Mabel Royds: printmaker

Mabel Royds 'Honeysuckle' wood cut

Mabel Royds ‘Honeysuckle’ wood cut

The John Lewis advert that has just popped into my inbox tells me this is Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) when people holiday, loll around indolently at home and turn their backs on shopping. This procrustean renaming of an innocent day seems a bit unjust as firstly, most recipients of John Lewis mail are not American and secondly, because though it is a bit overcast, the beech trees at the end of our garden are still resplendently burnished and filter even the weakest rays of a lurking sun with a hint of a golden glow. My blog, however, is languishing from a distinct lack of colour and to uplift November spirits, I want to look at my small collection of the art of an inspirational printmaker, Mabel Royds (Mabel Alington Royds, 1874-1941).


Mabel Royds 'Cineraria' woodcut

Mabel Royds ‘Cineraria’ woodcut


A woodcut is produced from wood cut into planks; a wood engraving is cut into endgrain wood. Mabel, unable to afford the best woodblocks (from pear trees) rather endearingly satisfied herself with sixpenny breadboards from Woolworths and not a scintilla of detriment to her work did they prove to be.


Mabel Royds: The Red Mug, Cyclamen, woodcut

Mabel Royds: The Red Mug, Cyclamen, woodcut

Immediate in their impact, the colour is glorious, the strength of line is sure, the composition is tight and confident, and the subject vibrates with energy, whether it be a still life of a few flowers or a tightly interacting group of human figures. I really like the gutsy non-fussy physicality of her flower prints and if I were not so amorous of those, I might have bought some of her woodcuts of Indian peasant life – from snake charmers to blacksmiths. I nearly did buy a print of an acrobat on a tightrope performing in a big top and I rather wish I had. With the tightrope making a strong diagonal line and the acrobat curiously shown from behind, it reminds me of Dame Laura Knight’s circus painting with which it shares a certain enigmatic quality. (I can find no print of this to link to.)

Mabel Royds 'Columbine' woodcut

Mabel Royds ‘Columbine’ woodcut


Mabel is a very interesting figure about whom little is known. The fifth and youngest daughter of a country vicar, she might have been a thoroughly sat-upon mouse in the family but early on she appears self assertive and confident in her abilities to a marked degree. In 1889, aged 15  she took hold of the reins of her life with both tightly grasped hands. She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in London but seems suddenly to have discovered that she preferred the approach of the more progressive Slade. Having never told her parents about the offer, it appears she not only turned that down but applied for and got accepted by the Slade – and all scarcely before she’s out of a gymnslip.  At the Slade she studied under Henry Tonks.

Mabel Royds: Tibetan flags woodcut

Mabel Royds: Tibetan flags woodcut

Tonks was himself a force to be reckoned with. A fully trained doctor and anatomist, he prioritised good draftsmanship. (He himself is remembered for the pastel drawings he made after WWI of injured soldiers with severe facial injuries, drawings which helped document the pioneering work of plastic surgeons in facial reconstruction.)  It is often said that his manner could be intimidating, especially to women. Paul Nash (‘Outline: An Autobiography and Other Writings’ of 1949) says, “Tonks…. disliked self-satisfied young men, perhaps even more than self-satisfied young women, if any such could be found in his vicinity.” Tonks was, however, generally held to be a good teacher for whom Life Class drawings were supremely important with the emphasis on speed of drawing, the use of memory and the study of Old Master drawings.

Mabel Royds 'Diwali' wood cut

Mabel Royds ‘Diwali’ wood cut

With no more details as to how Mabel survived the Slade under Tonks, the turn of the 20th century, places her in Paris where she worked under Sickert and on some of his paintings. After a few years teaching in Canada, she is documented as taking up a teaching post at the Edinburgh College of Art where the Scottish Colourists were flourishing. J.D.Ferguson (Principal) and Sam Peploe became friends, while her future husband, E.S.Lumsden was also part of this circle.  They married in 1913. Rejected as medically unfit to serve in the army, Lumsden took Mabel off to India where he thought he might be taken on by the Indian army, which it did briefly. The Himalayan trek of 1916-1918 and further travel in India was to be the  bedrock of inspiration for the Indian work she produced in the1920s. After the brief glimpse of a feisty character of the 15 year-old Mabel, you long for more information about her or by her. It is disappointing that nothing has come to light and I suppose we must allow her work to speak for itself. The flower prints mainly date from 1933-38.

Yesterday I was in Liberty’s and while waiting for the lift to go to the café, my eye was caught  by a line of Mabel Royd’s flower prints on the front of greetings cards. Smaller and lacking the zesty colour of the originals, I hope their blandness doesn’t dampen interest in the real thing.

Mabel Royds 'The Christmas Stocking'

Mabel Royds ‘The Christmas Stocking’

For a general overview of British artists and the Great War, in which Tonks also figures, see: ‘A Crisis of Brilliance’ by David Boyd Haycock

Tonks also appears in the following 2 novels:

‘My Dear, I wanted to tell you’ by Louisa Young We read this in our reading group and most enjoyed it. I found it a bit glib, clichéd and predictable.

‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker has been on my shelf for ages and I’m hoping it will be good

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  1. Posted November 29, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    How interesting! I’m so glad you shared Mabel with us! Thank you.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 1, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you found Mabel interesting.

  2. Jane H
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mary for your insightful comments. I came to your blog recently having been directed by Yarnstorm. I admire your embroidery and enjoy your thoughtful, considered and clearly expressed opinions on the world around you.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      What a lovely comment, Jane. It is such a delight to know that people enjoy the blog.

  3. Posted May 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I came over from Silkannthreades ( ) and enjoyed the art.
    Thank you.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed Mabel’s vibrant prints.

  4. christopher ealand
    Posted April 8, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed this piece on Mabel Royds who I have long admired for her certainty of line and boldness of colour; thanks for posting. The ‘prayer flags’ woodcut is a Ladakhi rather than Tibetan scene, I think. Best wishes, c

    • Mary Addison
      Posted April 9, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your correction – most helpful. Glad you enjoyed the post in spite of my mistake.

  5. Posted June 2, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Lovely post. I saw the Dead Tulips on twitter and went searching for more information. The Tonks connection is an interesting one…loved Life Class.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted June 4, 2016 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Thank you Sarah. Life Class still to be read – you’re making me feel I must push it up the pile.

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