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Perspectives

Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Various shapes in red, orange, yellow, blue and purple by Patrick Heron

The Art of Collecting: A Guide to Modern British Prints

Jennie Fisher

[ How to )

Jennie Fisher, Head of Modern and Contemporary Art at Dreweatts Auctioneers & Valuers, explores Modern British printmaking and offers advice for those thinking of starting a collection.

When one thinks of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century – Hockney, Moore, Frink, Hirst, Freud – the first thought is generally of their great paintings, sculptures or installations.  And yet, printmaking has also played an integral role in the art history of the last century and beyond.  The breadth and range of artists included in the current exhibition Hockney to Himid, demonstrates how printmaking was not just a commercial add-on, but a vital part in the artist’s creative process.

Original prints are not merely reproductions, but unique works of art in their own right.  They require a great deal of skill and are frequently the result of a close collaboration between an artist and a master printer. The appeal of printmaking for an artist can vary: sometimes it is as a contrast to painting, drawing or sculpting; other times, the attraction lies in the opportunity to explore different innovative possibilities that the medium offers.  The process of designing and producing a print means that an artist can experiment with the work at every stage, allowing them to chart the development of a work in a way that would be impossible with a painting or drawing.

The nature of the process frequently results in a ‘series’ of prints, produced either on a certain theme or exploring a particular approach and these can often be related to significant themes in the artist’s work as a whole.  An example of an artist who worked in series, producing prints in select bodies of work, is Patrick Heron.  His first major print series dates from 1970 when he produced 18 prints at the world-renowned Kelpra Studios, followed by another series of 23 screenprints in 1973, including January 1973: no. 5, included in the current exhibition.

Various shapes in red, orange, yellow, blue and purple by Patrick Heron

Patrick Heron, January 1973 No. 5, 1973, Screenprint on paper, The Golder – Thompson Gift (2021)

The medium of screenprint lends itself perfectly to simplified forms and bold, colourful designs and this very much aligns with Heron’s painted work of the period.

For most of us, owning an original work of art by a leading artist is beyond our financial means and the pleasure of seeing such works is reserved for a day out at a museum or gallery.  However, the very nature of prints as multiples means that owning a print by one of those artists is a very real possibility.  That is not to say that some are still not extremely valuable – examples of Lucian Freud’s etchings can reach into many thousands, and the reputation of the artist is generally a good signifier of what one might be expected to pay, relatively-speaking, for one of their prints.

Portrait of a man

In my experience of the auction market, prints by modern British artists have generally been rather modestly valued in comparison to those of their European and American counterparts and whilst it is a growing market, it is still relatively affordable.  The beauty of a print is that, almost without exception, it is a reflection of the artist’s oeuvre as a whole and will be just as instantly recognisable.  Whether you are drawn to the inimitable linear draughtsmanship of David Hockney, the colourful English landscapes of John Piper or the witty observations on modern life by Grayson Perry, all these characteristics will be found in their printed work.

Figure reclining on sofa by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry, Reclining Artist, 2017, Etching on paper, The Golder – Thompson Gift (2020), © Grayson Perry (courtesy Victoria Miro, London)

Prints are a fantastic entry point into the commercial art world and a great place to start a collection.  Their relative affordability allows for considerable creativity and experimentation: the ability to explore your personal taste and see what you like on your walls and what juxtapositions work best in your interior.  And as you expand and refine your collection, you might find yourself adding in different media or concentrating on a particular artist of interest.  The vibrant market for modern prints both at auction and through commercial galleries, means that changing and upgrading your artwork can be done with relative ease.

Screenprint collage by R.B. Kitaj in vertical stripes containing several faces, figures and bright colours.

R. B. Kitaj, For Fear, from ‘Mahler Becomes Politics, Beisbol’, 1964-67, 9 colour screenprint, photo-screenprint on paper, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Gift through The Art Fund) © R B Kitaj

For many though, taking that initial step and buying your first print can be a daunting experience.  After all, no one is born with an innate understanding of the medium and the different processes and terminology can be confusing.  The printed form comprises a myriad of different techniques from woodcut and etching to lithography and linocut, each requiring a different skill and resulting in a different finished result.  In addition, the type of paper used can significantly affect the final appearance and to many artists the choice of paper can be as important as the process they are using.  To understand these terms and the various intricacies of the methods takes time but as a new collector, the key is to follow your instinct and see what you are drawn to.  Whilst printmaking can be complex, collecting prints needn’t be.

Take the time to talk to a specialist, either at an auction house or in a gallery.  They will be able to advise you on authenticity, editions and condition.  Buying from a reputable source ensures that you can buy with confidence.  The prints of many twentieth century British artists are well documented in catalogues which list the specifics of each print along with important information on edition size.  Whilst collectors often prize small editions which create a rarity factor, a large edition can have the same visual impact and for those on a budget, will prove far more affordable.  Equally important is the condition of a work which can vary dramatically affecting not just the appearance of the work, but also the value.  Works that have been well looked after will retain strong vibrant colours and clean, with full, unblemished borders; but less well-loved pieces can be faded and tatty and are best avoided by the amateur collector.

It is also worthwhile doing a little bit of research.  Buying works from an edition means that other comparable works will almost certainly have come up for sale before and, usually, a quick search of the internet will lead you to previous prices achieved at auction.  Whilst there will be some variation, based on such factors as condition and the particular market at the time of the sale, there will be consistency in the range of prices achieved that will give you an idea of the sort of price you should expect to pay.  You might need to spend a little more when buying from a gallery or art fair, rather than at auction, but it is worth remembering that a ‘buyer’s premium’ is always added to an auction hammer price, thus elevating the price and whilst some positively enjoy the competitive nature of bidding at auction, there is certainly an appeal to the more measured experience of buying through a gallery.

A print by Edward Bawden depciting a panomaric view of a busy train station with a high-vaulted glass ceiling and crowds of people waiting at platforms

Edward Bawden, Liverpool Street Station (1960), Pallant House Gallery (The David Leslie Medd Bequest, 2009)

As with any form of collecting, whichever way you choose to buy, the beauty and fun of it lies not only in the immediate visual impact that you can create, but also in what you learn along the way.  The examples of British printmaking included in the current exhibition offer a window onto the art of the period, filled with images that entice and captivate, some instantly recognisable, others that are there to be discovered.  Most budding collectors are inevitably drawn into discovering more about the processes and artists they are interested in buying.  Whether this leads to a lifelong passion for prints or is merely the start of a wider enthusiasm for art collecting does not really matter: once you have the bug, they joy is exploring where it will take you and even the great collectors always fondly remember their first purchase, no matter how small.

 

If you want to find out more about Modern British prints, make sure to book a ticket for our exhibition ‘Hockney to Himid:60 Years of British Printmaking’ open until April 21 2022.

For more information about Dreweatts and their upcoming auctions, check out their website.

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