Central to the work of the Print programme has been a programme of publishing. The programme's uniquely comprehensive printing facilities have been used to produce exciting high quality publications by visiting artists and the new generations of students.
Although we can no longer sell you a William Scott or Patrick Heron (like many of our earlier productions, they are sold out; although they can be seen carefully preserved in our archive), the programme continues. With over 125 guest artists so far, and work by all students who have graduated from the College in the last thirteen years, our publications are an amazing treasure trove in which you are invited to browse.
The range of work includes Terry Frost, Peter Blake, Susan Hiller, Eduardo Paolozzi, Tim Mara, Eileen Cooper, Norman Ackroyd, Simon Patterson, Cornelia Parker, Ron Arad, David Mach, Bob and Roberta Smith, Barbara Rae, Derek Boshier and Steve Pyke. All the work is produced at the Royal College of Art.
Dr Stephen Bury's Introduction to the RCA Printmaking Archive
Falkland's Trunk, or, The Archive
In William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), one of the key – and there is no pun intended – ‘characters’ is not a human being but Caleb’s master’s locked trunk. It is almost an absence, a void. It is hardly described: it has a lid; it has a lock and fastenings which require a chisel to open it (that is, if one isn’t its owner, Falkland). Caleb seems mysteriously, inevitably, compulsively drawn to the hidden contents of the chest, and when he is discovered by his master attempting to break into it during a fire, the whole novel dramatically switches and immediately goes into reverse: Caleb’s pursuit of knowledge becomes his literal and potentially deadly pursuit by Falkland. If we replace trunk with archive – and, in truth, the trunk does archive Falkland’s secret – we see the potential of an archive for unexpected and dramatic change. The archive is not the passive repository that we might (and perhaps would like to) assume.
For both Falkland and Caleb the ‘archive’ has the potential to threaten life, but also the archive also functions to prolong life, the collection of papers and other objects and their preservation for and extension into future time and for future, unknown use. And in the sense that we can never know what people will find of interest in that future, the ‘blinder’ the collection policy i.e. one that consciously does not select but reflects what was there at the time – the better.
The Archive of the Royal College of Art Printmaking Department consists of sample prints from students as they graduate (now collected and preserved more systematically than in the early years of the 20th Century), and, as fundraising and professional practice became both essential for economic survival and more important in art education during the 1970s, 1980s,and 1990s (although they had important precedents in the Festival of Britain series of 1951 and the Coronation Series of lithographs in 1953), the prints from folios which embrace staff and students as well as guest artists. The collection thus permits the reading of the history of art and the development of the oeuvre of specific artists, not necessarily primarily printmakers; the history of printmaking – the popularity or otherwise of specific processes and styles over time; the history of the Royal College of Art and the development of its printmaking department; a wider cultural repertoire of themes and subjects that attracted artists at specific times – a sort of cultural history; but also of the archive in its own right, as it comments on itself, as a print in it influences another generation, as an older artist influences, positively or negatively, a current student. At times, intermittently, the archive is all or some or one of these. But for all these reasons, the print archive at the Royal College is a very important intellectual resource both for its own pedagogical purposes, but also of significant research value to the wider world.
Those who argue that printmaking is a secondary, some kind of inferior artistic practice are perhaps ignorant of the printmaking practices of Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Whistler, Matisse, Picasso or Henry Moore, and the centrality to their whole work that etching or lithography had for them. The Royal College of Art archive exemplifies the continuing importance of printmaking for the painter, sculptor, installation or conceptual artist. Terry Frost and Patrick Heron find silkscreen on paper equivalents, and William Scott a lithographic rendition for their St Ives-type simplified, ‘decorative’ abstraction. Henry Moore and Elisabeth Frink explore the spatial complexity of the human or animal figure through etching or lithograph just as much as they had done in sculpture. The sculptors, Helen Chadwick and Richard Wentworth, embrace printmaking with an openness to the opportunities that these media present to articulate objects in the ‘flatttened’ space of the print. And today artists, such as Matthew Higgs and Alun Rowlands, who have exploited the possibility of text as an art form have found the reproductive aspects of printmaking equally relevant to their concerns and aesthetics.
The archive also informs us about the course of printmaking in the last hundred or so years. In the 1890s the small 3 x 2.5 inches copper etching plate or engraving were still very much in vogue. In the 1920s, mainly due to the founding of the Society of Wood Engravers by Robert Gibbings wood cuts and wood engraving enjoyed a vogue. The destiny of much of the output was destined for the illustration market. In the 1930s artists such as Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, John Nash and Eric Ravilious transformed the use of colour lithography as a simple reproductive medium of a design made in another medium to an art form in itself, the original lithograph or print. Again one of the motivations was the commercial demand for lithographs for poster advertisements for advertising – for Shell or London Transport, often printed in conjunction with the Curwen or Baynard Presses. The next development was the silkscreen which began its hegemony in the 1950s; in the work of Eduardo Paolozzi and Alistair Grant the photographically-based silkscreen seemed just as perfectly suited to the collaged images of Pop Art as to the colour and zips of abstract art. In the 1990s the use of computer technology and the outputting of images through laser and ink-jet printers began to impact. In this exhibition, for example, we have Lambdachromes, produced from a digital file without a negative, by Bob Matthews and James Hutchinson. At the same time, in a sort of reaction, the availability of these new technologies permitted artists to re-vivify some of the older autographic processes from drypoint to photogravure.
These developments in art and in printmaking could not but impact on the teaching of printmaking at the Royal College of Art. The pronounced tendency has been a move from the teaching of printmaking as a useful art to that of a fine art in its own right. Its predecessor, the National Art Training School, as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was set up to promote English art, design and manufacture, which were seen to be threatened by France and Germany after the Great Exhibition of 1851. In this context printmaking was seen as a craft, a reproductive process, a handmaid to illustration or design. But this ‘paradigm’ had its weaknesses from the beginning: fine artists always saw the potential of prints, whilst ‘craft’ printmakers were attracted to fine art practice. The evolution was slow, from art in a design context, through the appointment of skilled printers from 1948 to edition work, to the move from the Department of Graphic Design to the School of Fine Art 1986-1993. The student of the 1890s working on their minute copper plate would find the world of the 1990s student would unfamiliar, perhaps shocking – the scale of work extending to massive inkjet prints or even installation – the wealth of processes from aquatint to silkscreen, from photogravure to diazo lithography and three-dimensional prints – the inclusivity of subject matter from the very personal to the stridently political.
History also cascades through this archive. Here the commercial world of advertised consumer products – Guinness or travel; there the Festival of Britain in the 1950s; then swinging sixties of pop art; afterwards the politicisation of art (and its opposite) in the 1970s and 1980s; now the media deification of the Young British artists of the 1990s. The archive in this mode functions as a communal memory bank of clothes, of signs, of interiors, of landscapes, of cars, of gesture, overdetermining the blank page or plate or canvas that the artist confronts, a mystic writing pad, that slab of dark brown resin which fascinated Sigmund Freud, that already contains erasures. It is as if the artist must see and then erase the work of her or his predecessors before anything new can be made.
At this point the archive has folded back on itself. It renews itself. It reproduces itself. The student is influenced by or reacts against the teacher, the teacher is influenced by the student. Within the archive there is a dynamic, dialogic relationship between Terry Frost and Leigh Clarke, Sharon Kivland and Martina Schmid, John Stezaker and James Hutchinson or Matthew Higgs and Alun Rowlands. An old technique is revived in a different context, and becomes prophetic of a new trend. The exhibition of this important archive of past and present staff and students’ work, the work of the invited artists – Bob & Roberta Smith, Cornelia Parker, Ron Arad and David Mach – and the current students responding to the very different spaces in Poole and the Royal College, demonstrate not only the range and ambition of the printmaking but suggest the potential future richness of the archive stretching exponentially into the future.
Dr Stephen Bury
Head of European & American Collections, The British Library