Katherine Wodehouse Printroom Supervisor at the Ashmolean Museum provided a great insight into the life, motivations and art of Frederick Landseer Griggs at a recent talk (17th June) at the Ashmolean Museum Broadway.
As well as his artwork the Ashmolean Museum holds a large amount of archival material in its collection. One of the most valuable parts of this archive Wodehouse said was his correspondence with his great friend the journalist and poet, Russell Alexander. Their long friendship means the letters charts the highs and lows of Griggs’ career providing his views of his work as well as documenting affairs of the heart and the issues he cared passionately about like the changing face of England during the first part of the twentieth century. Some events, Wodehouse said, deeply depressed Griggs such as the First World War 1914-1918, the General Strike of 1926 and the emergence of the motor car that he feared would ruin the countryside
Griggs in his life faced financial challenges and had times when he of despondency but this was countered with his obvious pleasure in the beauty of the countryside and the love of spring. All his views were shared with Alexander.
Wodehouse said Griggs showed early promise in drawing and trained as an architectural draughtsman. Griggs’ big breakthrough as an artist came when he was commissioned to provide the illustrations for the Highways and Byways series of travel books. Wodehouse noted that travelling around England – usually using an unreliable motor tricycle – led Griggs to see more of the countryside so he visited areas that provided him with inspiration for his wider art but there was some irony in that these were travel books modern for their time that used the new freedoms people were gaining to explore areas using the car.
Griggs had his first encounter with the town that would become his own, Chipping Campden, in 1903 when he visited for ‘Highways and Byways in Oxford and the Cotswolds’ which was published in 1905. Giggs settled in Chipping Camden for the rest of his life – renting Dover’s House and then building his own property New Dover’s House which was still uncompleted at his death in 1938.
Wodehouse said that Griggs’ illustrations for the books are notable for their quality and timeliness. Macmillan, the publishers may have been unhappy with his timeliness but this was because Griggs was always improving and revising his work.
Griggs had been brought up as a Baptist but in 1912 converted to Catholicism. He also particularly now focused on etching as his main medium for his artwork. In 1912 he also visited Lincolnshire for the first time for the latest Highways and Byways book and this area had a profound effect on him Wodehouse said. More than a tenth of his etchings relate to Lincolnshire including Maur’s Farm.
Griggs found the years of the First World War distressing Wodehouse said. He was worried that he may be called up to fight but was eventually declared unfit for service and instead volunteered for the home service and was sent to work in Letchworth. While he found the work dull he did have the opportunity to see more of the English countryside. His etching, Memory of Clavering, produced much later showed his recollection of the village he visited at that time. Meanwhile his friend Alexander was called up for service in 1917 which was, Wodehouse said, a traumatic experience.
Other works that he will be remembered for are Anglia Perdita or England Lost which she said the Roman Catholic dismay of the betrayal of English identity; Fen Monastery; Owlpen Manor and St Botolph’s in Boston. Griggs had a love of the peeling and tolling of bells – Wodehouse said it reflected a communal and liturgical ritual that he appreciated.
One of his most arresting images is of The Cross Hands – this has basis in a real crossroads which Wodehouse visited but in Griggs’ reimagining it has been transformed into something foreboding. Other imaginative pictures include Evesham Bridge which was of a bridge destroyed in the 19th century.
Griggs had a role in the revival of the new romantic artist Samuel Palmer. He was also keen to preserve some of the best English old properties and views. He led the campaign to save Dovers’ Hill from development in the 1920s. In 1928 he was elected onto the council of the Campaign for Rural England and created the Campden Trust.
During the later 1920s and the 1930s he was suffering financial pressures and depression but at the same time Wodehouse said he produced some of his most dazzling work such as his imagined citadel Sarras. Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, said he was discomfited by Griggs’ imaginative work because of this topographical detail.
Griggs had been a collector of art but during the 1930s financial pressures led his to sell his collections including his Palmer works. Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929 the recently lucrative etching market collapsed.
Wodehouse said etching was a time-consuming process but Griggs perfected the artform. However, she said his choice of medium probably he is not as well known as an oil painter would be but the quality of his work meant that he was worth discovering and revisiting.
The summer exhibition of the work of F.L. Griggs continues until 11th September at the Ashmolean Museum Broadway.
(Copyright for images: Ashmolean Museum Oxford)