The forgotten genius of Clifford Webb, the artist who reinvented wood engraving

Hexham (1943, detail) by the English artist Clifford Webb
Hexham (1943, detail) by the English artist Clifford Webb Credit: Little Toller

In 1937, Paris became a showcase for competing ideologies. At the International Exposition of Art and Technology, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Nazi Germany’s eagle-topped pavilion stood opposite Russia’s marble palace with its colossal statues of male and female workers. The Spanish showed Picasso’s Guernica, undoubtedly the greatest political painting of the 20th century. And what was Britain’s contribution? Luxury sports goods on stands decorated by those whimsical gentleman modernists, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious.

Whether you interpret this as an example of shameful British cultural insularity or of our ability to maintain our artistic sanity while all around are losing theirs, there was an even more distinctive embodiment of the Englishness of English art at this time in the British pavilion’s section on “books, printing and illustration”. 

Clifford Webb’s Ana the Runner, an exquisite hand-printed volume, was hardly British in subject – the story of an Arab prince’s encounter with a tribe of female warriors – but its enchanting illustrations, in dense blacks cut through with whites so luminous they appeared almost silver, were executed in the most British of graphic media, the only one to have been invented in this country: wood engraving.

As modernism turned accepted ways of viewing the world inside out, there was – certainly in early-20th-century Britain – a revival of traditional craft. First developed by Thomas Bewick in the 18th century, wood engraving is the art of carving into the dense end-grain of a block of wood, rather than the soft centre where a woodcutter would work, achieving a fine, almost sculpted line. 

Of all the artists responsible for wood engraving’s interwar renaissance – such as David Jones, Eric Gill and Blair Hughes-Stanton – Webb went furthest in adapting the medium to the demands of the day – or so argues his former student, Simon Brett, author of a new study of Webb.

Right, St Colombe (late 1920s, detail) by Webb; left, the block used to make the work (detail) Credit: Little Toller

“Where wood engraving had tended towards miniaturism, because of the relatively small size of the blocks, Webb’s images were far larger than any of his contemporaries, combining dense textural detail with an art deco boldness of line and composition,” says Brett.

Yet Webb, despite considerable success in his lifetime, is now little known. Born in London in 1895 and trained at Camberwell and Westminster schools of art, he was by all accounts bluff and amiable, but obsessively secretive. After being wounded in the First World War, he married the writer Ella Monckton, whose family had produced notable politicians, but Webb remained so tight-lipped about his own origins that his children had to employ a genealogist to learn, long after his death, that his family had been East End dockers, his father absent and his mother illiterate. At his wedding, Webb made his mother and sister stand at the back of the church and pretend to be Spanish to hide their cockney accents.

Webb maintained a ferocious work ethic, both as an illustrator – for Ella’s books and for Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and its sequel Swallowdale – and as a ground-breaking printmaker. As the clouds of war gathered over Europe and rural England began to disappear under the tidal wave of metroland, there was an appetite for reassuring countryside images, which Webb’s sumptuously textured engravings, with their ploughed fields and minutely detailed winter trees, perfectly answered. Yet at the same time, in futuristic images such as Blast Furnaces, he carried the medium into more modern territory.

Hopfield (late 1950s) by Webb Credit: Ian Jackson/Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

The Second World War brought his taste for secrecy back into play. When Ella took herself and their four children to Canada for safety, he embarked on an affair with Phyllis Barnes, a social worker, which he continued even after Ella’s return in 1945. While Webb and Ella maintained the façade of conjugal rectitude, every summer he would head off to Herefordshire on a “painting trip” to shack up with Phyllis. Ella retained her composure, but gave up writing. In 1972, when Webb died, she destroyed much of his correspondence and papers, and sold off many of his works with almost indecent haste.

Theirs was a classic early-20th-century tale of snobbery, social anxiety and thwarted ambition. From an artistic point of view, the story is more uplifting. Webb’s best images have an enchanted, moonstruck quality – even when they depict daylight – that feels intrinsic to the medium itself.

“When you engrave with wood,” Brett says, “the line you’re cutting shows as light between areas of darkness. Webb used to call that drawing with light, and I think he took that idea further than any other artist.”

The Life and Art of Clifford Webb by Simon Brett will be published by Little Toller on February 4 at £30. To order your copy for £25, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop