His Hands Magic – The Life and Work of Michael Renton

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His Hands Magic – The Life and Work of Michael Renton

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A section from “Introducing Michael” by Simon Langsdale

Michael & Drawing: His Thoughts & Influences
Underlying Michael’s skill as a craftsman was his ability as a draughtsman. Michael understood only too well how important it was to draw regularly - though this did not prevent him from occasionally chastising himself in his journal for not doing so more frequently – and he was not averse to drawing outdoors even in the coldest weather. He was especially good at depicting architecture, particularly churches. His ability in this respect is breathtaking at times.

One of Michael's techniques when sketching was to make notes to remind himself of what he had seen. For example, on one of his drawings of the interior of a church, he observed: ‘The east window is slightly off centre...due possibly to my perspective in [the] pews. Strong warm light on chancel side walls. Top edge of pews and edges of panelling catch light up.’ Typically, Michael analyzed his thoughts on drawing and wrote at length in his journal on the subject:

“The difficulty about drawing from Nature is how to get beyond it. I am more and more convinced that it cannot be an end in itself, except perhaps for strictly documentary purposes. .. I see more clearly than ever before (I think) that painting, drawing etc. is not the representation of Nature but the re-presentation - not... simply the record of natural appearance but the making of a parallel reality... All worthwhile art aspires (I suggest) to the condition of Reality. Differing artists have differing notions of what Reality is and some may believe it is essentially abstract: I cannot. Reality is not realism, if by that is meant the attempt to describe the purely visual experience of objects. Reality goes beyond the surface impression of things; yet I believe human perception of Reality, or of realities... cannot do without reference to things seen and therefore representable in art... Yet I am sometimes aware of a power in forms, colours, sounds etc. which has no obvious relation to concrete external eventualities, or which does not DIRECTLY refer to them.”

Michael's visual language was highly influenced by the British visionary painter Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). Indeed, it was Mlichael's discovery of this artist that induced him to begin drawing directly from nature. The watercolour of the country road with trees forming a tunnel over it shows the influence of Palmer. It is almost a mystical expression of what the landscape meant to him. Deserted country roads or footpaths were a theme that Michael returned to several times over the years in his sketches, paintings and writings. Towards the end of his life he wrote: ‘If there is anything better than walking one of the green roads of England I have yet to know it.' For a non-driver like Michael the perception of travelling through the landscape he so strongly identified with, and expressed himself through, was experienced in terms of space and the distance to be covered. In sharp contrast, the modern world was obsessed with time. Michael argued that:

“Ever since mechanical transport began...it has been said of each new development that it “annihilates distance”. In the minds of those who habitually travel by motor vehicle, this has now truly been achieved; ask one of them the distance from one place to another and the answer you will probably receive is not “x miles” but “twenty minutes” or “two hours”... Space or distance is thus, for them, an abstraction, not a reality measured by the physical features of the way, a hill here, a river there, a valley, a wood...”

It is this connection to the landscape that is so remarkable throughout Michael's work. The depiction of weather is another defining feature of his wood engravings. From rain-lashed market squares, to billowing clouds racing over a cobbled street in Rye , to the blazing mid-summer sun, to the deathly stillness of a churchyard at dusk, his ability to convey atmosphere and a sense of place can pull the viewer into the scene so that for a few seconds one becomes immersed in his vision of the world. Not only did he live in close harmony with nature, rejecting many of the comforts of modern life that we now take for granted, he used its resources of stone and wood to create compelling visual statements - statements that cause us to pause and reflect on what we have and what could be lost.
Simon Langsdale, March 2015


Contents of this book include:
  • Introducing Michael.
    • Michael Renton & Memorials by Artists by Harriet Frazer
    • Michael Renton (1934-200I) by John Nash
    • Michael Renton: A Memoir by Angela Lemaire
    • Extracts from Michael's Funeral Address by the Rev. Canon Keith Walker
    • Michael & Drawing: His Thoughts & Influences by Simon Langsdale
    • Engraving Wood, Cutting Stone by Simon Brett
    • Letterheads
  • Wood Engraver, Artist, Illustrator, Printer
  • Lettercarver
  • Calligrapher, Designer, Commercial Artist, Signwriter
  • Bookplates
  • An Engraver's Apprentice by Michael Renton
  • Acknowledgements


Booksellers comments:
This stunning book was created to accompany the new exhibition of Michael Renton’s work that was curated by Harriet Frazer, John Nash and Simon Langsdale and published by the Lettering and Commemorative Arts Trust.

It provides a unique history of Michael’s life by different friends and colleagues that help to give a ‘rounder’ understanding of Michael and his work.

The Contents of the book are listed above. Under the Introducing Michael section you will find 6 essays that are written by colleagues and friends of Michael and also extracts from the address by the reverend Canon Keith Walker at Michael funeral. The remainder of the book contains a catalogue of Michael’s extensive range of work categorised as listed above.

I have not yet discovered who named the book or the exhibition – but I agree – Michael really was able to perform MAGIC with those hands of his!!


1st edition, 2015, paperback, 142 pages, over 120 illustrations, 16.5 x 22 cm



His Hands Magic – The Life and Work of Michael Renton
£15.00 EUR 18.49