Saturday, May 06, 2017

Asian Art Deco #3: Robert Herdman-Smith

The painter, etcher, and scupltor Robert Herdman-Smith (1879-1945) was born in Liverpool, England.  He was educated at Dr. Bowman’s College, Liscard, Cheshire, and studied art in Leeds, London (National Training College, South Kensington), Paris (École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian), Antwerp (Royal Academy), and Munich (Royal Academy).  He exhibited his early paintings at the Royal Academy, in the provinces, and at the Paris Salon.  He qualified as an art teacher in 1899.  The dates are unclear, but he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and also a member of the Faculty of Arts in London.  Beginning in 1902, he taught at the Wellington Technical School in New Zealand.  In 1905, Herdman-Smith became the Director of the Canterbury School of Art in Christchurch.  One of his students at Canterbury was the New Zealand artist and critic Raymond Francis McIntyre.  He also became a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1906.

New Brighton Beach (1908) by Robert Herdman-Smith
Courtesy of the Auckland Art Gallery
(watercolor)

In 1910, Herdman-Smith became a Fellow of the Society of Art Masters.  Based on the English landscape paintings that he exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, he probably visited England circa 1908-1909.  Around 1920 or 1921, Herdman-Smith returned to England and shortly thereafter was elected an Associate of the Royal West of England Academy.  (Some sources have him at Canterbury until 1926, but that is probably because he continued to exhibit in New Zealand until that time.)  Herdman-Smith appears to have resettled in Cornwall, as exhibition records place him at Looe and Newlyn.  By 1932, Herdman-Smith was living in Wareham in Dorset and, by the early years of WWII, he was a tenant of 5 Piazza Studios, St. Ives, until the illustrator Harry Rountree took possession of it in 1942. 

A Street in Tunis by Robert Herdman-Smith
(watercolor)

A bio pasted on the back of one of Herdman-Smith’s framed prints make it clear that he was much-traveled, painting in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, the Holy Land, India, Australia, the U.S.A., and South America (possibly Buenos Aires based on exhibition records), in addition to England, Scotland, and New Zealand.  The dates of most of those trips are unclear, but I suspect that the majority likely occurred prior to his stay in New Zealand or as part of one of his trips to or from New Zealand.

A Gateway, Tangier by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 75
(colored etching)

I don’t know how Herdman-Smith learned etching or when he began to work in that medium.  Near as I can tell, he did not begin to produce etchings in a commercial way until the mid-1920s or later.  As a Cornwall resident, it’s not much of a stretch to think that he might have known Geoffrey Sneyd Garnier, a long-time resident of Newlyn and probably the most technically accomplished etcher in the county.  However, I’m not aware of any hard evidence that the two ever met, let alone that Herdman-Smith received any formal training in etching from Garnier.


Kynance Cove, Cornwall by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

At the same time, I can’t rule out the possibility that Herdman-Smith may have known Dorsey Potter Tyson.  Herdman-Smith’s etchings were carried by the Purnell Art Company in Baltimore, Maryland.  Tyson resided in Baltimore and was also a client of Purnell’s.  Moreover, it appears that Herdman-Smith visited Baltimore at some point, as one of his etchings featured Baltimore Harbor, another depicted Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a third was a view of  Baltimore’s Washington Monument (a subject of two of Tyson’s early prints).   I have a feeling that the London-based publisher and dealer Arthur Greatorex, Ltd., who handled Tyson’s and (briefly) Garnier’s work may also have represented Herdman-Smith in the U.K.  If not, he might have been represented by one of the publishers who handled Elyse Lord's work.

 Baltimore Harbor by Robert Herdman-Smith
Courtesy of Millbrook Antiques (Baltimoreantiques.com)
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

Most of Herdman-Smith’s etchings are landscapes of Cornwall and Scotland or architectural studies, especially of English cathedrals.  He also made a few etchings of North African scenes, likely based on his earlier paintings.  But Herdman-Smith is of interest to readers of this blog because he also made at least 18 Asian art deco prints featuring Japanese or Chinese scenes.  Although a few online sources claim that Herdman-Smith had traveled to Japan, I’ve found no evidence that he did.  Such reports appear to lift verbatim information about his travels from the aforesaid bio pasted to the back of some framed works -- which omit any reference to Japan -- and simply appear to assume that he must have spent some time in Japan due to the subject matter of such prints.  Most of his actual Asian etchings, however, are far too stylized and fanciful to have been based on scenes that he personally had witnessed.

Edinburgh, The Scott Monument by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 100
(colored etching)

My surmise is that Herdman-Smith, like Garnier, was likely recruited by Greatorex to produce his Asian art deco prints when a 50% import tax made Tyson’s prints too expensive to sell in Great Britain in the early 1930s.  Given that Garnier had a falling out with Greatorex after only a couple of years’ worth of association, Herdman-Smith might been tapped as Garnier’s successor.  Or maybe he saw the success that Elyse Lord and Tyson had had with such prints and independently decided to jump on the bandwagon as a means to supplement his income during the late 1920s or, more likely, during the Great Depression.  

St. Michael's Mount by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

While not as kitschy as most of Garnier’s potboilers, Herdman-Smith’s Asian etchings nonetheless suggest a conscious effort to ape prints made by Lord and Tyson.  Like Tyson’s prints, many were issued with a label indicating that they were personally printed by the artist and that the plates were to be destroyed after the edition was printed.  Some specifically describe the prints as aquatints, but the majority simply say that they were “original designs etched and printed in colour.”

Dealer label for "The Little Shrine" by Robert Herdman-Smith

There is, as yet, no catalogue raisonné for Herdman-Smith’s prints, so the following list of his Asian art deco prints  undoubtedly incomplete.  If a reader is aware of a missing design, please let me know and I will add it to the list.  Fortunately, the original labels for many of his etchings have survived to supply authoritative titles  and edition sizes that might missing from the prints themselves.

Almond Blossom by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

The Blue Parakeet by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(aquatint)

Border of the River by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

Burning Incense by Robert-Herdman Smith
Courtesy of Charter Prints
Edition of 75
(aquatint)

The Butterfly by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

The Cha-Kam Players by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

The Enchantress by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

The Ferry by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

The Half Moon Bridge by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

Japanese Lanterns by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

The Kite Flyers by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

Compare Herdman-Smith's print with this one made by Elyse Lord:

 Kite Flying (c. 1926) by Elyse Ashe Lord
(drypoint etching)

The Little Shrine by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

The Peacock Screen by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(aquatint)

[Peacocks and Fan] by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

The Puppet Showman by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

I can't help but note the resemblance of "The Puppet Showman" to a watercolor by Elyse Lord:

The Hunchback by Elyse Ashe Lord
(watercolor)

The Rickshaw by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(colored etching)

\
[Sailing Boats] by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

The Sedan Chair by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition unknown
(colored etching)

The Yellow Junk by Robert Herdman-Smith
Edition of 150
(aquatint)

There are also references in the literature to etchings bearing the titles "The Temple," "The Little Pagoda," and "Little Japanese Nurses," some of which probably refer to "The Little Shrine."   Additional information about  Herdman-Smith's life and career would be welcome.

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