British Printmaking Japan, the catalogue essay

Context and Location

Printmaking in the UK is flourishing, with renewed interest by artists in all forms of traditional printmaking as well in technologically advanced media, which now blurs the traditional boundaries between different means of image production. An interested public has responded positively to this surge in activity and to the accessibility and affordability of print.

This exhibition brings together a diverse group of artists working in Britain today, held together by their commitment to being artist printmakers. The continuity of printmaking depends on the facilities being available and accessible, on the processes and skills being passed on and inspirationally taught, and on the work receiving exposure and critical acclaim. These factors bring together these selected printmakers not stylistically, by medium or ideas, but through the institutions in which they trained, the studios in which they work, the societies to which they belong, and by the institutions that collect their work, to give an overview of the context of British printmaking.

Printmaking and British Universities.

Although subject to financial stringency, some British universities continue to teach printmaking and have responded positively to the increased interest by students. Whilst most art students first encounter printmaking on a generic Fine Art undergraduate degree, the ambitious few, often mature students with sufficient funds, aspire to MA courses in printmaking. Mature students, many of whom have not done printmaking in their previous lives or studies, bring to their practice distinctive subject matter and ways of working. Margaret Ashman read Physics at Oxford, Susan Aldworth, Philosophy at Nottingham, Rachel Owen has a PhD in Italian Literature from London University and Sumi Perera is a doctor and scientist. Others such as Dawn Cole, Liz Collini and Jenny Wiener had successful business careers.

The Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, a postgraduate university, is excellently provided for with both staff and facilities and has consistently produced some of the most exciting printmakers of this generation. Lucy Bainbridge, Adam Bridgland, Liz Collini, Helen Fay, Timo Lehtonen, Bronwen Sleigh, Ruth Uglow, Jenny Wiener and Annie Woodford are all graduates from the Printmaking department at the RCA. Others have moved towards printmaking after training in other specialist areas, Helen Fay graduated from Natural History Illustration, Annie Woodford from Glass and Ceramics, and Monica Petzal from the Painting school. Characterised by a cool professionalism, by the dramatic and inventive use of their large exhibition space and by a move away from traditional and 2 D prints, RCA printmaking has always pushed the boundaries, particularly through the exploitation of new media and the concept of print as the paradigm for the multiple, reproducible object.

The long tradition of printmaking at Camberwell College of Art, part of the London University of the Arts is upheld in its prestigious MA course, which is led by Finlay Taylor and was previously led by Francis Tinsley. Amongst its distinguished staff of artists is the co –curator of this exhibition Rebecca Salter. Less well-resourced than the RCA, it nonetheless excels at innovative and thought provoking traditional printmaking with a high emphasis on the quality of ideas. Daniel Alexander, Marianne Ferme, Eleanor Havsteen Franklin, Katherine Jones, Jo Love, Anne Norfield, Sumi Perera, Francis Tinsley and Monica Petzal are all graduates.

Outside London printmaking continues to thrive at the University of Brighton under the influence of Timo Lehtonen, with recent graduates such as Penelope Kenny and Margaret Ashman, who graduated from the University’s outreach MA program with the London Print Studio. In Bristol the University of the West of England has ground-breaking technology, including state of the art laser cutters, used by all Fine Art students and in particular in the innovative Centre for Fine Print Research, which produced graduates such as Jenny Smith. Regrettably other courses have closed, many of Britain’s finest printmakers emerged from the Central School of Art in London, including Anne Desmet, John Duffin, Jason Hicklin, Sara Lee and Sasa Marinkov.

In Scotland printmaking is better supported both at university and studio level. Edinburgh University graduates include Alistair Clarke and Gill Tyson, both of whom have been seminal to the development of Edinburgh Printmakers.

Open-access Printmaking Studios

Printmaking in Britain is often a collective though not collaborative process. Many printmakers work alongside each other, sharing facilities in studios and workshops. Working at protracted processes over long days demands fierce concentration but also allows time for the lively exchange of ideas and support with processes and techniques.

Open-access Printmaking Workshops are for many artists the place of choice to make prints. Usually subsidised, they offer excellent and well-maintained facilities, highly trained technical staff, and the opportunity to work congenially. The London Print Studio (LPS) has amongst the best facilities in the capital and is the choice of many artists including Margaret Ashman, Eleanor Havsteen Franklin and Monica Petzal. In the fast-changing locale of Hackney East London Printmakers is an artist’s collective space with a large and active membership. Like LPS it has an active exhibition schedule and a visiting artist’s programme. Artists who work here include Sumi Perera, Liz Collini, Katherine Jones and Anne Norfield. Artichoke in Brixton is a privately run but hugely popular studio, expert help from Megan Fishpool is on hand, and artists working there include Morgan Doyle and Marcelle Hanselaar and Ruth Uglow. The new Bainbridge studio in south London started by Lucy Bainbridge includes Adam Hemuss and Katherine Jones amongst those who use its facilities.

Studios flourish throughout the UK. Edinburgh Printmakers was the first open access printmaking studio in the UK, Gill Tyson is a former Vice Chair whilst Alistair Clark is Assistant Director and Bronwen Sleigh Etching Technician. Amongst the artists who work there are Annie Woodford and Jenny Smith though the latter has now used her considerable expertise to found the Edinburg Laser Studio. Glasgow has the distinguished Glasgow Print Studio, with both Helen Fay and Bronwen Sleigh former members. New studios are encouragingly been opened all over the country by artist printmakers responding to the growing public interest in this renewal of traditional skills and it contented marriage in printmaking with innovative technology.

Open Studios and university print departments are the lifeblood for printmaking with its dependence on facilities, technicians and the need for long hours of access. They foster creative relationships and lead to a plethora of new initiatives, exhibitions, awards and events.

Exhibiting printmaking and printmaking societies.

Teaching serves many functions: it facilitates the continuation of printmaking whilst providing a livelihood in a profession where there is rarely a living to be made from the sale of work. Printmaking becomes in this way a small world, though not a closed one and printmakers are excellent at supporting their colleagues at exhibitions and events, developing shared opportunities to raise perceptions of innovative printmaking to the level of other Fine Art media. Printmakers frequently exhibit in mixed exhibitions and these are often artist led initiatives. Beyond the numerous exhibitions initiated by university departments, printmaking societies and studios, events such as Pushing Print in Margate aim to involve the entire community, in this case in a depressed seaside town.

Printmaking Societies are by their very nature self-selecting, they exist to promote their members and have many benefits. Amongst the most distinguished is the highly selective Royal Society of Etchers and Engravers (RE) which include Margaret Ashman, Anne Desmet, John Duffin, Edwina Ellis, Marianne Ferme, Megan Fishpool, Jason Hicklin, Peter Lawrence, Sara Lee, Sasa Marinkov, Sumi Perera and Ruth Uglow in its membership. The equally selective Society of Wood Engravers led for many years by Peter Lawrence includes Edwina Ellis and Anne Desmet in its membership. The prestigious Royal Academy of Art has fourteen Artist Printmakers as Royal Academicians, including the recently elected Anne Desmet. Other such as the Printmakers Council has no selection criteria and is open to all printmakers.

Public Institutions and Print Collections

Beyond the individual or group exhibition attended by specialist audiences, it is important for printmaking to be understood and valued by the wider public. The role of the public institution is of considerable significance to printmaking. In collecting the work of contemporary printmakers they confer status on the work and the artist, maintain the work under ideal condition for posterity and allow the work to be visible both in their own collection and for loan purposes. The most active publically funded collectors in the UK at present are the Victoria and Albert Museum department of Prints and Drawing lead by Gill Saunders, the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawing lead by Stephen Coppel and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Inevitably online databases of other collections such as the Tate are of great historical importance; however a database is no substitute for being able to view and handle the original print. In the private sector the field is led by Clifford Chance, as has been written about by Rebecca Salter. A global law firm with 29 offices in 20 countries, the UK headquarters holds a collection of over 1200 original prints representing the development of British printmaking. Their annual postgraduate printmaking award is amongst the most important accolades attainable for emerging printmakers. Most of the artists in this exhibition have their work in one or more of these collections.

The wider context, information resources.

Context for printmaking is often a physical place, however in this global age the importance of highly accessible information is paramount. Printmaking Today founded by Rosemary Simmonds in 1990 remains the foremost magazine in the English speaking world for printmakers. Issued quarterly and still paper rather than web based, it champions international printmaking and provides a lively forum for practitioners. It also aims to make a bridge between, artists collectors and curators.The current editor of Printmaking Today, Anne Desmet RA is amongst the artists included in this exhibition and most others have featured in its editions.

In this global age printmaking remains an activity based in the studio, with no getting away from the smell of the ink, the careful preparation of paper and the fierce concentration on both subject and process. At the same time, in this global age we communicate, interact and travel as never before. This opportunity to present British printmaking to Japan, the cradle of printmaking, brings together two very different cultures united by a commitment to the continuation of printmaking as a remarkable and important art form.


Monica Petzal December 2011