Sunday, 23 February 2014

F L Griggs RA RE 1876 - 1938

I have been labouring on this post for months on and off, and finally it is here - phew!

A page from the Highways and Byways of Sussex, 1904, Steyning Church

It was looking at Gavin Stamp's proficient pen drawings back in November last year that turned my mind back to a favourite illustrator of mine, Frederick Landseer Maur Griggs.  Quite a mouthful.  The 'Maur' was added when he converted to Roman Catholicism.
There were many fine architectural artists and illustrators in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain - but then it was Golden Age for architecture and related arts - Pennell, Haig, Atkinson, Brangwyn, Walcot, but for me the finest was Griggs.  All of them could work in pen and ink with amazing fluency, but Griggs's work has an intensity and lyrical poetry that at times is breath taking.  He was draftsman of prodigious talent, and an etcher of sometimes visionary transcendence.  And being a bit of armchair biker myself I've always warmed to the idea of him biking around England drawing old buildings.  Seems an ideal way of spending your time.
I was introduced to his work by an article by the architectural historian and critic Alan Powers - not a bad draughtsman himself - in 'Country Life' magazine (April 17th 1986).  A fitting place considering that it too was a product of that late flowering in British architecture.
F L Griggs was born and raised in Hitchin, Hertfordshire - a small market town on the edge of the Chiltern Hills.  He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London, and 1897 he moved to Bedford to train as an architect under the Arts and Crafts influenced C E Mallows, who himself was no bad draughtsman.  Before then however Griggs had been introduced to the work of Samuel Palmer (1805 -1881).  Palmer, one of a number of followers of William Blake known as the 'Ancients', was a mystical painter and etcher of extraordinary, haunting vision.  He was also a convert from non-conformity to High Anglicanism.  Palmer's powerful influence, which was as much intellectual and spiritual as it was artistic, was to remain with Griggs for the rest of his life; and it is by the assimilation of both Palmer's life and work to his own, and later in life the direct and indirect influence he had on Graham Sutherland, Robin Tanner and Paul Drury, that Griggs became a link in a Romantic, if not mystical, chain that is a persistent, if sometime underground, element in English art.
Griggs soon earned a reputation as an excellent draftsman and made perspectives for other architects such as the Arts and Crafts practitioners Charles Ashbee and Guy Dawber.  In 1902 he commenced work the 'Highways and Byways' volume on Hertfordshire.  He had in effect become a full-time illustrator, and henceforth it seems practiced architecture rarely - I have only found a few examples of his work, and two of those were domestic work, (a renovation and a 'new build'), for himself.  The 'Highways and Byways' work would, unintentionally, occupy the rest of his life, illustrating a further 12 volumes right up until the time of his death.

Another page from the 'Highways and Byways of Sussex', 1904, showing the Market Cross and Cathedral Spire, Chichester.

His drawings for 'Highways and Byways' evoke a hot still summer's day, sometime about midday when everybody is ether at lunch or sheltering from the sun.  They are suffused with light.  It radiates from the page.  Buildings, trees, the grass are drawn in meticulous detail, but are never allowed to overweigh the composition.  Every element - paper, ink and later, pencil - are held in equilibrium.  It is hard not to draw, in that epicene stillness, an analogy to the noon day of British power.  The Empire was drawing to it's zenith after a long century of British naval and industrial supremacy.  Perhaps even when they were produced, they had an air of nostalgia and loss; Griggs after all was an Arts and Crafts practitioner, who in 1904 had moved to the epicentre of Arts and Crafts production Chipping Camden, in Gloucestershire.

Yet another page from the Highways and Byways of Sussex, 1904, Old Shoreham Church

For me the Arts and Crafts movement is pervaded by a sense of deep loss, and it is that sense of things being under threat from industrialisation and progress that can be sensed, I think, in Griggs's illustrations.  It can be argued that for all of Morris's revolutionary socialism the Arts and Crafts movement was essentially conservative - I'm tempted to label it 'High Tory'.  It was just as concerned with the preservation of the past as it was with creating new work.  It's been commented that Griggs's illustrations concentrate on the old to the exclusion of later things; certainly his laborious technique responds most warmly to old buildings - buildings that is with texture and patina.  The magic is just a bit lacking in his drawing of the Pantiles in Royal Tunbridge Wells.  There is however more than that; due to the intellectual influence of Pugin and Ruskin Arts and Crafts practitioners privileged the Middle Ages and had a suspicion of Classicism, which in some ways seen as destructive an influence as industrialisation on native traditions, and I believe influence is observable in Griggs's illustrations with their careful editing out of the modern world.  I think this can be summed up in his own words. In 1937 he undertook his last 'Highways and Byways' - Essex, and wrote of the experience, which he undertook to support his family, in these terms: "Towards the end I began to get very sick of it, and remembered [Samuel] Palmer's 'The Past for Poets, the Present for Pigs' and was mightily glad to be back among my books again."  F L Griggs died the next year, the final volume incomplete.*
There is something more with Griggs that sets him apart from the rest of the Arts and Crafts movement: for Morris socialism and art took the place of religion - 'spilt religion', according to T E Hulme.  In 'News from Nowhere' Morris envisaged the post-revolutionary society to be a kind of 'cleansed' Middle Ages - cleansed of religion as well as Capitalism. A godless society.  An anarchistic one too.  Griggs however followed Pugin: in 1912 he converted to Roman Catholicism.  His utopia had to be western catholic if it was ever it to be like the Middle Ages.  There is a logic to that.  However, as Pugin himself realised, Roman Catholicism had changed post the Reformation crisis, and itself had to be restored.  And so with Griggs, as with Pugin, there came a spiritual as well as a material nostalgia.  This reflected clearly in a great series of visionary etchings he undertook after 1912 until his death, the year (I believe) he established 'The Dover's House Press' to publish his own work.  Influenced by the etching's of Palmer they evoke not the High Church vision of a pastoral Eden, but the Catholic High Middle Ages, and also the melancholy post Reformation decay of the fabric of Catholic England.  And as with his other work the etchings are suffused with light  - his love of East Anglia surely?  Noticeable is general absence of people.  Noticeable too the metamorphosis - England is transformed, and her architecture has become elemental, sublime as though grown out of the earth itself and not the work of man.

I think it was during my teens, or perhaps during my twenties I saw a documentary on Robin Tanner, the etcher and illustrator; he related how he had been asked that considering his 'radical' politics why his art hadn't taken on a more political or radical aesthetic. His reply was that by showing the world as it once was, or could yet be, his work was his protest.

*  It was finished by Stanley Badmin

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