Chapbooks, a revival harking back to the eighteenth century when popular Scottish stories, Jacobite songs, verses and texts that were satirical, humorous or subversive in tone appeared in small, cheap booklets light enough for travelling hawkers to take all over Scotland. A proposal in 1943 to involve Joan Hassall with the illustration and design of the Saltire Chapbooks was the beginning of a productive and warm relationship which was to have long-term benefits for all concerned. She jumped at the chance to resume an active commercial output. The secretary of the Saltire publications committee, Alison Cairns, wrote to Robert Hurd, the chair: ‘Miss Hassall, in a passion of enthusiasm, has already started planning out the first chapbook and wishes to have the bulk of the work done before her teaching term at the College of Art begins’.
Joan Hassall adapted the style of the early chapbooks to a new format, designing the leaflets with illustrations to enhance the text; she specified the typeface for the booklets as – suitably – Scotch Roman. She used two colours for the symmetrical borders on the title pages. The chapbooks were designed with a conscious use of classical symmetry of which the engraver Thomas Bewick – her favourite – would have approved. Her device for the Saltire Society offices in Gladstone’s Land, still identifiable today, is an example of the exact and detailed nature of her work.
The small size of the booklets meant that production required modest quantities of paper, an advantage in the midst of wartime shortages. This also meant that the chapbooks could be priced cheaply. Occasionally she needed to discuss matters with printers Blair or William Maxwell of R. and R. Clark. It appears that Ainslie Thin, the publishing director of Oliver and Boyd, hovered in the background in case she needed advice.
The networks which promoted the wood engravings of Joan Hassall in Edinburgh are scarcely in living memory. These networks, like those of a family, were close, contentious and helpful by turns. How far the Saltire Society was the epicentre of such activity is well documented by Aileen Smith in The Construction of Cultural Identity in the Visual Arts in Scotland 1918-1945. For instance, Stanley Cursiter, director of the National Gallery of Scotland, was involved in the Saltire Society publications subcommittee and wrote a Saltire Pamphlet in 1943 entitled Art in Industry in which he discussed ways of improving the connections between industry, education and art in Scotland, proposing the co-ordination of the printing trades with art college education.
By the end of 1943 Joan Hassall’s fortunes were changing for the better. The first chapbook appeared, she joined the Society of Scottish Artists and was elected as an Associate of the Royal Society of Engravers. In 1944, Stanley Morison, typographer for the Monotype Corporation, delivered a lecture on ‘The Typographic Arts, Past, Present and Future’ at Edinburgh College of Art; Joan Hassall designed the booklet of the text which was published by James Thin.
In 1945, with the end of the war and her return to London in sight, she reflected on the significance of her time in Scotland in a letter to Alison Cairns, ‘it seemed even to my pro-English eye that Scotland had not been fairly treated and it made me ashamed… I should be glad one day to hear about the arguments for separation from England… so that when I go South I shall know what to say when it crops up. I am in many ways very sorry to be going South, as I now have equally as many valued friends here as there, but the reason is chiefly economic, and although Ainslie [Thin] valiantly concocts jobs for me, it is not enough and I must seek my bread where it is best to be found.’
Some biographical accounts suggest that Joan Hassall remained in Scotland until 1947, but from her correspondence with Alison Cairns and others, she had left her job at Edinburgh College of Art in 1945. She set up her own small press, Curtain Press, by 1948.
Back in London, her Scottish connections had a continuing effect on the commissions that came her way. In 1946 she undertook the design for The Green Garden, edited by James Fergusson, and for Scottish Pageant, compiled by Agnes Mure Mackenzie, both published by Oliver and Boyd. Hopetoun Press asked her to produce illustrations for their 1947 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Eric Linklater involved her in illustrating Sealskin Trousers and Other Stories (Rupert Hart-Davies, 1947). This book contains an illustration of a couple diving into the sea which is something of a departure from her detailed classical forms. It is closer to the modernist style of engraving, more fluid and less symmetrical than most of her other work. Oliver and Boyd returned to Joan in 1949 asking her to design A Scots Anthology. The following year she designed an edition of The Poems of Robert Burns for Maclehose of Glasgow. John Robertson Allan’s Lowlands of Scotland: a New Guidebook, with her illustrations, was included in the Festival of Britain exhibition in 1951; in that year also Rashie Coat, the last of her Saltire Chapbooks appeared. In 1967 she noted in a letter to the secretary of the society that the chapbooks were fetching higher prices secondhand than their face value.
Two later works that recall her Scottish connection are David Burnett’s The Heart’s Undesign (Tragara Press, 1977, edition limited to 200 copies), and Four Scottish Poems by Robert Burns, edited by David Chambers of the Private Libraries Association and published in Pinner in 1986.
Joan Hassall died in Malham, Yorkshire, in 1988, highly regarded as one of the foremost wood-engravers of the century. She was a classicist rather than a romantic or a modernist, but it is interesting to speculate how her work may have been influenced by her temporary immersion in Scottish aesthetics; her post-Edinburgh work, for example, seems to carry echoes of the austere, neoclassical lines of the city’s New Town architecture.