The sun has finally shone today. All the prints have been editioned. The ball racks are constantly nearly full and there is an urgent need to build more. Life is very sweet.
After a month or more of carving cobbles, dead rat is finally finished. I finished on a Monday, started editioning on the Tuesday and they were all up in the ball racks by Wednesday lunch time.
It's another piece on the theme of childhood everyday life. These moments of discovery and the quest for understanding that children have is very often laughed at or condescended to by adults. I'm trying to grant them some gravitas and would ask you adults there to think twice about having a little smirk at a child's innocence. I look after our kids for most of the time and so it's a given that they should be my main frame of reference. As adults we stand witness to children's dramas and I'm learnjng to try to see the world through their eyes.
It’s a long hot day and I’m aged about ten in a history class in a pre-fab classroom in Hemel Hempstead. Outside, across the valley two fields of corn wave hypnotically in the breeze and I am many thousands of miles away from the teacher’s voice as he blarts on about corn laws or some such. Like a child drifting off to sleep, I can hear his words but they make no sense. In front of me, in a book called “How we used to live” is an engraving. We are looking through two railway arches at a sooty scene of tenements; sordid and overcrowded. It’s to remind us in the 1970’s of how far we’ve come since the bad old days. I’m transported through those arches, it’s as if I can fly and swoop through them, following the curve of the back-to-backs below. That engraving is setting me free and taking me far away from enclosure acts and work under compulsion; it’s teaching me to live for my imagination and care no more for the mundane and the material.
The engraving is called “Over London by rail”, it’s drawn by Dore and engraved by Pannemaker. His engravings are more frequently than not signed by himself in the left-hand corner and by the engraver in the right. Quite rightly, they are seen as collaborations unlike their English counterparts working for the Dalziel Brothers whose work was almost never signed by the engraver and were therefore robbed of the esteem they so richly deserved.
The book the engraving is from is called “London, a Pilgrimage” and is a masterpiece. The images are often reproduced whenever something is needed on Victorian everyday life and particularly the poor.
That picture came back for me years later when I used it as a starting point for my own version with the same title; a salute to Dore and Pannemaker over that vast span of time. It was for a body of work called “Parallel Prints”, a group show that was exhibited in New Zealand and England at the same time and has since grown and travelled the world.
The second engraving, also by Dore, go me out of a tight spot and turned my way of working round for ever. I was an undergraduate doing tons of linocuts and getting increasingly frustrated by its (or rather my) limitations in describing tone and form. I found the engraving of Snow White entitled “and who are you queer little fellows”, on a junk stall and bought it for a fiver. Took it home, looked at it under a loupe. Then I looked at it some more, and then some more. It didn’t take long for me to realise that this was the missing link; that the way Pisan, the engraver, diminished or swelled a contour line to describe form was my way out of the cul-de-sac I was in. I simply had to translate that way of working from engraving to lino. Never looked back. I owe an enormous amount to Gus Dore and the thirty or so engravers who collaborated with him.
That's an old libertarian paradox dating from the '68 riots in Paris. I'm going to give you a hot tip I've just discovered, only to find out everybody has known about it forever. You can get little packets of wooden letters from toy shops designed for children to spell out and stick up their names on their doors. However, if you stick those letters down on a piece of board, you have some very affordable type. Oh yes you do!
I've been really excited about the Dalziel Project run by Bethan Stevens and George Mind of Sussex University. They've been studying the staggering fifty thousand or so wood engravings produced by the Dalziel Brothers' company during the 19th Century. It's been a fascinating insight into how Victorian trade engravers worked. The following is an extract from the extremely long-winded memoirs of Walter Crane, describing the offices of JW Linton, to whom he was apprenticed for three years and they are similar to what the Dalziels would have had.
"His office was a typical wood-engraver's office of that time, a row of engravers at work at a fixed bench covered with green baize running the whole length of the room under the windows with eyeglass stands and rows of gravers. And for night work a round table with a gas lamp in the centre, surrounded with a circle of large clear glass globes filled with water to magnify the light and concentrate it on the blocks upon which the engravers(or "peckers", or "woodpeckers", as they were commonly called) worked, resting them upon small circular leather bags or cushions filled with sand, upon which they could easily be held and turned about by the left hand while being worked upon with the tool in the right. There were, I think, three or four windows, and I suppose room for about half a dozen engravers: the experienced hands, of course, in the best light, and the prentice hands between them. There were four or five of these latter, apprenticed for five or seven years, to learn the craft of engraving on wood. Of these, some were deaf. it was, indeed, very usual to apprentice deaf and sometimes even dumb youths to wood engravers. They went by the name of "dummies" in the office. The medium of communication was always talking on the fingers. The deaf and dumb were very expert at this beween themselves, and used all sorts of abbreviations, so that they appeared to express themselves as rapidly as people do in ordinary conversation. Mr.Orrin Smith was an adept at it, and all his instructions to the deaf apprentices were conveyed by these means."
Isn't that interesting? I was engraving for a long time in a bubble of ignorance and these two days at Birkbeck College and as guests of the British Museum Prints and Drawings Department have been amongst the highlights of my career as an engraver. As the academics informed the engravers, so the engravers informed the academics and we all wen away richer for the experience. The Dalziel Project is much bigger than that though and they are building on the work they have done in schools. It would be a great thing to get engraving as a taught subject again on undergraduate degrees, particularly relevant to illustration and fine art.
Finally I've managed to post these films. They give an insight into studio practice but aren't the same as being there. The "How To.." films are partly in response to many films posted on the web that demonstrate atrocious print practice.
now you can look around and meet some of the people who use the studio.
Featuring the engravers and Kate Holland along with Chris Pig
Here's Rob, looking delighted with his first ever linocut.
I've been working on a triptych about the amphitheatre in Palmyra; the façade before the massacre, during and after. The message being that horror passes but the building endures. The work is progressing well and I'm engraving as well as I ever have done when I hear on the news that Isis have retaken Palmyra and blown up the bloody amphitheatre!
There is another issue here, one that most of us would feel very uncomfortable about admitting to which is that perhaps, to us, the monuments are more valuable than human life and that iconoclasm is now being classed as a war crime.
This is the second large print to come from Black Pig Printmaking Studio. It's working title was "In media vita in morte sumus", In the midst of life we are in death. I wasn't happy giving exposure to a Christian phrase, after all they need no encouragement, but they do do death well, they have quite a focus on the subject. But then a friend came up with this Shakespeare quote which is a lot better.
It's of my daughter Stella, this time cradling a skull. The first portrait with a skull I did when she was about one and I hope to do a portrait of her with a skull every seven years.
I was in Bath yesterday with Leonie Bradley, David Robertson and our families. There's lots happening in 2017 kicking off with the SGCI conference in Atlanta in March and then Leonie becomes editor of Printmaking Today in the summer.
The first book binding course taught by Kate Holland has just finished. I knew it would be good to have an artist of such stature working with us and she didn't disappoint. They produced three different books in three two-hour long sessions, which is pretty amazing.
Alan Campbell came round the other day to discuss a series of short films. I was showing him a neat little trick and he recorded this......
On Monday the 19th and Tuesday the 20th there is a course on textile printing where you can learn how to tessellate a design, design and print a block to make a sample of cloth. You can work from your own designs or take advantage of some of the Indian textile blocks we have at the studio. And of course print a tote bag or two for last minute Christmas presents!
This is the first print done in the studio.
Frome Printmakers have their opening party on Saturday 10th of December at their premises at Eagle Lane between six and eight pm. Hope to see lots of people there.
At last it's here. I've been toying with the idea of switching to non-toxic etching for about a decade. The building of a new studio is the chance to turn over a new leaf so I've built the facilities with this in mind from the start.
It's only a partial switch, oil based grounds remain but nitric acid has gone in favour of Edinburgh Etch. I've tested it this week and it's marvellous, and, dare I say it, better than nitric.
Edinburgh Etch is a mixture of Ferric Chloride and Citric Acid. Ferric Chloride has been used for more than a century but it has the drawback if leaving a filthy rust residue in the etched lines, but Citric Acid removes that. It feels miraculous.