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In the Groove: Gertrude Hermes and the Natural World
February 10, 2017 - May 1, 2017
One of the most innovative wood engravers of the twentieth century, Gertrude Hermes OBE (1901–1983) developed a highly distinctive style that combined technical virtuosity with bold imagination. She was the first woman engraver to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, becoming a full Royal Academician in 1971, in recognition of her inspirational work as a printmaker, sculptor and teacher. Drawing on the rich collections of the Ashmolean Museum, this exhibition demonstrates Hermes’s enduring fascination with the natural world – from her Jazz Age bird, fish and flower prints to her monumental coloured linocuts of the 1950s.
Hermes’s love of nature is evident in all of the prints displayed, including her illustrations for Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1932) and Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1939).
Yet these are not conventional animal pictures by any means. Her creatures – bat, spider, starfish and toad –have a strange ‘otherness’, hinting at Nature’s more sinister undertones. Even her flower studies, for Irene Gosse’s A Florilege (1930), reveal a darker side; each species has a distinct character, seeming to move on the page with its jagged prickles or sinuous tendrils.
Water is the key element in Hermes’s world. A keen swimmer and diver, she reveled in the physical sensations and abstract patterns of water, and her prints vividly convey the mingled pleasures and dangers of deep water, where whales and whirlpools threaten to swallow up the swimmer.
The initial inspiration for such works was rooted in the study of living, moving creatures, as we can see from Hermes’s sketchbooks, which teem with fish, mammals and birds drawn with a wonderfully fluid line. Among the many sketchbooks on display are school botany books which demonstrate her earliest attempts at drawing flora and fungi; they indicate how quickly she was drawn to the imagery she would later develop into her striking prints, such as Autumn Fruits (1935).
Combining a strong sense of formal structure with a sensual delight in texture, the works on show emphasize the sheer range of Hermes’s invention, from the cheeky bronze frog doorknocker to the haunting Undercurrents (1938) print, where a vast pike lurks beneath carefree swimmers, who are blissfully unaware. By relating these works to contemporary poetry and sculpture, as well as to personal experiences, this exhibition will uncover the roots of Hermes’s fertile creative imagination. Though cut into a solid block, the spiraling grooves of her prints pulse with the energy and movement of living nature.