On the wall above my computer is a print, a woodcut.
It’s tiny, much smaller than what you are seeing below even if on your smartphone: 5.3cms x 8.9cms — think in terms of a 6×7 negative from, say, a Bronica GS-1, Mamiya RZ67, or Pentax 67 medium format camera, or of a 3.5cm x 4.5cm British passport photo — so bear with me as I make an oblique approach to the subject of the ancient craft of film photography…
Understanding that this is a print directly from the block is to marvel at its intense detail. Then, to examine its two colours is to realise that the black has been printed over that warm tan after the block has been further cut away; a remarkable feat of accuracy, patience and planning.
Look for instance at the way the graduated shadow around the cylinder of the print roller at top left is rendered, with a series of vertical lines that have been left standing like the teeth of a comb above a solid strip to print the brown before their lines are continued by cutting further ‘teeth’ into the strip that will print black. Then stand back to appreciate the roundness so convincingly thus created. As in a campaign of chess played on a board and with pieces that are of these very colours, the artist marshals strategy to the task.
Only by squinting hard with my low-res eyesight can I make out from the 1mm high lettering the words “ALLAN” and “JORDAN,” the signature of the artist, which were cut into solid panels of black at the same time as the Latin inscription “EX LIBRIS”, i.e. “from the books,” of a “V.S. HEWETT,” the letters of whose name have been reserved to print black by carefully excising the fine-grained wood around them.
When I saw this little gem on display at Blarney Books in Port Fairy for sale at a mere $65 framed, I couldn’t resist its evocation of the decadent, civilised luxury of the 1930s, when it was made.
Yes, the colours recall those favoured earlier, in the 1910s, by the cubists, particularly my favourite Juan Gris, in counterchange that enhances the hinged and pleated spatial geometry. His intricate inventions are complex, not sweetly decorative like Jordan’s, whose work is an Art Deco adaptation, or mannerism if you will, of cubism that taps into the de luxe salon decor of the era. His walnut and jet on cream paper echoes the palette of the ebony and exotic timbers of a Ruhlmann cabinet.
Though this print has hung on the wall beside me for so long, it had at last provoked my curiosity. Who was Allan Jordan? Who was V.S. Hewett?
So began my quest. Though our Castlemaine Art Museum collection abounds in 1930s art in which it has specialised, there is no Allan Jordan there. But he is represented elsewhere in this state, in Hamilton Gallery, by his own image of Ruhlmann’s chariot, made in commemoration of the establishment of the Yallourn Library in 1946, before it moved to a new building in ten years later. From the mid-1960s, the town was steadily demolished to access the coal beneath.
The Australian National Gallery has two of his prints, poignantly romantic; one a swashbuckling galleon in linocut, the other a solitary man trudging through a wind-wracked drypoint landscape toward his hut.
I’ve put together a Wikipedia entry on the man from scattered shreds of information about him here and there in newspapers (like the pic above from The Age of 21 Aug 1963 of him with his student the author of Breeches & bustles : an illustrated history of clothes worn in Australia, 1788-1914), and magazines like The New Australian Bookplate Society’s Biblionews, books including McCulloch’s Encyclopaedia of Australian Art, and Roger Butler’s Printed images by Australian artists 1885-1955.
I found he moved often — Elsternwick, Malvern, Deepene, Mornington, Red Hill, Kooyong — and because he taught most of his life at his alma mater Swinburne Tech, he has not left a large trail of solo exhibitions; just one joint show in 1932 with the even less-known printmaker Dorothy Lungley, and a dozen group shows mainly in the 30s and 40s, none unfavourably reviewed.
He married twice, but survived both Elsie and Nellie and lived his last 15 years alone, apart from his daughter Marie.
But do these artworks — the galleon in full sail and the beleaguered farm worker — and these two photographs tell us more than just those facts? He appears to be a rather stiff and formal man; in this snap from his wedding he doesn’t embrace his partner but stands deferentially aside, seeming awestruck. The prints hint at a solitariness that must be enforced by the arduous and intricate work of carving fine detail with the burin.
And V.S. Hewett? He was a commercial printer, and production manager at Specialty Press, Melbourne, and a member of the Australian Ex Libris Society. But the jug full of flowers … do they stand for blooming freshness? Delving deeper, we find a short article in the Biblionews of August 1953;
Victor S. Hewett, for many years an executive of the Specialty Press, in Melbourne, recently retired from that firm. Members of the Society will wish him well now that he has more time to spend among his books. He has a fine collection of Australian literary work and modern press books, and such is the superb state in which he has kept his books that he enjoys or endures the soubriquet of “Mint Condition” Hewett, among his brothers of the book. He resides in Salmon Street, Essendon.
Hewett is therefore a friend or colleague whom Jordan would have known through either his publishing, or book-collecting.
Back further in the literature there is a link between photography and Jordan’s bookplates. I happen to have inherited a small pile of early Australasian Photo-Review magazines; quite sumptuously-designed with embossed covers and on good quality paper despite the wartime rationing. Among these the name Allan Jordan appears as the author, aged 16, of several pictures in their supplement pages devoted to the monthly prize-winners.
Certainly in our era of the smartphone camera, these are not remarkable beyond their being carefully arranged compositions and competently produced, but advanced for a teenage photographer. By this time, in 1915 when boys just a little older had volunteered to fight, Jordan was an illustration student at Swinburne, not far from his home in Malvern. There he would be learning the fashionable Art Nouveau style Böcklin or Edda hand-lettering that he uses to title his photographs of the boys launching a canoe and the panorama from the Hawthorn line platform beneath Princes Bridge at Flinders Street Station.
A.P-R also published in December that year his painstakingly illustrated, step-by-step article on the construction of a solar enlarger using a magazine camera (the sort taking flip-down plates of film holders) with a removable back, for its lens, and to fit a home-made negative holder. He next provided instructions for installing and blacking-out a darkroom in one’s bathroom in the August 1916 edition, in which the gas-light that was still the main household illumination, was to be used to make contact-prints on printing-out paper.
This level of do-it-yourself is lost from our digital photography. Our plastic-coated camera bodies, planned for obsolescence to lock us into a financially injurious circuit of updating, can certainly not be easily adapted by a 17-year-old with bright ideas, and are unlikely to be affordable for most, who instead use a mobile phone, a few Instagram ‘filters’ and other pre-packaged software for ‘creativity’, and publish them, disposable and momentarily acknowledged, on Twitter or elsewhere, while their most personal imagery floats into the ‘cloud’, owned by Apple, Facebook or Google. Little wonder that a cottage industry of chemical photography endures.
Another of Jordan’s articles returns us to his bookplates, like the one I own …in which he details ways of making them photographically…and thereafter abandons the medium for printmaking.