Ascending the straight steep flight of steps to Mr. E. L. Laurensorrs studio in Kensington, one finds oneself amid familiar surroundings; for here, one remembers, the lovable personality and delightful genius of Phil May were once at home. And the place is fragrant with kindly memories, but the artistic atmosphere' is different. Mr. Laurenson is a painter chiefly of landscapes, and he is very much an out-of-doors painter. So, although he works a great deal in the large studio at 20 Holland Park Road, finishing there his canvases, or biting and printing his etchings and aquatints, his still more workaday studio is his motor-car. To many a happy painting-ground has it taken him, both on the Continent and in England, and many a pleasing picture has he enjoyed painting in it, while countless are the sketches and colour-notes he has made in that peripatetic studio, with the changing skies overhead. It was, I believe, Mr. Laurensonsitting in his motor-car with his friend Mr. Harold Speed, both busily painting on a country road, that suggested Mr. F. H. Townshend's "Punch" drawing of The Lazy Artists. But Mr. Laurenson is far from being a "lazy artist"; he is, on the contrary, always trying to find for himself new vehicles for artistic expression, while his car is characteristic of his energetic and restless search for pictorial opportunities.
An Irishman born, the instinct for art developed in his childhood, and at ten years of age he was allowed to begin studying at the Old School of Design in Kildare Street, Dublin. He remained there only six months, however, for his family traditions were military, and he was destined for the army. But during the seven years he held a commission in the Connaught Rangers, whether stationed at home or in the East, the artist in him was always craving for expression; he was constantly sketching, constantly making efforts to paint. Regimental routine proved ever irksome to him, and eventually he gave up soldiering, and went to study art in Paris. For a time he worked in Colarossi's atelier, and afterwards he attended a small private class directed by Mucher, the poster-painter. Mucher's method was to draw, in the presence of his pupils, a whole nude figure, explaining as he proceeded how each individual part should be drawn, and teaching scientifically how to look for beauty in odd proportions. Having learnt all that he could from this teaching, Mr. Laurenson went next to Holland, to the village of Egmond, where he studied landscape painting with Mr. George Hitchcock.
After this brief artistic training he came to London and "commenced painter." For two or three years London offered its scenic allurements to his busily responsive brush and pencil. To his lively sense of colour its streets, its parks, its river, presented harmonies of tone that he had seen nowhere but in the London atmosphere. So from his motor-studio he painted London assiduously, in all its lights and moods, and often inartistic policemen would urge that his car should "move on," while the street-waifs and the early workmen, seeing him sitting in it in the small morning hours, painting Downing Street, for example, would jeer at him as at some incomprehensible eccentric.
Then farther afield he has gone with his car, painting on the Continent, in France principally, as well as in the English counties. And everywhere he sees his picture primarily in terms of colour, generally influenced by some romantic effect of light. And he sees it with the eye of the true colourist, sensitive to the subtlest harmonies as well as to broad and simple impressions of tone. His choice of subject, in fact, is determined chiefly by the opportunities it offers him as a colourist. The ancient castle, with its mellow tones of the centuries, has a real fascination for Mr. Laurenson. So he has painted Stokesay Castle, and Ludlow in Shropshire, and Barnard Castle in Durham, with its stone bridge and the factory, under various lights of the passing day and night, and so he has painted the castle at Falaise in Normandy, in which William the Conqueror was born. At Falaise, too, he found an appealing subject in Arlette's Well, where, as the legend goes, the Conqueror's ducal father and humbly born mother first met, and where now noisy washerwomen do their work, with no consciousness of the picturesque scene which Mr. Laurenson's richly toned canvas conveys to us. The mediaeval charm of Avignon has inspired more than one happy water-colour, as have the rugged and spacious landscapes of the Yorkshire and Derbyshire dales. Wherever he finds his picture, Mr. Laurenson paints with deliberate joy, and seems to delight in any difficulties of light, though it be but London light, and the scene be a wintry one at Battersea or Hammersmith, with snow upon the barges and the river-side buildings; or sunlight resting upon the Serpentine, or dancing across the Thames, or breaking capriciously in hot patches through the trees in Hyde Park, where the promenaders are.
And equally Mr. Laurenson seems to enjoy the difficulties of a medium, as long as it is likely to give him the effect he aims at. So he has taken to painting in tempera, and through that medium of luminous tones the warm reds and yellows of his beautiful Eastmill — Sussex simply glow in the hot sunshine. With what dainty charm Mr. Laurenson can handle pastel may be seen in the study of a girl, reproduced here, with the title Dreaming.
But, apart from his paintings, a special interest attaches to Mr. Laurenson for his experimental efforts in the direction of colour-printing copper-plates, efforts for which at the Milan International Exhibition of 1906 he was awarded a gold medal. Having learnt the principles and technique of aquatint and line-etching simply from listening to the lectures of Sir Frank Short, he put these into practice, making endless experiments till he got near to the pictorial effects he desired, always with a view to printing his plates in coloured inks. Then, with the ordinary "artist's colours" in powder mixed and ground with nut-oil to a very stiff consistency, so that they could be worked only when the plate was heated, using extra strong and stiff brushes, he would paint the plate for each impression, somewhat after the manner of the eighteenth-century colour-printers. This is, of course, a very laborious and troublesome process, and so far, in the results when printed, Mr. Laurenson has not been able thoroughly to satisfy his own exacting sense of colour, the values never coming into perfectly true relations. Yet, though the relative hues of nature are not obtainable in these colour-printed aquatints, in some of them, with their conventional tones, Mr. Laurenson has achieved very interesting and engaging pictorial effects, Stopham Bridge — Sussex, for instance. There is a suggestion of mediaeval romance about the old stone bridge by moonlight, with the shadows over the river, and here the blue and green tones have been very impressively managed. A pleasantly decorative effect has been obtained in The Serpentine — the subject also of the water-colour reproduced here — showing the Kensington Gardens end, with the fountains and the stone balustrades, and a swan floating serenely below these, and in the background the houses of the Bayswater Road seen through the trees of conventional browns and greens. Then, there is Chelsea Reach, with the sunset through the twilight on the river, and the barges and the water very much alive, while, in the background, "the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky." Millbank, too, and Pont Alexandre Trois, are pure spirit-ground aquatints, but in The Sand Pits — a very large and effective plate — Mr. Laurenson has used line-etching for accentuating form. The effect of the warm sunlight which floods the pit, casting some fine shadows, is admirable, and, but for some unfortunate over-biting in the trees above, the whole plate would be a complete success. A proof of it has been purchased for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Mr. Laurenson may be encouraged to persevere with his experiments, for I believe aquatint is the only copper-plate process that lends itself at all satisfactorily to printing in coloured inks. But, after all, perhaps he will find his pictorial expression on the copper-plate more artistically through black and white, while for colour he is equally happy in at least four other mediums. At present he is an artist still in the making, but his possibilities would seem to be rich.
M. C. S.
Salaman, Malcolm C. “The Pictures and Prints of Edward L. Laurenson.” The Studio. 53 (1910): 216-23.
Last modified 18 March 2012