January 19th, 2012
by Mark Pembrey
Robert Goff: An Etcher in the Wake of Whistler
Until April 2012 (closed 23 to 27 April)
Prints & Drawings Gallery
Invoking a big name like Whistler might help us find a pathway into the work of a lesser known artist, but it won’t help if that pathway is misleading. I’ve struggled to see much similarity between Robert Goff (1837-1922) the Hove based etcher and James Whistler (1834-1903), the painter whose splashy canvases and book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies outraged the art establishment of the time. It’s true that Whistler’s etchings were popular and would have influenced many etchers in his wake, but the connection with Goff isn’t entirely clear; for instance, one caption claims that Goff ‘may’ have seen a similar composition made by Whistler twenty years earlier. But, choice of title aside, the 50 or so etchings hung close together in the museum’s Prints and Drawing Gallery are technically accomplished and often beautiful in their own right.
One thing that Goff does share with Whistler is a fascination with water, although he deals with its surface in a different way. There are numerous stormy scenes at sea, with frantic strokes surging into waves. These storms are punctuated by pictures of calmer waters, a few minimal lines across flat surfaces. In other landscapes there is further evidence of intelligent mark making and use of contrast. Summer Storm, Itchen Valley (1892) is striking because of the way a sense of perspective is enforced through dramatic light and dark areas of the print; wiry bushes grow out into the foreground as shadow-like birds fly off into the distance. Another selling point of these etchings is their historical value. Destruction of the Old Chain Pier, Brighton (1896) is rare in that it shows all three piers together as the chain pier, built in 1823, is torn apart in 1896 by an epic storm. You get the feeling he enjoyed drawing this one. West Pier, Brighton (c.1900), is the obvious choice for the exhibition’s poster image. As pictures of the pier go this is probably the most interesting I’ve seen, its dark romantic atmosphere only slightly spoiled by the two small figures of children staring out to sea—an addition that bothers me but will probably help it sell as a postcard.
Of further historical interest, Goff created illustrations for a number of books on the history of London prisons. A few are displayed here, and I’d like to see more. They remind me of Gustave Doré’s grim etchings of Victorian London. Perhaps Doré would have been a better comparison for an artist like Goff. It’s still not accurate but at least it would align him with fine art illustration, where he fits in more comfortably than with modern art. Goff was a former soldier who turned his hand to etching and made a success of it. He wasn’t a revolutionary like Whistler, but he was a decent illustrator and documenter of stormy times.