3.1.7 Philip Hagreen

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  • Born 1890; died 1988.
  • Postulant of the Guild 1923, member of the Guild 1930 to 1955
  • Artist, engraver


Hagreen outside a Guild Workshop

Hagreen was the only child of Henry Hagreen, the drawing master at Wellington College, Berkshire. He studied at the college, but his education was disrupted by ill-health. He studied art in Cornwall, under Norman Garstin and then Harold and Laura Knight, and then entered the New Cross Art School. He enlisted in the army at the beginning of the First World War more out of duty than desire. In 1918 he married Aileen Clegg; they had three children, John, Mary Bernadette and Mary Joan.

After the war, he began to establish himself as a wood engraver, receiving many high profile commissions and becoming a founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920. Wood engraving is a printmaking technique, in which an artist works an image or matrix of images into a block of wood. The artist then uses relief printing, where the artist applies ink to the face of the block and prints using relatively low pressure to create an image on paper.

Hagreen had become a Roman Catholic in 1915 and when he met Eric Gill and moved to Ditchling to join the Guild, his life was completely changed. He learnt the art of lettering and carving from Gill and shared a workshop with David Jones, playing a full part in the communal life of the early days of the Guild. In 1923 the family joined Eric Gill at Ditchling, and moved with him to Capel-y-ffin in 1924. The climate proved too harsh for Hagreen, and he moved to France with his family, where he stayed until 1932 when he returned to Ditchling, staying there until he retired1959.

Book of Hagreen’s bookplates

When the family moved to France, Hagreen began to produce three-dimensional ivory and wood carvings. He also began to produce woodcuts, using pearwood blocks and knives and special tools that he invented himself. Woodcutting is a technique similar to wood engraving, but cut along the wood grain rather than in the end-grain. The result is that woodcuts are more solid and more suitable from printing within books. In 1932, he was offered the chance to rejoin the Guild and be provided with a workshop and cottage (St Catherine’s) and he returned there for the rest of his working life, concentrating of woodcuts for high quality publications for St Dominic’s Press. He also engraved inscriptions on ecclesiastical vessels produced by the silversmith Dunstan Pruden. His lettering continued the tradition of simplicity and clarity in lettering established by Johnston and Gill.

Hagreen was in fact a widely accomplished artist and craftsman, who at different times in his years at the Guild was able to contribute to all of the crafts of the Guild, as well as being an able painter. As well as his artists gifts, he had a deep-seated interest and belief in Distributism, was a prolific letter-writer, wrote articles and poetry and, like Dunstan Pruden, taught at Brighton College of Art.

Hagreen’s time at Ditchling, where he lived out his beliefs in his daily life, was the most important part of his life for him. He said, “All that matters to me is that I did my best with each job. It was a way of life as a man and a Christian. Work done rightly is wholesome, and I have found it jolly good fun.” Of less importance to Hagreen was the Guild itself. He was suspicious of rules and, while seeing collaboration as a good thing, was only prepared to tolerate the formal structure to the extent that he considered it necessary to promote the ideas in which he truly believed – ie – Catholicism, Distributism, agrarianism and a revival of medieval art.

One consequence of withdrawing from the circles inhabited by most artists at the time was that he disappeared from view. Edgar Holloway said of him, “Considering his great skills in lettering and engraving and comparing him to well-known contemporaries who received official commissions, Hagreen had been probably the most unappreciated engraver of the century”.

The letter-cutter Michael Harvey, who came to Ditchling in 1954, wrote a memoir in which he recalled about the Guild, somewhat harshly, that “Some [craftsman] were quite dotty, like Philip Hagreen, a very tall Bernard Shaw-like figure whose bicycle needed a double crossbar. He went on at length about the evils of linoleum (I must have innocently mentioned linocuts to this wood-engraver).” Edgar Holloway recalls Hagreen warning him of in-fighting in the Guild when Holloway was in the process of joining.

After he retired, he and his wife moved to Surrey until 1975 when they returned to Sussex to live in a nursing home where they were frequently visited by surviving Guild members. He lived to the age of 97. His son John became a priest in the South East.

Engraving by Philip Hagreen. Madonna of the Rosary, c 1932.
The eighteen small illustrations are the fifteen decades of the rosary are supplemented by three illustrations of stories from the Old Testament.

Philip Hagreen: A Sceptic & A Craftsman – written & edited by Lottie Hoare

We are fortunate in that there is an extraordinary resource available on the life and work of Philip Hagreen. It is a 377-page book in pdf format which gathers together a huge amount of resources about Hagreen and his ideas, art, writings, friendships and experiences. The book is dedicated to “Father John Hagreen (1919 –2003), whose patience, foresight and determination to bring his father’s ideas to a wider audience brought this book into being.” The foreword is by Jenny KilBride, and provides a great introduction.

The document gives a unique insight not just into Hagreen, but the Guild itself and all those who contributed to its story. It is reproduced below and is one of the best things on this site! Please note, pages 33-132 deal especially with the Guild.