Friday, August 08, 2008

Elsie Anna Wood

Many thanks to Prof Sandy Brewer for writing our fourth 'Guest Article' for the Bible illustration blog. Click on the pictures below for a larger image.

Elsie Anna Wood (1887 – 1978)

Elsie Anna Wood was born into a Baptist family who were all active in the local chapel in Crouch End, North London. Like so many other women illustrators – e.g. Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and Eileen Soper - she was fortunate in having an artistically talented father to encourage her precocious talents. Charles Wood worked in the art department of a London publishing firm, and, from a very early age, she was encouraged to draw and paint , and introduced to the tools, materials and skills required of a commercial artist. Elsie attended the Hornsey School of Art from the age of seventeen but was prevented from advancing to the Academy schools of art by a change in her family’s circumstances that necessitated her seeking paid employment. She produced illustrations for various publications working only in pencil or ink and taking up the challenge of full colour illustrations for books in her early twenties. Up to this point Elsie Anna Wood’s life might have taken the trajectory of contemporaries such as Margaret Tarrant who lived and worked in the Engish Home Counties, but in 1919 she successfully applied for a job with the Nile Mission Press working under the auspices of Constance Padwick in Cairo. Her role was to provide the accompanying illustrations for the children’s literature produced by the Press. The post was for six months and enabled Elsie to travel through Palestine as well as Egypt.

After returning to the UK she unsuccessfully applied to serve as a missionary overseas, but five years after leaving Cairo she was asked to return to Egypt to work for the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). It is the work she produced for the SPCK that made the name of Elsie Anna Wood synonymous with Bible illustration all around the world. Many artists before her had travelled to the Holy Land - e.g. Tissot, Hole, and Copping – to observe at first hand the people and places of the Bible, but none of them had moved beyond the experience of a tourist to live and work among the people as Elsie Anna Wood did. As a result of her close observation and drawing from Palestinian models, she has, uniquely, shown us a Christ from Palestine which is in stark contrast to the conventional blonde European portrayal of Jesus adopted by most twentieth century Bible illustrators. But her bible illustrations were innovative in other ways too.

In her illustration of the infant Jesus (left) she shows us a self-confident child who looks out – confrontationally - at the audience.
In the background detail of picture 1, (above right) she reminds us that Jesus spent his early years in Egypt. Dr Brewer pointed out to me that the boats in the background of picture one (above) are 'Dhows' which were traditional Arab sailing vessels. GK

In picture 4, (bottom centre), the depiction of Jesus as healer, she conveys the light and shade and the movement of the crowd in the confined space of a Palestinian town. Finally, in what is my favourite of all of her illustrations of Jesus blessing the children (below right) she makes the disciples sympathetic characters and does away with the forbidding effect they might have on young viewers.
It is an interesting composition which adopts as its point of view that of a child and the effect produced is one of looking upwards to Jesus. There is also a strong impression created of a crowd pressing in on Christ and, as in other versions of the scene, there is a tree arching over the top of the picture, but this one is laden with pomegranates – a fruit with particular symbolic significance for Christians. As we look longer into the picture, other small figures become visible, one of whom is holding onto Jesus’ robe, smiling shyly while looking out at the viewer. Jesus is shown holding one small child, as is the convention in the scene, but what is different here is that he is reaching out to touch the head of a baby, which is being held by one of the disciples. This man is looking down at the baby with what appears to be puzzlement and Christ is depicted as looking at him and smiling. At the top left of the picture is another disciple, again with an infant in his arms. This is not a scene of rejection but of joyful happiness and among its many innovations is that Jesus is shown with his hair cut short and his beard clipped, as are the disciples who look like the young men they actually were, rather than the elderly patriarchs of convention.

This picture is carefully composed to take account of the predispositions of the very young child. For example, it is notable that in many hymns for children the writers never seem to tire of stressing the smallness of children yet this picture offers a way for the young viewer to overcome the limitations of its small stature in relation to that of adults. The dynamic of the composition is created by the line of sight which starts with the mother in the bottom left hand corner, moves up past the two small children, on to Jesus’ face, and ends with the smiling face of a little girl sitting on her mother’s shoulders. It is an adult who is in the lowest position in the picture and a child in the highest.

The format of Sunday school kindergarten lesson was the telling of an illustrated story, followed by activities linked to what had been heard. Within that context, this picture offers a multitude of opportunities for imaginative engagement with what is being depicted. Because some of the detail is half-hidden in the picture, it offers the chance of a game of seeking out visual information – an activity that requires the involvement of the teacher. The attention to detail of dress and ornamentation is again typical of the artist, but also indicative of the level of authenticity that publishers and educationalists expected. Learning about the dress, the customs, and geography of the Holy Land was all part of the process of making Christ real for children. Having lived and worked in the Holy Land, Wood was familiar with the inhabitants and was able to produce depictions of Jesus, his disciples and the people around him as clearly belonging to Palestine, whilst at the same time avoiding the orientalist excesses of other illustrators.

Elsie Anna Wood produced over 100 bible illustrations for the SPCK, which were published in various formats as books, postcards, attendance stamps, as well as large posters for the Sunday school classroom. The pictures were produced for educational purposes and to that end seem to transcend the limitations of two dimensions by compositional devices which draw the viewer further into the picture the longer one looks at it.

Elsie Anna Wood was a remarkable woman making her own living in the UK and the Holy Land at a time when society deemed a woman’s place to be in the home. She was not only a brilliant artist, she was also more astute in her business dealings than other Bible illustrators. When Harold Copping produced his sixty-four illustrations for the Religious Tract Society he was given a fixed sum for each completed picture with no royalties for the millions of reproductions which followed from his work. In addition, he was legally prohibited by the society from producing Bible illustrations for any other publisher. Elsie Anna wood on the other hand, had the foresight to opt for a contract, which gave her royalties on reproductions of her work and not just a one-off payment for each picture. This gave her a steady, if modest income which supported her through her long and productive life. Elsie Anna Wood died in a Norwich nursing home in 1978 but her work lives on, albeit with substantially less public recognition than it deserves. These short notes offer just a brief overview of the artist and a longer article will surface in the near future.
© Dr Sandy Brewer 2008

Related posts:
More 'Elsie Anna Wood' Bible Art
A Gift Returned with Love.


Bible artist said...

Thank you so much Sandy for this wonderful and fascinating article, and for introducing us to the work of Elsie Anna Wood.
I love her delicate style which reminds me a little of Cicely Mary Barker's. I'm amazed that I've not come across Elsie Anna Wood before! I'm adding her to my 'favorite Bible artists' list!

Her depiction of Jesus is very different to that painted by other artists of her time. Picture 4 shows that, like many artists of her time, she was influenced by the architectural features that surrounded her.

deboraw said...

Graham, I echo whole heartedly the 'many thanks to Dr. Sandy Brewer'. If I could say (write?) one word I think it would be "Eureka!" The clothing, the coloring, it's just perfect. The Jesus depicted here is neither exceedingly handsome, yet he seems to personally reach toward the heart, as if he cares for his creation. How absolutely marvelous! Deboraw

Bible artist said...

I agree Deboraw, the clothing and coloring is superb.

Bible artist said...

Picture 2 correctly shows the wise men visiting the approximately 2 year old Jesus in a house also.

Paul Green said...

There are three wise men in the illustration Graham. One is kneeling.

Bible artist said...

I think you might of miss-read my last comment Paul!

Paul Green said...

Ooops!! Sorry about that Graham. :))
I like Wood's approach to her subject. The atmosphere she creates with her colouring and lighting is upbeat and alive. You feel these are real people instead of models posing in a stage like manner. Thanks for introducing us to this artist Sandy.

Bible artist said...

Yes, I also noticed that when Wood draws a crowd, she's not afraid to only show half a face, or even just an ear of those who are stood behind. Harold Copping does something similar. This gives the crowd a certain improvised realism.

When I illustrate people behind people, I fall into the trap of wanting to show as much of the face as possible, which can give a very posed feel to the crowd. Interesting.

Bible artist said...

I'd like to pick up on the comment that Sandy Brewer makes about the infant Jesus looking out at the audience in picture 2. This is very interesting because when I started to think about about this I realised that, in my own Bible pictures, I never show a character looking at the viewer, which is a shame because when a person is looking out at you from a picture, there's a connection made on a subconscious level and it draws out a response from you which can in some cases be powerful, especially if that person is Jesus!

I started to think of other artists who did this and they are all from a similar era to Wood. Carl Bloch's 'Christ blesses a Little Child' (1873), and his 'Christ Consolator' (1886), Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World' (1854) and 'The Worlds Ingratitude' by William S Burton 1826-1916, all show Jesus looking at the viewer. The pictures of Harold Copping and Cicely Mary Barker also have incidental characters that make eye contact with the audience.

I was wondering if the artists of today have been conditioned on a subconscious level by film and TV? We know that actors and actresses are trained not to make eye contact with the camera, and when someone does we shout "Hey! they just looked at the camera!" Does this explain why I, and possibly others divert the eyes in our pictures away from the viewer?

Maybe we need to rediscover the lost art of 'Eye Contact' in our pictures! There is something powerful in Woods infant Jesus.

Paul Green said...

Excellent point Graham. I think artists have definitely been influenced by movies and TV. We adopt a voyueristic approach to subjects. This creates a distance. Much like watching from afar. The power of the infant Jesus looking directly at us does create an emotional reaction.
Some Biblical art (especially in the Catholic and Byzantine tradition) has this direct eye contact. It engages the viewer to react.

Bible artist said...

I noticed something else in picture one. As well as the 'dhows' that Sandy Brewer pointed out, There is what looks like the handle of a tool protruding from a bag on the floor. This suggests that Joseph had no intentions of setting up a permanent business in Egypt, but kept his tools in a bag ready for the family's return to Nazareth.

I love it when Bible artists include little details like this!

Horseman said...

Well, I am late in the game but still wish to comment about this remarkable artist's work here. I like the hint of line in the edge work. Also, her use of lighting is fantastic - I especially like the lighting in the one where boy Jesus is working under the tent with mom and dad. But my favorite must be the one where child Jesus seems to be staring at me and looking into very soul... wow!

josiah said...

Graham, Just wondering if any of Elsie Anna's work is still available? I bullied my son, again, and compelled him to show my daughter-in-law the pictures. (She's not usually interested in our 'carryings on'). She was impressed, favorably. Smile. Deboraw

Bible artist said...

It's funny that you should ask that Deboraw because I've already asked Dr Brewer if she has any more samples of Elsie Anna Wood's work that I can display on the blog.
I'm glad your daughter-in-law likes the pictures.

Bible artist said...

Hi horseman, nice to hear from you.
I'm about to upload two new samples of Woods Art that Sandy Brewer very kindly sent me today. Jairus' daughter and Jesus stilling the storm! I will upload them later today on a separate post.
You'll enjoy the lighting on these also!

Bible artist said...

Leviticus 5:7 talks about how two turtledoves or two young pigeons, (one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering), should be brought to the priest. Does this mean that the lady in the picture 'Jesus the healer' is on her way to the Temple? Or is there another meaning?

Does the basket of vegetables and pomegranates near the feet of Jesus suggest that the people were bringing gifts to Jesus for services rendered?

Paul Green said...

I would suggest the doves are gifts to Jesus. Doves represent purity in the Bible as well as devotion and affection (among other things of course), so the meaning is symbolic. The pomegranates would most likely be gifts to symbolize righteousness in accordance with Jewish tradition. Artists love symbolism and Elsie Anna Wood knows her Bible.

Bible artist said...

Pomegranates are also a symbol of Resurrection, so it's surprising that Wood didn't include them in her 'Jairus' daughter' picture.

Paul Green said...

Maybe she wasn't in a pomegranate frame of mind that day Graham. :))
Despite what I said in my previous post about artists loving symbolism, it is possible that the pomegranate was just a pomegranate in her illustration. Unless she left papers with her notes or talked about specific illustrations it's all guesswork. And something Woods might find amusing if she could read these blogs.
If would be interesting to learn of her creative process. If pencil sketches still exist we would have a better idea of how she worked.

Bible artist said...

I will hopefully be reading a copy of her book soon Paul so I'll let you know if she made any notes relating to her pictures.
I also wonder how many Bible artists from the past intentionally included certain details in their paintings that became the subject of much discussion in later years by art critics. Would they be amused by some of these comments? I wonder.

Eth Henze said...

My mother saved my attendance certificate from my VBS days of 1948. There is a lovely photo on the front depicting the colorful wild flowers near the Sea of Galilee. The caption reads,
"A HILLSIDE AT CAPERNAUM" with an article about the artist, Elsie Anna Wood.

After looking for background info on this artist, I have discovered just how precious this certificate is to me. She was an amazing person used by God for His service.

Ethelene Henze

Bible artist said...

Yes indeed she was.
Thanks for that Ethelene.

wycollerjohn said...

Very interested to see the comments on Elsie Anna Wood. She and her family were great friends of my mother and her family at the Crouch End Chapel back in the early 1900s. They were Sunday School Teachers there. My mother's maiden name was Nokes.

I have a privately published book written by Elsie about her life and extensive travels. It is titled 'A gift returned with love' and is very honestly written and covers her life in England and her extensive travels abroad.

I would be only too happy to make this available to any interested party.

Hung on a wall here are two of Elsies father's paintings - none, unfortunately, od Elsies.

It is clear from Elsie's book that she and her family were strong Christians - probably evangelical.

Hope this is of interest.

John Hartley.

Bible artist said...

Thanks for that John.
I have written a short article about 'A Gift Returned with Love'. It is a great book. One or two people from North America expressed interest in getting hold of a copy so if you would like to sell yours you could send me your contact details and a price and I can either put you in touch with a buyer or I could advertise it on the blog.

I'm sure that paintings by EAW's father are probably of interest to fans of EAW.

Jay C said...

There is a Bible college library near me that has many large posters by Elsie Anna Wood. They are in excellent condition. Are these rare? Should they be preserved in some way? They are carefully taped on the edges to firm pieces of cardboard. Is it okay for me photograph these and post them on Facebook or use them for ministry purposes?

Anonymous said...

It was lovely to come upon this site and read comments about my aunt, Elsa Anna Wood. She was a very kind and generous soul. I inherited a collection of her work, primarily her sketches. These are fascinating to look through as they show her detailed process. Many sketches (paintings and drawings) are on odd bits of paper as she used anything and everything to draw on - especially during the war years. My family is fortunate to have a few pieces of her fathers work as well as copies of her books and her self published book about her unusual life. She kindly encouraged me to work in this field, which I did.

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Anonymous said...

I have just found 20 religious posters by Elsie Anna Wood at a car boot sale near Norwich, they are absolutely beautiful and in perfect condition the artwork is stunning. I am in the process of finding more information on this incredible artist and thank you for the information that I found on your site.

Jeanne Doyon said...

Do you know if her work is in public domain? I would think not if she just died in 1978.
A guest blogger on my blog wants to use an image she had on an Abeka flashcard which shows the Angel Gabriel speaking to Mary. I don't want to us it without proper attribution.
Any suggestions on where I can find out if I can use the image and how to tribute it?

Bible artist said...

Hi Jeanne
I believe that the © is owned by SPCK (The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge). They should be able to help. Just Google SPCK.

Jeanne Doyon said...

Thanks very much. I have written to them to see if I can receive permission to use it.