Harry Kernoff’s Woodcuts

Over the course of his career, artist Harry Kernoff (1900 – 1974) produced three books of woodcuts, filled with striking black and white prints. Born in London in 1900, Kernoff was the eldest son of Isaac and Kate Kernoff, Russian-Jewish migrants who had moved to Britain from Vitebsk, then part of Russia, now Belarus. The family moved to Dublin in April 1914: Isaac established a cabinet making business in the city with Harry serving as his apprentice. In 1919, the young artist started his formal artistic education with evening classes at the Kevin Street Technical Schools before going on to win the prestigious Taylor Scholarship in 1923, which enabled him to attend the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Perhaps it was Kernoff’s training as a cabinet maker that drew him to the medium of woodcut, alongside drawing and painting in oils and watercolour. Before they were published as collections in the 1940s and 1950s, examples of his work in this medium were shown and sold at exhibitions in the city, and more informally in Dublin’s pubs and cafes.

Kernoff’s first published collection of prints was titled Woodcuts and was printed by Cahill & Co., Dublin in 1942; this was followed by 12 Woodcuts, produced by the Three Candles Press in 1944; and finally, Thirty-Six Woodcuts, published privately by the artist in 1951. All three publications had a limited run and are now highly sought after by collectors of the artist’s work. UCD Special Collections holds copies of the 1944 and 1951 publications: woodcuts by Kernoff can also be found in various poetry publications and A Broadside in Special Collections. In the attic studio of his home on Stamer Street, Kernoff kept a large collection of his work and working materials, which was divided between the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Library of Ireland (NLI) following this death. Among the material at the NLI are the original woodblocks for prints in each of his publications, offering an interesting insight into the materials and methods he used.

Simply bound, 12 Woodcuts was printed as a limited edition of 300 copies, of which the UCD copy is number 67; and is signed by the artist on the title page. The prints are preceded by a short forward which outlines the features of a successful woodcut, which ‘resembles a pure lyric, achieving in small compass and in spite of limitations, the full artistic expression of an idea.’ This page is footnoted by one of the book’s most striking prints: a black square, filled with an eye (perhaps that of the artist): books, a woman’s torso in profile, a palette, and a framed painting. The twelve woodcuts selected by Kernoff are characteristic of his subject range, showing landscape scenes from across Ireland – such as the view while sailing across to the Blasket Islands, or yachts in Dun Laoghaire – as well as portrait and genre scenes.

Thirty-Six Woodcuts also opens with a paean to the medium, however here we also see the artist’s sense of humour shine through. It is, the book tells us, penned by one ‘Aaron A. Bravanel’: the former being the artist’s middle name, and ‘Abravanel’ his mother’s surname. Although the artist assures the reader that the prints contained in the book had not been previously published, several are notable for their repetition of compositions seen in his paintings. This was not unusual for Kernoff, or indeed other artists: if a particular subject was successful, he would often create several copies in oil, watercolour, and in this instance, woodcut. For example, The Tin Hat, a self-portrait of the artist in a soldier’s uniform (perhaps a homage to William Orpen), is extant in at least two watercolour paintings; a view of the 40 Foot, Sandycove, an oil version of which in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Among the material donated to the NGI was a large collection of sketches, including a number of Kernoff’s friend and benefactor Desirée Bannard-Cogley (also known as “Toto”). Toto ran cabaret nights in Dublin, for which Kernoff created painted backdrops and costumes: two sketches of Toto may have served as the inspiration for ‘Gossips’, the first showing her sewing, and the second sitting with a friend.

A committed socialist, Kernoff was allied with artists across the world who saw woodcuts as a way of offering art to a wider audience, as well as the possibilities for using it as a way to raise awareness of political causes: while perhaps not evident in the works illustrated here, those interested in this side of Kernoff’s artistic practice need only look to publications he contributed works to, such as Leslie Daiken’s Good-bye Twilight: Songs of the Struggle in Ireland (37.X.11) or Fifty Years of Liberty Hall: the golden jubilee of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union 1909-1959, also available from the UCD Library.

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