Joan Hassall Biography

Joan Hassall




Printmaker, painter, and illustrator Joan Hassall was born in Notting Hill, London, England, in 1906. The daughter of painter John Hassall, she was nevertheless late to becoming an artist, preferring music study, including lessons in spinet, viol, and flute. She took courses at Parsons Mead School to obtain a teaching certificate but never found a post that suited her; she then worked as her father's secretary for two years before enrolling at the Royal Academy Schools in 1930. In 1931, to help a friend whose career was on the brink due to a failing economy and waning student body, she took courses in wood engraving at the London Central School of Photoengraving and Lithography. Her friend and teacher was noted British woodengraver R. John Beedham. This fortuitous engagement would foreshadow Hassall's life path, as woodengraving quickly became her passion. 

Hoping to make a career of illustrative printmaking, Hassall went throughout London searching for a publishing company that would take on her work. Finally, in 1936, on the suggestion of her brother, poet Christopher Hassall, she was commissioned by Heinemann to engrave the frontispiece for his book of poems, Devil's Dyke. This led to several commissions for engraved illustrations for books and other publications through Heinemann during the 1930s up until the onset of war. 

As enlistment grew in Britain to head to the frontlines, Hassall was contacted by Kingsley Cook, a book illustration and drawing teacher at Edinburgh College in Scotland. He offered her a position as his substitute for the duration of his tour of duty. This effectvely became the most significant time in her career at that point, as she was soon commissioned to design several chapbooks from cover to cover for the Saltire Society. Every detail from cover to coliphant was designed by Hassall, which in turn gave her the chops to decide with whom she would work in the future, choosing publishers whose own reproduction skills met her discernment. When she returned to England she operated her own press from her home on Kensington Park Road, where she produced illustrative works as well as stand-alone woodengravings for exhibition.

Hassall's keen understanding of the mechanics of engraving, as well as her expert sense of composition and interest in historical accuracy, cemented her standing as a leading English woodengraver and illustrator by the 1950s. Her work was commissioned by the Oxford University Press, the Folio Society, and the Limited Editions Club - for whom she executed her last major commission, the illustrations for the commemorative edition of The Poems of Robert Burns in 1965 - among others, as well as numerous private commissions for advertising, bookplates, letterheads, and more. She designed the commemorative postage stamp for the 1948 wedding anniversary of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, as well as the invition to the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Overall, she produced around 1,500 woodengravings.

Despite her many accomplishments, persistent ill health made it difficult for Hassall to work at a pace which would allow her to retire in comfort, and she eventually sold her family's home on Kensington and relocated to the cottage of a friend who had bestowed it to her after their passing. Hassall remained at Priory Cottage, Malham, until her death in 1988. 

Hassall was awarded the Order of the British Empire in the 1970s by Queen Elizabeth II, in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. An archive of her work is held at the Pinner Private LIbraries.