Monday, March 29, 2021

Walter J. Phillips by Nancy E. Green, Kate Rutherford, and Toni Tomlinson

Canadian master of the Japanese woodcut
Canadian artist Walter J. Phillips was a master of the color woodcut. Using methods and techniques developed by 18th and 19th century Japanese masters of the art form, Phillips created prints that rivaled the beauty and technical mastery of the medium’s greatest craftsmen. Phillips was born in England, but in his late twenties he moved to Canada, where he lived and worked as an artist and teacher in Winnipeg, Banff, and Victoria. He created images of the Western Canadian landscape in a colorful and lyrical style influenced by European art nouveau. The book Walter J. Phillips, published in 2013 by Pomegranate, reproduces 67 of Phillips’s prints and paintings, accompanied by quotes from the artist and three brief biographical essays.

The book is written by Nancy E. Green, a curator of art at Cornell University; Toni Tomlinson, Phillips’s granddaughter; and Kate Rutherford, Phillips’s great-granddaughter. Green provides a biographical overview of the artist’s life, training, and career that delivers sufficient interesting detail to leave the reader wanting to learn more. Rutherford tackles the question of why her great-grandfather didn’t achieve greater fame during his lifetime. The short answer is that his art was too traditionally pretty in an age when the Group of Seven were formulating a Canadian avant garde style. Phillips didn’t seem to mind, however, and was content with creating well-crafted images of natural beauty. Tomlinson’s brief essay, “Reflections of My Grandfather,” reveals an insider’s glimpse into the personality of the man behind the art.

Phillips was an artist of many talents. The images reproduced include a half dozen of his wood engravings and eight of his watercolor paintings. The rest of the illustrations are the Japanese-style color woodcuts for which he is best known. All artworks are reproduced in full color, except for the black and white wood engravings. Phillips was also an art educator, and the book’s layout pairs images of his prints with paragraphs quoted from his published and unpublished writings on art. Like most art books published these days, the book is printed on bright white matte-coated paper, resulting in a clear, crisp, high-resolution finish. While the quality of printing is excellent, the subtle and hazy coloration of Phillips’s woodcuts looks a bit washed out on the bright white paper. An off-white sheet, perhaps uncoated, would have given a closer approximation to the softness of water-based inks printed on Japanese paper. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful book filled with beautiful art.

The most comprehensive book on Phillips’s art is Walter J. Phillips: The Complete Graphic Works, published in 1981, but that was a limited edition publication, now out of print, and a used copy will cost you a few thousand dollars. Fortunately, the author of that book, Roger Boulet, has created a website at where one can view all of Phillips’s prints online. The images are low resolution, however, so the experience isn’t as pleasurable as holding a high resolution printed copy in your hands, as this book allows you to do. Green, Rutherford, and Tomlinson’s book may not be as comprehensive as a catalog raisonné, but an affordable and informative book of Phillips’s art was sorely needed, and this one fits the bill admirably. Anyone who appreciates the art of the color woodcut will enjoy it.
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Color woodcuts by Walter J. Phillips

Mount Rundle, 1951

York Boat on Lake Winnipeg, 1930

Norman Bay, 1923

Indian Days—Banff, 1950

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