This article by Roger H. Boulet originally appeared in the long defunct magazine Antiques & Art, May 1981, published in Vancouver at that time. Some minor revisions have been made.
The reputation of Walter J. Phillips as a printmaker rests principally on his colour woodcuts, yet his work in black and white is no less worthy of the collector’s attention.
Phillips’s earliest activity as a printmaker was in the etching medium. After coming to Canada—to Winnipeg—in 1913, he soon met another British artist who had come there that same year. Cyril Barraud was determined to make a living with the products of the homemade etching press he had brought with him. The two artists exhibited together in Winnipeg in October of 1914, both presenting watercolours. Barraud also exhibited some etchings.
Phillips asked Barraud to teach him the technique. Only one etching was done under Barraud’s supervision, since Barraud enlisted and left Winnipeg to join the war in the fall of 1915. Phillips purchased the press, tools, metal plates and papers.
By the end of 1915, Phillips had completed 10 etchings. He first exhibited these at Richardson’s. Phillips later related that he had sold his first prints “literally through the Richardson’s.” It seems that a woman driver once backed her new car through the art dealer’s window where a number of Phillips’s etchings were displayed. Her husband paid for all the damage which included the etchings.
One of Phillips’s early etchings is Wooded Shoreline, Winnipeg River. A sketchbook in the Glenbow Museum’s collection contains the preparatory pencil study. The broad masses of the subject have been sketched in, but the details may well have been incised directly onto the metal plate. Excellent spatial definition has been achieved, with very effective reflections in the water.
The dates appearing on Phillips’s etchings are not always an accurate indication as to when the plates were produced, since dates appearing after a signature in pencil can also refer to the date that the proof was pulled. One etching, dated in pencil “1915,” also exists in another proof dated in pencil “1919,”? —the year after Phillips supposedly had given up his etching activity in favour of colour woodcuts.
The dates given in this article are based on whatever documentary evidence suggests, such as proofs examined, early newspaper reviews illustrating some of the prints and an early sketchbook which contains drawings for almost half of the etchings.
Phillips soon achieved a good working mastery of the etching medium, as is demonstrated by The Waterfall, 1916. The related preparatory drawing shows how he worked out some of the details of his subject, especially the composition. The rippling water is rendered by a pattern, carefully duplicated in the etching, while the wooded background, merely suggested in the drawing, receives far greater definition in the etching.
Phillips’s abilities as a portraitist are very much in evidence in his etched work. Four of the etchings are portraits. Perhaps the best is the portrait of Mrs. Sweatman, 1917. The Glenbow sketchbook contains three drawings of the sitter. The one reproduced here is the one from which Phillips derived his etching. The drawing is as finished as the etching and shows how the artist used line only to render tone. This can be further enhanced in an etching by the way the copper plate is wiped after inking.
The subjects of most of Phillips’s etchings, as of his early watercolours, are the various landscapes he soon discovered during those early years in Winnipeg, especially the subjects sketched along the Red and Winnipeg Rivers. Ponds, lakes, backwaters were all good subjects for him.
The etching entitled The Lily, perhaps the last etching he did early in 1918, is also one of the most pleasing. The related drawing is a beautiful pencil sketch and suggests that the finished etching could have great detail. But what Phillips has done on the plate is to achieve a heightened contrast of the riverbank on the right—no doubt suggesting bright sunlight—while the other is left in deep shadow. The etched lines of the background are far more detailed, and the viewer is drawn right into the picture.
This abiding interest in light and atmospheric perspective is masterfully rendered in The River at Lockport, the fourth etching of the Red River series, probably done in 1917. Here sunlight and shadows across the winding riverside road lead the eye to the trees and buildings across the water. A detail shows how the contrast between middle ground and background is achieved—far more delicate lines in the distant trees and buildings suggest the alight haze above the river on a hot summer day.
One almost forgets in etchings such as these that colour is absent. But it was the absence of colour in the etching medium that caused Phillips to abandon it altogether in 1918. By the fall of 1917, he had produced satisfactory colour woodcuts, and he never again took up his etching tools.
The 30 etchings produced in those early years brought Phillips some public attention. The National Gallery had purchased two etchings in 1916. The popularity of his colour woodcuts, which brought him international attention, has almost made us forget that he did etch — and in a masterful way at that.
Unfortunately for the print collector, it would seem that relatively few proofs were pulled of any single etching, and none of these bear an edition number.