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The Hokusai of Sussex

Eric Slater was an unassuming man, but his Japanese art-inspired woodcut prints show his brilliance.

By Michael Prodger

In 1853, when Commodore Perry used his Black Ships to menace Japan into ending its policy of self-isolation, it was the creation of a new market for American goods that was uppermost in his mind. The niceties of cultural exchange were of no concern to the gunboat diplomat. But while the American presence within Japan was widely resented, the dissemination of Japanese culture into the West was both welcome and transformative.

Within a matter of years, Japanese porcelain and prints had started a fad that became a craze among European artists. Manet and Monet, Whistler and Van Gogh, Beardsley and Bonnard were just a few of those whose work shifted as a result of lessons learned from Hokusai, Hiroshige and other Japanese “artists of the floating world”. By the 1920s, Japonisme had made it to Seaford on the Sussex coast too. There, in the small seaside town between Brighton and Eastbourne, a quiet and unassuming man named Eric Slater briefly gave the Japanese art of watercolour woodcuts a distinctively English twist.

In the first decades of the century there was a new interest in printmaking that combined the art and craft traditions. The Golden Cockerel Press run by Robert Gibbings specialised in books with wood engravings by the likes of Eric Gill, David Jones and Eric Ravilious; the Grosvenor School printmakers turned linocuts into an art form; Paul and John Nash and Edward Wadsworth made independent wood engravings and woodcuts; Robert Bevan and CRW Nevinson brought new subtleties to lithography. All, in their different ways, were exploring how to make reproductive art that kept its maker’s stamp – its authenticity – the very problem that Walter Benjamin would address in his influential 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

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Whether Slater was concerned with such issues is doubtful. Although his work can be seen as part of a wider cultural movement he kept himself to himself, on the edge of both the country and its artistic conversations. He rarely strayed or drew more than ten miles from his Seaford home and produced only 45 watercolour woodcuts in the decade or so before he gave up art in 1938. Apart from a few flower still-lifes and a couple of tourist-spot scenes of places such as Stonehenge and Corfe Castle (drawn from photographic postcards), his work shows just the sea, cliffs and downland of his little patch of Sussex.

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When Slater stopped printmaking both he and his pictures slid rapidly into obscurity. While his contemporary Eric Ravilious – who painted some of the same scenes – has been revived as a peculiarly British vernacular modernist, Slater has continued to languish. That he has resurfaced at all is largely down to the work of James Trollope, himself a Seaford resident, who has championed Slater’s work and discovered what little is known of his life.

Slater (1896-1963) was not Sussex-born but came from London, where his father was a successful silversmith. When Slater was eight, however, his father died from pneumonia and with his mother, grandmother and aunt the family downsized in first Bexhill, then Winchelsea and finally Seaford. According to one of the few extant records of the artist, by Campbell Dodgson, a supporter who was Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum (and a distant cousin of Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll), until the age of 21 Slater’s “health did not permit him to take up any career”. This meant he was not conscripted into the army during the First World War either. Instead, true to his father’s memory, perhaps, he enrolled at the Hastings School of Art, which had a reputation for encouraging good design.

[See also: Leon Dabo’s pictures of nothing]

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It wasn’t there, however, that he learned how to make watercolour woodcuts but from a Winchelsea neighbour, Arthur Rigden Read. The technique was still new in this country and Read, after travelling in Japan, learnt it from Frank Morley Fletcher’s 1916 manual Wood-Block Printing. The method involves drawing the design on to a series of blocks, one for each colour, and cutting out the areas not to be printed. The raised design is then covered with watercolour mixed with rice paste and a damp sheet of paper is pressed on to it to transfer the design. Successive colour blocks are then overlaid until the image is complete. Slater would carve some ten blocks for every picture and make up to 50 copies of each print.

Working from a lean-to built on to the kitchen at the back of his modest house, Slater quickly found success: in 1929, the year he moved to Seaford, he joined the Society of Graver-Printers in Colour and in 1930 won a gold medal from the International Printmakers Society of California with a picture of the cliffs at Seaford Head. He gained a dealer in Cork Street who also dealt in Whistler’s prints and his pictures were exhibited in Australia, South Africa and America, as well as in British venues such as the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Seaford Head (1930) shows Slater at his most characteristic. It is a pared-back view with the non-essentials removed to accommodate the colours’ sitting on top of one another rather than mixing, as they would with proper watercolours. The palette is limited to dusty greens, greys, blues and buffs, with the unmodulated green mass of the rising slope at its centre. The brilliance of Slater’s block-cutting and colouring is evident both in the harmony of the whole and the deftness of the meeting places between colours. A dab of watercolour to pick out the edge of a rock or the shadow on a cliff is easily applied; carving a block to give the effect is quite different.

Slater’s technical finesse is especially clear in the sky, where a mass of white, the paper itself, is brought to life by carefully placed incursions of grey. By giving the clouds definition he imparts atmospheric movement across the whole scene. Slater knew not only how to simplify but, just as importantly, when to stop.

[See also: Joaquin Mir’s colourful Spanish landscapes]

The end of his career was precipitated by the death of his mother Charlotte in 1938 from a heart attack. The loss of his greatest supporter sapped his will to make art and the war seemed to finish it off. Seaford itself was bombed and its beach was mined to stop a German landing; Cuckmere Haven, a favoured drawing place a mile along the coast just beyond Seaford Head, was reinforced with gun emplacements, the river was mined, and concrete anti-tank “dragon’s teeth” defences and pillboxes were built along the valley sides. Slater’s bucolic realm had become the site of frantic military activity and small prints of ageless England seemed otiose as a result.

Slater lived out the last 25 years of his life quietly in Seaford, without making a mark on the wider world. James Trollope tracked down his old housekeeper, who remembered the ageing artist as bald, formally dressed, and looking “more like a bank manager than an artist”. He died of broncho-pneumonia in a Catholic nursing home in Hove, and no next of kin could be traced. He was buried back in Seaford, close to all the places he had once made his own.

This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West