MODERN PRINTMAKING: WILSON & FLEMING
'fleming had been trained at glasgow school of art under charles murray, whose main tenet was that a print must have mood. wilson shared this preoccupation with mood to a perhaps even greater degree...'
William Wilson (1905-1972) and Ian Fleming (1906-1994), whose work is in our exhibition Printmaking 1920-1940, shared stylistic ideals that heralded an invigoration of Scottish printmaking. Their expressive, graphic style directly contrasted the generation of artists that came before them. Whilst Whistler, McBey, and their fellows emphasised the un-etched parts of their plates in their compositions – communicating light and open space – Wilson and Fleming filled their plates edge to edge to create dynamic scenes, a snapshot of a larger vista. Combined with angular draughtsmanship and heightened shadow, their resulting prints gave a dramatic, wholly modern, feel to a medium in decline.
The two first met in the early 1930s through Wilson’s teacher at Edinburgh College of Art, Adam Bruce Thomson. Fleming, a recent student, and now member of staff at Glasgow School of Art, was quickly raised as a prospective member of the Society of Artist Printers by Wilson and its then-President E S Lumsden, who taught printmaking at the ECA. Wilson and Fleming were soon fast friends, and met regularly to critique one another’s prints. In an etched self portrait of Fleming, an impression of which is with the National Galleries of Scotland, a copy of Wilson’s 1934 etching Sutherland hangs over the artist’s shoulder.
The fruitfulness of these meetings, and their shared views on technique are evident in the prints they produced from this period onwards. Both artists gained an emphasis on shadow and structure, which elevated their work visually and gave dynamism to their scenes. Wilson was at his best when depicting rugged landscape and weather, whilst Fleming’s most evocative prints grappled with industry and tenement housing. Indeed, Loch Scavaig, Skye, a print amongst Wilson’s most successful works from the period, was inspired by a visit to see Fleming on the island in 1935. He exhibited the print alongside Highland scenes, including Sutherland, at the 15th annual exhibition of the Society of Artist Printers. From this group, Campbell Dodgson, the collector, biographer and Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, purchased an impression of Sutherland, choosing to illustrate it in his 1936 edition of Fine Prints of the Year.
An article in The Studio from 1936 describes Wilson as a 'first-rate etcher and engraver’ whose work in both figure and in landscape must be considered as one of European importance. Indeed, it goes on to praise Wilson: ‘there is virtually nothing, apparently, that this young man cannot do, and of late it has almost seemed that his effects came too easily to him.’ By the end of the next decade Wilson, like other talented printmakers, including James McIntosh Patrick, had largely shifted the focus of his art. He pursued commissions in stained glass, having apprenticed in the medium during the early stages of his career, and returned to it throughout. He continued to produce watercolours and sketches, exhibiting a joint show with Ian Fleming in 1946. He gained considerable success as a stained glass artist, and it’s for this work that he is best known.
Fleming, on the other hand, continued to produce prints throughout his career, alongside his painting and watercolour. He continued in his role at Glasgow School of Art, where he taught the Two Roberts, MacBryde and Colquhoun, until 1948. He then succeeded James Cowie as Warden of Patrick Allen-Fraser Art College at Hospitalfield, and later became the Principal of Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen. Following Fleming’s retirement in 1971, he was a founder of Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen, with whose encouragement John McLean produced his first prints in the 1980s.
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