Hassall, Joan (1906–1988)

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Hassall, Joan (1906–1988)

British wood engraver and first woman elected Master of the Art Workers' Guild . Born in London, England, on March 3, 1906; died on March 6, 1988, in England; daughter of John Hassall (an artist and art school proprietor) and Constance (Brooke-Webb) Hassall; sister of Christopher Hassall (1912–1963, a noted biographer, poet, playwright, and librettist); attended Froebel Educational Institute; studied art at the Royal Academy (1927–33), and London County Council School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography, 1931; never married; no children.

Selected illustrations:

Francis Brett Young, Portrait of a Village (Heinemann, 1937); Richard Church, Calling for a Spade (Dent, 1939); Elizabeth Gaskell , Cranford (Harrap, 1940); Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses (Hopetoun Press, 1946); Mary Webb , Fifty-One Poems (Cape, 1946); Anthony Trollope, Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage (Sampson, Low, 1947); Mary Russell Mitford , Our Village (Harrap, c. 1947); Anthony Trollope, Parson's Daughter, and Other Stories (Cassell, 1949); S. Sitwell, Theatrical Figures in Porcelain (Curtain Press, 1949); Christopher Vernon Hassall, Notes on Verse Drama (Curtain Press, c. 1950); Anthony Trollope, Mary Gresley, and Other Stories (Folio, 1951); Iona Opie and Peter Opie, Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (Oxford University Press, 1955); Jane Austen , Pride and Prejudice (Folio, 1957); Richard Church, Small Moments (Hutchinson, 1957); Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (Folio, 1958); Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Folio, 1959); Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (Folio, 1960); Jane Austen, Persuasion (Folio, 1961); Jane Austen, Emma (Folio, 1962); Robert Burns, The Poems of Robert Burns (Oxford University Press, 1965); Jane Austen, The Folio Jane Austen (Folio, 1975).

Work appears in numerous institutions, including British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery of Canada, and National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne).

Although Joan Hassall was the daughter of John Hassall, an artist known as the "Poster King" of London advertising agencies, she was encouraged by her father to pursue teaching, a less bohemian career, and spent several years preparing for the classroom before she discovered that it simply was not for her. In 1927, she took a position as a secretary at the London School of Art, where her father was the principal. Before long she too was bitten by the art bug and left her job to begin her studies. In 1931, while she was attending the Royal Academy of Art, a friend told her about a class in wood engraving being offered in the city. (Wood engraving is a relief printing technique in which the engraver cuts into the surface of a block of wood, leaving the design or picture in relief. A print is then made by applying ink to the block and pressing paper over it to create an impression.) Hassall, who had never heard of wood engraving but did not want to disappoint her friend, reluctantly enrolled in the class. When the instructor showed the class a stunning engraving he had created, Hassall experienced something of an epiphany. "As I looked at his block, a feeling of absolute certainty, more like remembering, came to me that I too could engrave like that," she later said.

Hassall's career was launched with the aid of her brother, who upon having a book of poetry accepted for publication, suggested that his sister might provide an engraving for the title page. The publisher (Heinemann), agreed and paid Hassall a commission of £5. The assignment took her three months to complete, but Heinemann liked her work so much that they commissioned a book from Francis Brett Young in order to use more of her engravings. The resulting book, Portrait of a Village (1937), containing Hassall's exquisite engravings of the Worcestershire countryside, became one of her best-known works, and she was in much demand as an illustrator. Despite an often overwhelming workload, Hassall never sacrificed quality, often taking the time to recut a block if it did not please her.

Over the course of her career, Hassall produced over 1,000 engravings, which were published in books, magazines, calendars, greeting cards, and bookplates. They included pastoral scenes of the Yorkshire Dales where she loved to visit (and eventually lived), as well as animals, and even occasional portraits. (One of the few examples of her portraiture is a likeness of Peter and Iona Opie , compilers of the Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book; Hassall is seated with them.) In 1948, Hassall became the first woman to design a British postage stamp, for which she created portraits of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Bowes-Lyon) . She was also the first woman admitted to the Art Workers' Guild, founded by William Morris. Around 1977, Hassall was forced to give up her work because of failing eyesight. She retired to her beloved Yorkshire Dales, where she remained active as a church organist for many years. A modest woman, quick to credit others before herself, she was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1987.


Faiers, Philip. "Joan Hassall." This England, Winter 1987.

suggested reading:

The Wood Engravings of Joan Hassall. NY: Oxford University Press, 1960.

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