color woodblock print color woodblock print with karazuri (lit. 'blind printing' or embossing) of the accumulated and falling snow, pencil signed at lower left, Pieter Irwin Brown, with red oval Tobin collector's seal in lower right margin, published by Watanabe Shozaburo, ca. 1936
10 1/4 by 14 3/8 in., 26 by 36.5 cm
Pieter Irwin Brown was born in Rotterdam in 1903 to an Irish mother and Dutch father. He had a private art teacher before studying at the Rotterdam Academy of Visual Arts where he studied under Professor Jurres. When his family moved to Utrecht, Brown enrolled at the school of decorative and applied arts, from which he was recruited by a leading architect to work at his studio. In 1921, he entered the Royal Academy in Amsterdam where he studied for two years. In 1923, he embarked on an extensive trip which took him through Europe and Africa, including a three-month stay in Tunisia and a six-month stint in Belfast where he found work as a designer for a linen manufacturer. In 1925, Brown settled in London, forming a partnership, 'Ralph and Brown, Poster Artists' with a businessman, Rickman Ralph. The poster company specialized in designs for railway companies, including The Underground Group (for the London tube lines), the National Radio Corporation, and the London County Council.
In 1932 Brown was on the move again; first he visited Egypt for three months, before he continued on to Java, where he stayed for an extended period, supporting himself with freelance work again. Early in 1934, Brown journeyed to Japan, roughing it in the third class of a small cargo ship. He finally landed at the coal mining town of Miiko in Kyushu. He wrote about his first impressions of Japan in an autobiographical essay to the collector James Tobin in the 1950s:
Everything was black with coal and yet beautiful. To this day I do not know what it is that gives this land its charm. He was inspired: In Kyoto I saw Japanese prints all over the place. My own house late at night against the moon was a print. The temples harmoniously interwoven with the shapely pines were prints. The women in kimono walking along the river under the weeping willows were old prints...A hum of the past and the invisible spirits of the Kamo river seemed to unfold before my eyes more prints, old prints. (Merritt, Points of Contrast, p. 52).
Brown made his way to Kyoto where he settled in a small house. Shortly thereafter, he traveled to China, Manchuria and Korea, resulting in a number of sketches and drawings, many of which he sold to the shin-hanga publisher Watanabe Shozaburo upon his return to Japan. Watanabe developed the works into woodblock prints which he then showed the artist several months later for his approval (and presumably, the artist's signature). This inspired Brown to produce more designs specifically to be made into prints by both Watanabe and the publisher Adachi Toyohisa (1902-1982). In 1939, black and white reproductions of eleven of the Watanabe prints were used to illustrate Karakoro: At Home in Japan, a travel memoir by American journalist Henry Noel (1908-2001). According to Stewart J. Tease, a collector who was in Japan at the time, the Watanabe prints bear only the artist's pencil signature, and no Watanabe seal; while the Adachi prints bear the artists PIB seal as well as the impressed Adachi seal (Merritt, p. 52).
Brown left Japan in 1940, stopping in Honolulu before arriving in San Francisco (on a British passport, which he presumably was able to obtain because his mother was Irish). The same year he exhibited his prints in Peking and Shanghai; his prints were also exhibited in Tokyo, Kyoto, Honolulu, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1946. In 1942 he was living in San Francisco and employed at Graves Gallery (an interior design and art gallery) on Sutter Street when he filled out a draft card for the US Army; and on June 21, 1944, while still in San Francisco, he became a naturalized citizen. After the 1946 show, Brown recedes from view; he moved to Santa Barbara, and for reasons unknown, and changed his name to Peter van Oordt (his mother's maiden name). He is rumored to have moved to New York City; a Peter Van Oordt is listed as living at 318 W. 56th St. in 1957. Paintings of hyper-focused natural subjects signed Peter Van Oordt and dated the 1950s are extant, including one of a composition of rocks which was deaccessioned by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
It has been suggested that Brown's mysterious departure from the public eye following the war may relate to his extensive pre-war travels throughout Asia and his remarkably long residency in Japan. As a traveling artist he may have found himself in a position to be of service to an intelligence organization in the years leading up to the war, and if so, perhaps after the war it was only pragmatic to keep a lower profile.
James D. Tobin, Portland, Oregon
Henry Noel, Karakoro:At Home in Japan, 1939, illustrated by Pieter Irwin Brown with permission of S. Watanabe
Helen Merritt, Point of Contact, 1993, p. 52, no. 32
Yokohama Museum of Art, Eyes Towards Asia: Ukiyo-e Artists from Abroad, 1996, p. 135, no. 180
(inv. no. 10-5478)
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site last updated
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