Douglas Percy Bliss

Phyllis Dodd: Portrait of Douglas Percy Bliss, 1926

Fellow Royal College of Art students Douglas Percy Bliss, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden studied together, lived together, and following graduation remained firm friends. While Ravilious and Bawden are prominent in the Pantheon of 20th Century artists and widely celebrated Bliss is less well known and deserves far more recognition.

Douglas Percy Bliss was born in Karachi, India (now Pakistan) on the 28th of January 1900, where his father was a trader. The family was originally from Northamptonshire, but his grandfather moved to Morayshire in Scotland, where he raised a family of sixteen children. Douglas always regarded himself as Scottish, as he was raised in Edinburgh and was educated at George Watson’s College 1906-17. On leaving school, he joined the Highland Light Infantry until the end of the Great War in 1918. He went on to gain an M.A. honours degree in English Lit. at Edinburgh University in 1922. The study of Art History in his first year encouraged his lifelong interest in art and architecture. After obtaining his degree, Bliss studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London where he came to know Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden students in the Design School. Bliss had intended to join the Design School, to prepare to become an illustrator, but was persuaded by RCA Principal, William Rothenstein, to enter its Painting School.

Early in his career, Bliss stated he wanted to ‘draw trees really well’. In a variety of media, he used his characteristic muted colours and the clean lines of an engraver to celebrate the English and Scottish Landscapes. Sadly, much of the work of his talented youth was lost.

The-Poor-House-RCA-Composition-dec-1923. Satires in stone the Sportsman 1923. Scarecrow 1925 Ink, body colour with scratching out.

The fraternity of Bliss, Ravilious and Bawden lived and exhibited with one another; they exchanged ideas and techniques and made pilgrimages to sites such as ‘Rat Abbey’ – Samuel Palmer’s run-down cottage in Shoreham – to study the local countryside. For some of this time, Bliss shared lodgings with Bawden at 58 Redcliffe Road, and then space with Ravilious at 38 Holbein Studios.

He became student editor of the R.C.A. magazine. The quality of his third magazine (Gallimaufry) was outstanding, he introduced the innovation of hand- colouring by stencil. The magazine included woodcuts by Ravilious and caricatures by Bawden. The British Museum bought several copies and sent one to the Louvre Print Room in Paris.  Introduced to the Society of Wood Engravers by tutor Paul Nash, Bliss discovered that wood engraving was an ideal medium for his artistic and design talents studying wood engraving in his post-graduate year. The high quality of Bliss’s engravings was quickly admired beyond the walls of the R.C.A. The art critic of The Times praised Bliss’ wood-engravings for concentrating ‘a world of imagination in an inch or two of space.’

RCA student magazines: Gallimaufry and Mandrake.
In 1925, the supremely conservative Oxford University Press published a book of engravings by young art student Bliss illustrating ‘Border Ballads’. Commissions quickly followed on the success of ‘Border Ballads’, including illustrations for ‘The History of Rasselas’ by Dr. Johnson, published by J.M. Dent in 1926. The same publishers paid a great compliment to Bliss when they commissioned him to write ‘A History of Wood Engraving’. Even today this is regarded as one of the best expositions ever written about this specialised field of Art. Good copies of the 1928 edition are eagerly sought by dealers and students in Europe and America.

Border Ballads The History of Wood Engraving

In 1926 Peggy Angus took fellow graduate Bliss to the Scots Labour Club, where, Bliss reported: ‘We hobnobbed with Ramsey MacDonald, chatted long with Ishbel his daughter, sundry Labour MP’s – fierce devils with jaws and wild eyes who talked about unscrupulous Liberals, feudal Dukes, etc. There was speechifying, a sword dance, songs from Peggy and other northern song-birds and then they cleared a space for a reel. Before you could say “Boo” Peggy and I were in it ‘hooching’ and sweating and clapping hands and jumping about like young opossums.’

Three years later MacDonald became Prime Minister for the second time, as a widower, Ishbel became his official hostess.

In the autumn of 1927, Bliss held his first exhibition, with Bawden and Ravilious, at the St George’s Gallery, George Street, Hanover Square. Mainly focussing on watercolours, it included his first landscapes of Barra, an island in the Outer Hebrides, which he returned to on many occasions, and which inspired some of his finest works.

Three paintings of Barra plus a wood engraving.

In 1928 Bliss married fellow RCA student Phyllis Dodd, who was a painter having previously studied at the Liverpool School of Art before moving to the RCA.

Encouraged by his wife Bliss concentrated on his painting, producing oil and watercolour landscapes in Scotland and England. Coincidentally his paintings record the end of an era of small holding. He also painted some urban scenes just before the towns were transformed by high rise and high-density buildings. The married couple first lived at 65 Sancroft Street, Lambeth, before moving to Blackheath in 1932, and settling at 38 Lee Park. They had two daughters, Prudence, who became an art historian, and Rosalind, an artist and teacher. They were joined in Blackheath by Bliss’s widowed mother, Isabel (and she would remain in the household until her death in 1966).

A Hebridean Cottage. Morayshire shepherd, wood engraving 1926. Morayshire Crofter wood engraving c 1928. The Quiraing, Skye 1927. The Red Cart 1939.

When war broke out in 1939, his collection of engraved blocks was still mostly unpublished. During the Blitz, the entire collection was stolen from his London home. However, almost forty years after the theft, sixteen of the missing blocks were identified at an auction in Somerset. They had not been properly cared for and the bigger ones split when printing was attempted. Thus, good prints of his wood engravings, perhaps the most characteristic expression of his Art, are rare.

In the 1930s he taught at the Blackheath School of Art and was the London art critic for The Scotsman.

Railway Bridges at Blackheath c.1932. A London Square in Winter 1941.

Bliss produced two series of Artists in their Studios, exhibited in London exhibitions in 1934 and 1937. Many were sold.

Conversation at Arles. Rossetti painting ‘lovely guggums.’ BR Haydon torn between High Art and a selling line of Napoleans Musing”, 1935.

Ravilious, after seeing the exhibition in 1934, wrote to Bliss as follows:
What an awfully good and lively show that was. Cezanne (sold I notice) and Van Gogh were damn good drawings – the landscape in the latter was boiling point. I loved it. Holman Hunt, Toulouse Lautrec and Turner were the others I enjoyed most, the Turner I would have taken home if I could rub two halfpennies together……Congratulations on the show…..You should do well with these drawings. They are the goods.

In 1939 Bliss volunteered for the RAF Reserve and was sent to an officer training centre in Uxbridge. Two years later, he was called up and stationed by the RAF at Felixstowe, where he did a radar course. Appointed to a branch of the Air Ministry that dealt with concealment and decoy, he served in Brighton and Bournemouth early in 1942, before moving to Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow, to work at a decoy site intended to simulate a city. In 1943, he moved to the historic Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, where mock tanks were being made. Later that year, and for the remainder of the war, he worked at the Camouflage and Decoy Unit based at Pinewood Studios.

Following bomb damage to their London home, Bliss and his family moved to Derbyshire. In November 1945 they moved into Hillside Cottage, Windley, near Derby.

High Noon, Windley. Gunhills Windley:  Painted without any sketches, from his bedroom window on the first floor of Hillside Cottage. The title is derived from the hills in the background, which according to local tradition were so named because guns were posted there either in the time of Cromwell or during the southernmost stage of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march from Scotland in 1745. Gunhills. Cowley’s Farm, Ireton Wood, near Worksworth 1945.

After the war in September 1946 Bliss was appointed Director of the Glasgow School of Art. Hillside Cottage was kept for holidays until he retired there in 1964.

He referred to Glasgow as “the greatest industrial city in the Empire”. Bliss was instrumental in saving much of the Art Nouveau architecture and furniture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Bliss drew on his contacts to enlist teaching staff, including Gilbert Spencer, RA (1892-1979) (brother of Stanley) and Eric Horstmann. He continued as Director from 1946 until 1964. By the time he completed his period as Director, Glasgow School of Art was listed by Whitaker’s Almanack among the six top Art Schools in Britain.

Phyllis Dodd. Portrait of Douglas Percy Bliss.

During his Directorship of the Glasgow School of Art, the School saw a re-emergence of the importance of design and the creation of the three new or reconstituted departments of Interior, Textile, and Industrial Design, raising them to the status of Diploma subjects, and providing them with fully equipped workshops.

Bliss also worked hard to further the reputation and influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s legacy and to support Mackintosh research. One letter records Bliss asking the current inhabitants of Mackintosh’s old house on Southpark Avenue if a student interested in researching Mackintosh can come and visit their home to take a look. Bliss also worked on the campaign to save Glasgow’s Mackintosh Tea Rooms, enlisting help from individuals such as Nikolaus Pevsner and John Betjeman, and spread the reputation of Mackintosh world-wide by lending Mackintosh items to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for an Art Nouveau Exhibition in 1958/1959.

Soon after retirement in 1964 settling at his cottage in Derbyshire, he became a governor of Derby School of Art. During his retirement, he continued to paint, and produced a monograph on Edward Bawden (1979), which recalled the excitement of his own student years.

‘Ecclesbourne Valley, Derbyshire in the snow’.

In 1983, a joint show of work by Bliss and his wife, Phyllis Dodd, was shown at St Michael’s Gallery, Derby.

He travelled widely in Europe, including Russia, and to Africa visiting Ghana five times as an art adjudicator at Kuman University.

Douglas Percy Bliss died in Ashbourne, Derbyshire on the 11th of March 1984.

Woodcut: ‘Tathe Bogle.’

To date there is no standard text on Douglas Percy Bliss and this blog has been cobbled from numerous sources. A book titled ‘Douglas Percy Bliss and Phyllis Dodd’ has been ‘coming out’ for a couple of years now but has yet to land in booksellers shops. Hopefully not too long ?

Charcoal Burners; Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum.

Graham Bennison https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist

4 thoughts on “Douglas Percy Bliss

  1. An interesting read. There is very little literature on this very accomplished artist who I believe deserves much greater recognition. Thank you

    Like

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