of Walter J. Phillips
Part I: Etchings
This article by Roger H. Boulet originally appeared in the long defunct magazine Antiques & Art, May 1981, published in Vancouver at that time. Some minor revisions have been made.
Invitation to exhibition, etching by Cyril Barraud, 1914
reputation of Walter J. Phillips as a printmaker rests principally on
his colour woodcuts, yet his work in black and white is no less worthy
of the collector's attention.
Phillips's earliest activity as a printmaker was in the etching medium. After coming to Canadato Winnipegin 1913, he soon met another British artist who had come there that same year. Cyril Barraud was determined to make a living with the products of the homemade etching press he had brought with him. The two artists exhibited together in Winnipeg in October of 1914, both presenting watercolours. Barraud also exhibited some etchings.
asked Barraud to teach him the technique. Only one etching was done under
Barraud's supervision, since
Barraud enlisted and left Winnipeg to join the war in the fall of 1915.
Phillips purchased the press, tools, metal plates and papers.
By the end of 1915, Phillips had completed 10 etchings. He first exhibited these at Richardson's. Phillips later related that he had sold his first prints literally through the Richardson's." It seems that a woman driver once backed her new car through the art dealer's window where a number of Phillips's etchings were displayed. Her husband paid for all the damage which included the etchings.
of Phillips's early etchings is Wooded Shoreline,
Winnipeg River. A sketchbook in the Glenbow Museum's collection
contains the preparatory pencil study. The broad masses of the subject
have been sketched in, but the details may well have been incised directly
onto the metal plate. Excellent spatial definition has been achieved,
with very effective reflections in the water.
dates appearing on Phillips's etchings are not always an accurate indication
as to when the plates were produced, since dates appearing after a signature
in pencil can also refer to the date that the proof was pulled. One etching,
dated in pencil 1915, also exists in another proof dated in
pencil 1919,? the year after Phillips supposedly had
given up his etching activity in favour of colour woodcuts.
dates given in this article are based on whatever documentary evidence
suggests, such as proofs examined, early newspaper reviews illustrating
some of the prints and an early sketchbook which contains drawings for
almost half of the etchings.
soon achieved a good working mastery of the etching medium, as is demonstrated
by The Waterfall, 1916. The related preparatory
drawing shows how he worked out some of the details of his subject, especially
the composition. The rippling water is rendered by a pattern, carefully
duplicated in the etching, while the wooded background, merely suggested
in the drawing, receives far greater definition in the etching.
|Phillips's abilities as a portraitist are very much in evidence in his etched work. Four of the etchings are portraits. Perhaps the best is the portrait of Mrs. Sweatman, 1917. The Glenbow sketchbook contains three drawings of the sitter. The one reproduced here is the one from which Phillips derived his etching. The drawing is as finished as the etching and shows how the artist used line only to render tone. This can be further enhanced in an etching by the way the copper plate is wiped after inking.|
The Lily, 1918
|The subjects of most of Phillips's etchings, as of his early watercolours, are the various landscapes he soon discovered during those early years in Winnipeg, especially the subjects sketched along the Red and Winnipeg Rivers. Ponds, lakes, backwaters were all good subjects for him. The etching entitled The Lily, perhaps the last etching he did early in 1918, is also one of the most pleasing. The related drawing is a beautiful pencil sketch and suggests that the finished etching could have great detail. But what Phillips has done on the plate is to achieve a heightened contrast of the riverbank on the rightno doubt suggesting bright sunlightwhile the other is left in deep shadow. The etched lines of the background are far more detailed, and the viewer is drawn right into the picture.|
The River at Lockport, 1917
|This abiding interest in light and atmospheric perspective is masterfully rendered in The River at Lockport, the fourth etching of the Red River series, probably done in 1917. Here sunlight and shadows across the winding riverside road lead the eye to the trees and buildings across the water. A detail shows how the contrast between middle ground and background is achievedfar more delicate lines in the distant trees and buildings suggest the alight haze above the river on a hot summer day.|
almost forgets in etchings such as these that colour is absent. But it
was the absence of colour in the etching medium that caused Phillips to
abandon it altogether in 1918. By the fall of 1917, he had produced satisfactory
colour woodcuts, and he never again took up his etching tools.
30 etchings produced in those early years brought Phillips some public
attention. The National Gallery had purchased two etchings in 1916. The
popularity of his colour woodcuts, which brought him international attention,
has almost made us forget that he did etch and in a masterful way
Unfortunately for the print collector, it would seem that relatively few proofs were pulled of any single etching, and none of these bear an edition number.
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