John Banting

Snake in the Grass, Alas


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
John Banting 1902–1971
Linocut on paper
Image: 229 × 276 mm
Purchased 1972

Catalogue entry

John Banting 1902–1972

P07002 Snake in the Grass, Alas 1931

Inscribed ‘5/45’ b.l. and b.r. ‘John Banting 1931’
Linocut, 8¿ x 10¾ (22 x 27.3).
Exh: English Printmaking 1900–1940: A Neglected Heritage, Christopher Drake Ltd, November–December 1972 (16).
Repr: Six Linocuts of the Thirties by John Banting, Alexander Postan Publishing Ltd, 1971.

Purchased from Alexander Postan Publishing Ltd (Gytha Trust) 1972.

This edition of six linocuts was published by Alexander Postan Publishing Ltd in 1971. Each linocut is one (No.5) of an edition of forty-five printed by John Henn at the Camberwell School of Art under the supervision of the artist. The dimensions given above are those of the sheets. The linoblocks were subsequently presented to the Tate Gallery archive.

The linocuts were all made during the early 1930s. The artist made collages of linocut impressions on coloured paper usually in pencil, ink or watercolour during this period, of which there must have been thirty or forty individual works. Of about twenty linocuts only six or seven can be considered ‘individual works’, the remainder being largely decorative devices which were never meant to be considered on their own. ‘One Man Band’, which is built up from seven colour blocks, was the only linocut that was never used in a collage and only a few proofs were taken, Banting’s practice of printing linocuts by hammering the paper into a block with a mallet making it difficult for him to realise a successful impression without having access to more sophisticated printing equipment.

The dates have been established through a combination of early signed proofs and the dates on existing collages, but the titles of all except ‘One Man Band’ are most probably not original, having been given by the artist in 1971.

Banting followed the Surrealist theory of automatism although he has a certain reliance upon an abstract scaffolding. An inveterate decorator, the linocuts reveal his fascination with spontaneous design and his compulsive embellishment of surface. Julian Trevelyan recalls having seen one printed on a handkerchief (letter to the compiler 7 December 1973). Using the decorative possibilities of natural markings the artist has incorporated into these prints snowflake-like lozenge shapes, wood-graining, lizard scaling, crystallised frost patterning and the delicate spidery veining of feet and dead leaves.

‘Negro Guitarist’ and ‘One Man Band’ are examples of a lifelong preoccupation with music and musicians. ‘Explosion’ has musical connotations. His earliest abstract works after the First World War all had musical titles and often had prose poems that could be considered as chants while dancing. A recurring theme in his work is the ‘guitar face’, an idea which inherently embodies somebody ‘playing himself’ as is epitomised by the anthropomorphic musical imagery of ‘One Man Band’ and ‘Negro Guitarist’.

In the thirties Banting was known as a champion of the negro cause, a frenetic and wild dancer passionately interested in jazz and a great fan of Eddie Conden. When naming ‘Negro Guitarist’ in 1971 the artist considered ‘Tribute to Eddie Conden’ as an alternative title (conversation with Alexander Postan 12 December 1973). As musical associations were essential to both him and his work, Julian Trevelyan has suggested that ‘Negro Guitarist’, an embodiment of his enthusiasms is really a partial self portrait (letter to the compiler 7 December 1973).

The ship’s wheel (which may also be read as an eye) and the wave patterning motif in ‘One Man Band’ belong to the nautical cult which took place in the early 1930s. Mrs Barbara Ker-Seymer (conversation with the compiler 2 January 1974) described: ‘We all went to Toulon shortly after “Les Matelots” had been produced in Paris, with costumes and setting designed by Pruna. Banting was there. He decorated the studio of Jo Carstairs on a nautical theme. The shops were filled with French sailor inspired clothes— people dressed as sailors, there were sailor parties. Banting was definitely influenced by it.’

‘Siamese Triplets’ is loosely a representation of a wooden, interlocking African carving given to the artist by Nancy Cunard in the late twenties, which appears frequently in all his work of this period as a spindly-legged woman or object, also called ‘Madame Triple Nipple’ (letter to compiler from Alexander Postan 30 November 1973). It is also possible that ‘Siamese Triplets’ symbolises in some way the tripartite relationship which Nancy Cunard, Brian Howard and John Banting shared.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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