The enjoyment of fine prints can take varied forms and with each point of view goes special and unique pleasure. The highest enjoyment is no doubt present when the print is treasured for its beauty alone; the lowest enjoyment is when the owner thinks of it as a possession. This last pleasure arises from acquisitiveness, the jackdaw instinct of the collector, but, even at its lowest, the power of beauty must modify the commercial rage and even the most hardened collector must have moments of the higher vision.
At its best there is no purer passion than the appreciation of fine prints. There may be something vain-glorious in the ownership of paintings; the sense of sole and complete possession must disturb appreciation. Altruism of a sort enters into the possession of a print, and ownership can have hardly a taint of selfishness. The idea that a hundred eyes are at the same moment as your own taking pleasure in the like print gives zest to the enjoyment; that feeling may be realized only in moments of reflection, but it is latent and it comes from the sense that this “masculine and lovely art” is democratic, that there is nothing exclusive in it and that the man with a few dollars may in degree enjoy what the makers of prints have so freely given.
It is not for me to say where the colour-print stands in art value or to attempt a reconcilement of the opposed opinions of those who admire only black and white and of those who find the essential and final purpose of the plate or the block to be the application of colour. I must confess to a certain irritation at the coloured etching and of late there has been such frivolity in productions of this kind as almost to discount it as a form of expression, for we ought never to lose sight of the fact that the print, whether in one tone or many, [page 378] is a mode of expression for the artist, and by it we hope to find what his vision of the world has been. But any personal objection I may have to the use of colour disappears when I come to the colour-print proper, that is, the ancient and peerless art of printing in colour from wood-blocks; that art the possessor of this book may enjoy to the full, and, as he turns to one after the other of Mr. Phillips’ fine prints, he must recognize their beauty, their individual quality and their richness in the revelation of a personality.
The prototype and exemplar of the colour print must be the art ns perfected in Japan, no matter when it arose or what the history of its development may have been. If I were capable of a learned discussion on the technique of the art, this is no place for it, although I must say that the elementary knowledge I possess of the methods and practice of the makers of colour-prints adds greatly to my enthusiasm for the art in general and for Mr. Phillips’ examples in particular. He has achieved an international fame by the very qualities which led the Japanese artists and craftsmen of the eighteenth century into the paths of perfection. Here, moreover, is a case of the instinctive selection by an artist of his natural mode of expression,—the latent desire to make the colour print led to victory over all the technical difficulties. With only the haziest ideas of the Japanese tradition, he learned from experience and before long found himself comparing notes with fellow artists in England,—Giles, Seaby and Urushibara, and in America,— Francis Gearhart. He tells me that his first prints were on unsized paper and printed in water colours without paste, and that his present smooth and transparent impressions are made after a method imparted by Urushibara. But there is probably no art where theories are so useless without practice, and sound theory and arduous practice have given Mr. Phillips fine success and high reputation. His prints, nearly eighty in number, are widely distributed in public and private collections and are there found because of the combination of qualities,—happy invention, fine colour and competent craftsmanship. Here is a real achievement for which we crown our artist, and when we know that his book on The Technique of the Colour Woodcut is accepted as authoritative on that subject, we realize how far he has progressed from those first hazy ideas of the Japanese tradition.
It is fortunate for us that Mr. Phillips has so often devoted his time to the translation of the Canadian landscape and that so many of his finest prints are of typical native subjects. He has renewed our [page 379] delight in things familiar and has given us in miniature the charm which flows from our mountains and lakes and islands, charm untroubled by human history or tradition. The prints within these covers have been chosen to show the range of Mr. Phillips’ work, and, as we turn the pages, there comes a feeling of contentment as beauty follows beauty; here we say is variety linked with unity of motive and mastery of detail. Literary criticism of these prints may be out of place. The writer of Ecclesiasticus could say “Pour not forth words where there is a musician,” and his admonition is equally applicable to the presence of an artist. But one may be permitted to indicate the appeal of such a print as “Moonlight, Lake of the Woods,” the tranquil and fragile romance of the moonlit lake and the wood-screen; the beauty of the two mountain views with their strong contours and rich colour; the glamour of “Cathcart’s Island”; the decorative quality of “Muskoka Sunset”; the sincerity of “Rain, Lake of the Woods”; and in contrast to the glowing colours of these and of others the stark realism of “Winter on the Red River” and “A Winnipeg Street, Snow Bound.” One may readily adopt a favourite from amongst the ten and agreement as to the beauty of this or that print may be impossible, yet each print will undoubtedly find many admirers among the fortunate owners of this portfolio and to that circle the enjoyment of a preference may be left without further comment. [page 380]