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Iain Macnab

1890 - 1967

Self-portrait by Iain Macnab

Self-portrait   c.1928

  Original signed oil painting.
Ref: The Heatherley School of Fine Art 150th Anniversay Exhibition, 1996, item no.131.
508 x 405 mm
The sole recorded self-portrait painting by Iain Macnab.

The Scottish artist Iain Macnab of Barachastlain was the founder and principal of the famous Grosvenor School of Modern Art, the school at which the art of original linocut was first pioneered in this country. Iain Macnab was an exceptional draughtsman and a highly versatile artist whose particular talents included wood engraving, linocut, lithography and painting. One of the most influential teachers of his era, Iain Macnab gathered around him a group of brilliant and innovative artists who taught every medium of graphic art at his school. Iain Macnab’s particular stress was towards the rhythm of a composition and the way in which lines of force were distributed around a balancing dividing line. He regarded graphic art as a form of aesthetic abstraction which should possess its own harmony and movement, based upon rhythms and counter-rhythms of sweeping line, or upon carefully organised sequences of differing planes of colour.

Iain Macnab analysed his concept of rhythm as follows: “If we draw three lines, horizontal, vertical and oblique, of these, the first two will appear static, although the oblique line will give a certain indication of movement; but if we curve this oblique line so that it becomes roughly about a quarter of a circle we find that we have increased its apparent movement, largely owing to the tendency of the eye to run along a curved line. If we repeat parallel lines, we make simple harmony. If we repeat parallel lines in an ordered sequence we create a rhythm”. It is upon this conception, developed by Iain Macnab, that all Grosvenor School linocuts are based.

Iain Macnab propounded this approach to art with unremitting force and these ideals are reflected in the work of the teachers whom Macnab gathered together at his school. Claude Flight, Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews were the key figures whom Iain Macnab chose to assist with his pioneering style of artistic education. Both Macnab and Flight had already experimented with the art of linocut as a medium for original printmaking, and Flight was to develop this art form to its full whilst at the Grosvenor School. Iain Macnab’s few early linocuts are now extremely rare and none is known to have been released in any form of published edition.

Iain Macnab allocated the teaching of linocut primarily to Claude Flight, and it was under Claude Flight’s pioneering influence that of the art of linocut was developed as a major and dramatic art form. Although neither Sybil Andrews nor Cyril Power are known to have used linocut prior to joining Iain Macnab at the Grosvenor School, both were to assist in creating a highly innovative and extremely modernistic art form through this medium – a medium which has now acquired an unique place in the history of British printmaking. Indeed, the group of artists which was formed around the Grosvenor School have yet to be surpassed in their creative use of the medium.

Amongst the numerous artists drawn to the Grosvenor School were: Margaret Barnard, Leonard Beaumont, Dorrit Black, Diana Drew, William Greengrass, Guy Malet, Ethel Spowers, Lill Tschudi and Frank Weitzel, all of whom produced original linocuts of their own. Their bold designs depend entirely upon Iain Macnab’s teaching regarding the replication of form in a rhythmic pattern generated by curving lines and carefully organised planes of colour. It is only through these devices that their linocuts have achieved the remarkably effective sense of movement and avant-garde style for which they are now famed.

Having been involved with linocut at its inception, Iain Macnab turned his attention to original wood engraving. His first exhibited work in this medium dates from 1927 and he was to produce nearly ninety further independent works in this medium over the next thrity-four years. Although Iain Macnab produced a number of abstract paintings and some early linocuts, he avoided abstraction completely in his wood engravings. Despite this, most of the wood engravings display the same complexity of design and rhythmic balance of lines which is apparent throughout his art. It is Iain Macnab’s work in wood engraving which has received most attention in recent years. Amongst his best known pupils in this medium were Guy Malet, Tom Chadwick, and Gwenda Morgan.

Iain Macnab’s paintings are not well documented and few ever appear for sale. Unusually for a western artist, and especially for an accomplished engraver, Iain Macnab rarely used a pencil for his line drawings, preferring instead a brush. Due to a marked absence of available works for comparative study, it has not been possible to assess how Iain Macnab’s painting style developed; however, this striking self-portrait appears to reflect the influence of C.R.W. Nevinson and betrays vestiges of the angular styled derived from Cubism. A highly accomplished and searching work, this strong self-portrait reveals an intelligent and forceful character whose unwavering personality and pioneering drive was to make him one of the most significant figures in British art between the two World Wars.

Oil on canvas, on original stretcher. Two minute and completely unobtrusive expert repairs, otherwise excellent condition.

Exhibited: The Heatherley School of Fine Art 150th Anniversay Exhibition, 1996, item no.131. (Iain Macnab was co-principal of the Heatherley School from 1919 until he left to establish the Grosvenor School in 1925).

This self-portrait is featured in the book Tom Chadwick and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art by Julian Francis (published by The Fleece Press, Huddersfield, December 2012).