Elizabeth Keith was born in Scotland in 1887. She was a self-taught artist making watercolors and drawings. And Elizabeth probably would never have become the artist we know today, if her sister had not married a publisher in Japan.
In 1915, at age 28, Elizabeth Keith traveled to Japan where she remained for nine years. When she left England, she had no idea that she would return nine years later. Her sister had married an English publisher living in Tokyo and her trip was planned as a short vacation. Elizabeth was kept by the charm of Japan and the Asian culture and arts.
In her first year in Japan, Elizabeth had a small exhibition with caricatures of foreign residents in Tokyo. From a trip to Korea she brought some watercolors back. Watanabe, the Shin Hanga publisher saw these at an exhibition and convinced Elizabeth to transform one into a woodblock print - a view of the East Gate in Seoul.
At that time she had never done a woodblock before. Although she did not perform the carving or printing herself, she wanted to have a basic understanding to supervise the process. So for the next two years she learned the Japanese woodblock printmaking technique.
Over the years Watanabe published more than hundred woodblock prints by Mrs. Keith. Her first prints were quite successful and she had exhibitions not only in Japan, but in London and New York.
In 1924 Elizabeth Keith returned to England. Here she started learning color etchings. Elizabeth was back in Asia and Japan from 1932 to 1933 and again in 1935. In 1936 and 1937 she had exhibitions in the USA. With World War II on the horizon, Elizabeth somehow got mentally caught between East and West.
In 1956, the year of her death, she had a solo exhibition in Tokyo with 59 woodblock prints and 8 color etchings.
Elizabeth Keith prints are both rare and expensive. Prices start at around US$1,000. The reason is simple. The number of printed copies was small. At lifetime she could not sell higher editions. Some of her prints were published in numbers of only 30 or 50 copies.
Her portfolio consists of more than hundred woodblock prints and about a dozen color etchings. All of her woodblock prints are signed in pencil. In this she followed Western customs. The signatures are however today often very faded.
Japanese ukiyo-e artists signed their prints usually in the block with some exceptions in the twentieth century. Also the Western habit of a limited edition was unknown to Japanese printmakers. They produced as many prints from one woodblock as they could possibly sell.
And when the block was used up by too many impressions, a new woodblock was carved - provided there was enough demand from the market for new copies.
We do not know of any reproductions of Elizabeth Keith woodblock prints. But there is a cheap lithograph edition available as copies of her original woodblock prints.
Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, "Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975", published by University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-1732-X.
Author: Dieter Wanczura