“… a companionable thing”: Catching up with Stanley Anderson

A “companionable thing.”  That is how the English painter-printmaker Stanley Anderson (1884 – 1966) summed up what “art” should be.  His work reflects this sentiment, even though much of it was produced in solitude – slowly and studiously.  Staging the exhibition, Unmaking the Modern: The Work of Stanley Anderson, I was glad to have had another chance of giving my contemporaries an opportunity to get acquainted with Anderson, who died on this day fifty years ago, and to have a conversation with him as he, through his work, continues to communicate his beliefs.

Stanley Anderson, Purbeck Quarrymen (1936), engraving

I say “another chance,” as I had previously co-curated an exhibition of Anderson’s prints at the Royal Academy in 2015 and, getting to know Anderson through his prints and correspondences, written about him with my better half, Robert Meyrick, a book that was released to coincide with that show.  Staging this second exhibition, Unmaking the Modern, a year later, I concentrated on Anderson’s efforts to bring about the conversation he hoped for – a conversation about the disregard for a generation of men like him who saw their lifetime commitment to traditions threatened by so-called progress.

Much of what Anderson chose to engage with and bring to our attention has disappeared: traditions gone and skills abandoned, rural communities destroyed and urban neighborhoods demolished, lives lost and often forgotten.  This may well evoke a sense of nostalgia.  But that nostalgia is ours, not Anderson’s.

Anderson did not refer to himself as an “artist” and rejected the idea that makers of cultural products should create such works for art’s sake or as a means of self-expression.  Making art, like doing any other meaningful work, was to him a social act – a “companionable thing.”

Anderson observed those changes as they took place: the demolition of buildings, the erection of shrines to profit and temples devoted to the exchange of money.  He responded concretely and in no uncertain terms to what he saw going on in his lifetime.  His works are not so much a lament as they are public outcries and displays of solidarity with those who, like him, where threatened by a demand for speed and expediency.

Objects of visual culture, especially prints, are a way of reaching out and fostering connections among individuals who share the values that are made manifest in arts and crafts.  Anderson’s works are the products and tokens of fellowship.  He took careful note of how others around him carried out their jobs of creating furniture, of working the land, and of serving the community.  He understood their labor and honored it with the work of his own hands.  Each print bespeaks a communion, a faithful, generous and sustained engagement with his subjects.

Anderson also looked at – and insisted on making us see – the forgotten men of his day: the homeless, the destitute and the aged.  He cast a light on individuals that society had turned into outcasts, misfits that could not or would not conform to the dramatic changes that progress demanded.

Installation view of the exhibition at the School of Art Museum & Galleries, Aberystwyth University

Anderson was not opposed to commerce; indeed, market scenes were among his favorite subjects.  Born in Bristol, he had trained for seven years as a professional engraver in his father’s workshop.  He was already in his mid-twenties when he was awarded a scholarship to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London.  Art – and the teaching of printmaking – were jobs to him.  Being a Royal Academician, meanwhile, was a privilege to him that came with the responsibility of making or promoting art that was not removed from the everyday but that brought people together and that got them looking at each other.

Long before Pop Art, Anderson bridged the divide between high and low culture that modernism had created.  He united what modernity insisted on separating: the heart and the hand.  This was a conscious decision, as his correspondence bears out, not a lack of awareness of Modernism.  After years of studying and using a variety of printmaking techniques, he returned to engraving, which he had long associated with trade. 

With those later engravings, he devoted himself to documenting the workaday activities of others – be they craftsmen or farmhands – who, like him, made a living from performing manual work for the benefit of others.  Making art, like performing any other meaningful work, was to Anderson a social act – a ‘companionable thing.’

Unmaking the Modern: The Work of Stanley Anderson was on show at the School of Art galleries, Aberystwyth University, Wales, from 1 February to 11 March 2016.  An online version is currently under construction.

The catalogue raisonné Stanley Anderson: Prints by Robert Meyrick and Harry Heuser was published in 2015.  Still online are a couple of short videos, produced for the Royal Academy exhibition An Abiding Standard, in which my husband and I talk about Anderson’s works and views.

For a comprehensive archive of Anderson’s prints, visit www.stanleyanderson.co.uk.

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