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Keith, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Keith (30 April 1887 to 1956), watercolorist, illustrator, and printmaker, was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. When her family moved to London, she grew increasingly distant, choosing to spend her time drawing. Despite her lack of formal art education, she developed into a talented watercolorist and began cultivating an interest in Asian culture, which was still relatively new to Westerners at the time. When her sister, Jessie, married J. W. Robertson Scott, a Tokyo publisher with New East Press, she traveled with them to Japan in 1915 intending it to be a short visit. Keith remained in Japan for nine years. She drew inspiration from the landscape, temples, and daily life, sketching her surroundings constantly.

In 1917, the Peer’s Club of Tokyo asked Scott to produce a book to raise money for the Red Cross. Working with Keith, Scott reproduced sixty-two watercolors portraying sardonic caricatures of Tokyo’s social luminaries in a book titled “Grin and Bear It”, and held a promotional exhibition of the original paintings. Although many of the figures represented in the book were infuriated, Keith gained significant attention for her artistry. The publisher Shōzaburō Watanabe saw her work and became interested in collaborating with Keith. His workshop translated her watercolor into the color woodcut East Gate, Seoul by Moonlight. This led to several collaborations between 1919 and 1922 and, although almost all of her prints were executed at Watanabe’s traditional shin-hanga workshop, Keith participated in every part of the process and even carved some of her own blocks. She depended upon Watanabe for the production and distribution of her artwork.

In 1928, Keith published the diary of her travels in the book Eastern Windows, complete with sketches. She returned to Asia and Japan twice more before World War II. As a printmaker and watercolorist, she gained an international reputation and exhibited to great acclaim in Britain and the United States. In 1933, Keith began mastering the techniques of color etching and continued to produce prints from sketches she had made in Asia.

After her last visit to Japan, Keith returned to London in 1936 and continued exhibiting until pre-war tension in Japan forced her to cancel her shows. The market for Asian-influenced art completely deteriorated and by the late 1930s Keith was no longer able to support herself with the sale of her work. Despite the virtual abandonment by collectors and friends, Keith continued painting and making prints of the landscapes and people she loved, and during the war she raised funds for Chinese women affected by Japan’s military violence. In 1946, she and Jessie published Old Korea: Land of the Morning Calm, a celebration of the country and people who had welcomed them throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The book included criticism of Japan’s colonization of Korea before and during the war.

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