Colour, Tone, Shadow, Line: The University of Reading and the Art of the Colour Print

“The colour print may reveal the most beautiful and delicate form ” – Allen W. Seaby 


Today, the University of Reading is a recognized centre for the study of print processes and design, with the subject-leading Department of Typography and Graphic Communication having been established in 1974. The specialism, however, has its roots in the late nineteenth-century School of Art and the engagement of its faculty members with the art of Japanese colour wood-block printing.

Frank Morley Fletcher (1866-1949), Headmaster of the Art School from 1897- 1905, learned the method of ukiyo-e colour printmaking directly from Japanese artists. The process, in which images are built up from designs carved into blocks of wood, that are each inked with a different colour and then hand-printed, had been popular in Japan since the 1760s. The opening of Japan to the west in 1854 allowed for the introduction of Japanese woodblock prints to the western market, where their influence on contemporary artists was almost immediate. However, it was not until the 1890s that British artists began to experiment with the method itself. Together with John Dickson Batten (1860-1932) (an eternal examiner at Reading School of Art), Morley Fletcher was the first to lay claim to its mastery, with the collaborative efforts Eve and the Serpent (1895) and The Harpies (1897), for which Batten made the designs and Fletcher cut and printed the blocks. 

Morley Fletcher established classes on the colour woodblock printing method at the School of Art in Reading, where among his most enthusiastic followers was the assistant student-teacher, Allen W. Seaby (1867-1953). Seaby immersed himself in the medium, and was building an international reputation as a colour-printmaker by the time Morley-Fletcher left the department in 1905. Seaby won a Gold Medal in Milan in 1906, and was a frequent exhibitor with the Society of Animal Painters, the Colour Woodcut Society and the Society of Graver Printers in Colour. At Reading (where he became full teacher in 1899, Director of the school in 1911 and Professor in 1920), Seaby took over and developed Morley Fletcher’s classes, even writing the textbook ‘Colour Printing with Linoleum and Wood Blocks’ which was published in 1925.

Seaby’s influence, and legacy, as a champion of the method is the subject of a current exhibition in the University’s Campaigns Office on London Road (on show until 11 April 2018). Drawing upon resources held across and beyond the University collections, it sets Seaby’s work among that of his students, colleagues, friends and family and demonstrates the enduring influence of his teaching and the many he inspired through his love of colour print. A selection of artworks on view at the exhibition can be seen in the gallery below: