Robert Catterson-Smith (1853-1938) was described, in a memoir by Ronald Sly, as an “artist, early socialist, principal of the Birmingham School of Art and Director of Art Education in that city. At an exciting stage in his career, he worked with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones on the Kelmscott Chaucer”.
In his bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, William S. Peterson records Catterson-Smith’s account of his artistic procedures: “Emery Walker made a very pale print of a photograph (a platino) from Sir E.B.J’s pencil drawing - the exact size of the drawing - I then stuck the print down on stout card... Next I gave the print a thin even wash of chinese white with a little size in it. The result was to get rid of everything but the essential lines: next I went over the pale lines with a very sharp pencil copying and translating them from the B-J drawing which was in front of me. The lines of shading were put in pencil... When the pencil drawing was finished all trace of the photograph had disappeared. Next came the inking over which was done with a fine round sable brush and very black chinese ink... When difficulties arose in the treatment of passages I consulted B-J... Some of the drawings were done over several times... Finally E. Walker made a photograph on the wood-black and Hooper cut it...” (see Peterson, Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, Oxford 1984, p. xxx)
Norman Kelvin, in his edition of Morris’ letters, notes the “controversy” that began in 1898 “when an anonymous contributor to the London Daily Chronicle... suggested that Morris had unfairly (and perhaps dishonestly) failed to acknowledge Catterson-Smith’s role... Catterson-Smith himself (25 November) wrote ‘Fingers, eyes, and sympathy I brought, but Sir Edward was responsible for every line and dot... I worked at his very elbow for months, often spending whole days seeking out a simple and expressive treatment of a passage...’” Apparently this flared up again in the 1930s when it was “asserted that Burne-Jones’s hand was too unsteady by the late 1890s to do properly the drawings... and that Catterson-Smith had to redraw all of them...” According to Kelvin, “these accusations and assertions much agitated May Morris, who turned to S.C. Cockerell for reassurance that Burne-Jones was the proper artist to credit and that her father had not neglected justice and fairness in the matter. She received only half-assurances.”
Now the Catterson-Smith archive has come to light and offers evidence and insight into true working practices. This is a rich resource and offers significant detail on other aspects of Catterson-Smith’s life and career, including his work on the University of Birmingham’s ceremonial mace and his preparation of a posthumous work illustrated by Burne-Jones. To mark the sale, the family memoir of Catterson-Smith by Ronald Sly has been published for the first time (see www.rcscollection.co.uk for further details). Catterson-Smith’s legacy, seen now in a new focus, is considerable. We learn, for example, that Catterson-Smith was an apprentice in the studio of the sculptor J.H. Foley when he started work on the statue of Albert for the Albert Memorial. Catterson-Smith therefore became the model for Albert’s hands, and the hands that would work on the Kelmscott Chaucer were already on show in Kensington Gardens, rendered in gilt bronze.
We will exhibit selected highlights from the archive of Robert Catterson-Smith at our New York offices from 28 November to 1 December.