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James Brown, illustrator & printmaker

December 16, 2009
by the gentle author

This fascinating linocut by James Brown caught my eye at the Mangle Sale on Saturday, so on Monday I walked over from Spitalfields to Hackney Wick, where James has his studio, to find out more.

It is curious that proverbs come in contradictory pairs. “A stitch in time saves nine” versus “Don’t cross your bridges till you come to them” or “You’re never to old to learn” versus “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I do not know whether this demonstrates the futility of generic advice or whether instead it actually reveals something essential about the contradictory nature of human emotion.

At first, James Brown’s linocut drew my attention with its beautiful rich texture and the energetic abstract quality of his lettering but, on closer inspection, I realised he had found the ideal visual device to unlock the sardonic humour of these daft platitudes. James came over to speak to me as I was deciphering the letters and turned the print upside down with a flourish, because either way up makes equal sense. In fact, he sells them framed with two hooks so you can turn them round on the wall according to your whim.

To me, the phrase “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” evokes the sentiment of the nineteenth century while “Out of sight out of mind” speaks of a hardboiled twentieth century cynicism, and the different typefaces reflect this disparity eloquently – James has perfect pitch when it comes to rendering the tone of language in visual terms. However, what I like most of all is that both phrases become one design, because it is the true nature of emotions to be mixed. You could believe both phrases at the same time, you would be confused but you would be human.

By contrast, James struck me as an appealingly modest and well-balanced individual, when he welcomed me to his beautiful light studio on the second floor of an old warehouse in the tiny quarter of industrial buildings sandwiched between Victoria Park and the Lee Valley Olympic Site. After ten years working as a textile designer, coming up continuously with designs for patterns, followed by a stint at a fashion label, he quit to reinvent himself as an illustrator and moved in to share this studio with his brother. He began by making screenprints to sell at his son’s school Arts & Crafts fair and the immediate positive response to his witty attractive designs was such that he never looked back.

As well as making his own prints and selling them, James has been receiving commissions from some prestigious clients including Priscilla Carluccio’s FEW & FAR. He was feeling particularly triumphant the day I visited because he had just received his first order for a large number of his prints from Liberty of London and we shook hands in celebration of the moment. It was a bold step that James took, striking out on his own mid-career, so it was inspiring to meet him now when everything is beginning to take off.

James has decided that his “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” print is to become the first of a series based on pairs of proverbs. “It is nice to know what I am going to do to start next year”, he declares in excited anticipation. I cannot wait either because I can imagine a whole line of them on the wall up a long staircase and everyday you could swap them round and drive everyone crazy with the visible barometer of your moods. More seriously, I am especially impressed by the way James has mastered the humble yet  stubborn technique of the linocut with such panache. “People remember linocutting from school but they don’t understand how it can be so precise“, he explains before adding enigmatically“but I have ways…”

Then James pointed out a particularly dynamic linocut with flamboyant letters that read THIS IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS! confiding that this is his biggest seller, and revealing that he never tires of overhearing couples whispering to each other “Let’s get one and put it in the bedroom.” Once, he overheard a young girl say to her mother, “Let’s get one and put in the kitchen,” and then the mother’s heartfelt response, “There’s no magic there.” Beyond bedrooms and kitchens, copies of this print now also adorn the offices of a mindreader and a magician, James tells me proudly. I was pleased to see one on the wall of his own studio too, because this truly is where the magic happens.

Keep a lookout for James’ new work at Elphick’s in Columbia Rd or visit his website to buy online.

One Response leave one →
  1. December 16, 2009

    I need the last one tattooed to some part of my body. Great post and thanks for giving P. Carluccio a shout out. She is the unsung heroine of the Conran dynasty and the Conran Shop is a diminished entity now that she has finally been able to strike out on her own. Sadly she offers stuff at Far and Few that is as devastatingly expensive as it is beautiful and original. Plus ca change……Anyway Bravo for James and I will be looking for his work while I am in London.

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