Wilfred Fairclough is one of the most prominent British etchers and printmakers of the 20th century. He is also a celebrated watercolourist, who brought the same clever and highly skilled conjuring of life to his paintings as he did to his ink works.
Fairclough’s education began at the Royal College of Art. Here, he was guided and taught by two eminent etchers and printmakers, Malcolm Osborne (1880-1963), and Bob Austin (1895-1973). Along with Fairclough, they were responsible for the rejuvenation of printmaking within Britain during the 20th century.
Fairclough showed considerable skill from a young age, so much so that once he completed his studies he was elected as an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. He also won the Prix de Rome scholarship, which allowed him to travel to Rome and study at the British School, a hub of arts education. From this trip, a great number of prints of the Italian countryside and city life were produced.
With a delicacy and coherency of line inspired by his tutor, Austin, Fairclough lays out life on the continent with careful consideration. In Fairclough’s own words:
‘the ordinary, passing through the artist's mind, should emerge as something extra-ordinary and recording something which had not been seen before.’
A carnival performer relaxing on stone steps cuts a contemplative figure, even with a pearly-white mask covering his face. A beggar on the streets is lent definition which emphasises the hardships of his life and offers up much thought on his condition. There is exquisite detail in his wrinkled face and craggy, creviced hands. Fairclough would return to Italy both in person and on paper throughout his life.
Fairclough’s use of his medium allows, as he says, a transcendence in his work which goes beyond ‘mere description of the initial scene.’ The balance of black and white upon the paper conjures up scenes of the canals, of the cafes and restaurants, and adds a sense of curiosity to them. Almost as if they are otherworldly.
Fairclough was able to marry his artistic endeavours with service to his country during the Second World War. As well as joining the RAF, Fairclough contributed to the ‘Recording the Changing Face of Britain’ project. This was set on documenting the country in the face of war and the looming wave of changes it might bring.
In the aftermath of war, Fairclough turned his attention to arts education. He became a key figure at the Kingston College of Art, whilst also continuing to produce works and develop his skills as an artist. He took up watercolours, translating the same care in atmosphere and application as he applied to his etchings.
With a consciously careful selection of colours, Fairclough captures the rolling hills and splendid fields of Britain. The same delicacy is applied to scenes of Italy, once more capturing his attention. These works have a wash of the whimsical, grounded in reality. In Fairclough’s words once more, ‘the creation of a mood is more important to me than a literal record of a place.’
Beyond his retirement, Fairclough would continue to produce works and contribute to arts education. He would share with magazines his process as an artist, and in 1990 published a compilation of his works in book form. Following his death in 1996, a retrospective exhibition of his works was held which celebrated both his skill and his influence.
Fairclough’s artistic ingenuity extended, and continues to flourish, within his family. His son, Michael Fairclough (1940-) has accomplished a successful career in the arts. Fairclough’s wife, Joan Vernon Cryer (1911-2001), was also a skilled artist, as is his daughter-in-law, Mary Malenoir.
Fairclough’s influence in the arts flourished through his works, his teachings, and his family. He remains a key figurehead in the celebration and continuation of etching and printmaking in 20th-century Britain.
Born in Blackburn, Britain.
Began studying at the Royal College of Art.
Elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers.
Studied at the British School at Rome.
Married Joan Vernon Cryer.
Started working at the Kingston College of Art.
Exhibited in Poland, Finland, and Sweden.
Son Michael Fairclough born.
Became principal of Kingston College of Art.
Became a member of the Royal Watercolour Society.
Worked as Head of the Division of Design at Kingston College of Art.
Died in Kingston upon Thames, Britain. Posthumous exhibition of works held.