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A Resurgence in Printmaking: The Printmakers Council
Dr. Michael Kennedy
[ Stories )
Prompted by our exhibition, Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking, Dr. Michael Kennedy explores the significant role of the Printmakers Council in the resurgence of printmaking in the UK during the 1960s.
The 1960s saw an increased interest in printmaking among artists, a story well documented by this exhibition. Printmakers Council, (PmC) still active today with around 270 members, was a small but significant part of that resurgence in printmaking.
Founded in 1965 by a group of printmakers led by Michael Rothenstein, PmC was an attempt to raise the status of printmaking in British art and art education by creating, in the words of one early member, a ‘pressure group’. Rothenstein and his associates wanted to promote and encourage printmaking. They took an experimental and contemporary approach, both in art education and beyond to raise the status of printmaking more generally.
Early members looking back point to the poor provision for printmaking both within art education and outside, and the poor status generally given to printing and printmakers.
Printmaking societies at the time were generally conservative in outlook. Stanley Jones, an early member and later President of PmC, points out in an unpublished interview that long-established print groups ensured that membership was effectively closed to printmakers who did not work in the specific discipline the society represented. It was against this background of poor status and poor provision that the Printmakers Council was formed.
From its very beginning the Printmakers Council advocated an innovative and experimental approach to printmaking, reflecting the art of many of its members. To those familiar only with Rothenstein’s woodcuts of cockerels the idea of him as an innovative and experimental artist may now seem fanciful. His mix of print techniques, however, especially his experiments with open block printing from about 1960 onwards, were an innovation at the time.
Rothenstein’s later work mixes not just lino and wood relief methods but also half-tone and line blocks in the same image.
Open Block Printing
Open block printing is the use of multiple, differing sized and sometimes differently shaped printing blocks, printed successively in register, unlike the normal practice of printing multiple, same size, same format blocks.
Open block printing allows for a combination of print surfaces, wood, lino, metal in relief, and thus printed textures, and leads easily into further combinations of process and materials.
Michael Rothenstein, ‘Indian Doll, (1986) Woodcut and lithograph on paper,
The Golder – Thompson Gift (2017), © Estate of Michael Rothenstein
Combinations of materials and processes was a characteristic shared by many other prints of the period, for example, Joe Tilson’s ‘Letter from Che’ (shown in the exhibition), 1969 which combines screen print collage and assemblage. Tilson’s work is typical of the freedom and innovation evident amongst printmakers from 1960 on.
Rothenstein and fellow PmC founding members Julian Trevelyan and Anthony Gross are all represented in the Hockney to Himid exhibition. It is a comprehensive survey of printmaking.
Other artists included in the exhibition were more informally associated with PmC, like Allen Jones, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper, all of whom were either members or honorary members of the council. Unfortunately, the archive material is inconclusive. Sutherland and Piper may both have collaborated on print portfolios published by PmC in the 1980s, or with earlier attempts to publish prints through a ‘Print Club’ scheme.
Printmakers Council Membership
The history of Printmakers Council is very complex. At first membership was by invitation only, while today it is open membership.
At different times the artists I have mentioned were involved with PmC, that much is certain. But the ways in which they were involved or collaborated varied, and here the evidence is not firm enough to be decisive as during the early 1980s a large amount of archive material was unfortunately destroyed.
Some artists were briefly members, or honorary members, while others were invited to take part only for a limited project or exhibition.
Eduardo Paolozzi, an innovative artist in so many ways and another artist informally connected to PmC, is represented here by several prints, all dating from around the time of the foundation of Printmakers Council: ‘Metalization of a Dream’ 1963 and ‘Experience’ from ‘As is When’, 1965. All are screenprints. Screenprint itself was something of an innovation in the 1960s, as was any process that significantly used photography to construct or develop an image.
Although Paolozzi had learnt the process while studying at the London College of Printing in the late 1950’s screenprinting was seen mainly as a commercial process or as applicable only to fabric printing. The advent of Pop Art popularised screenprinting and helped get over the impediment of photographic imagery in a fine art context.
Today, digital processes and ‘giclée’ printing have perhaps taken the place of screenprinting as the ‘bête noire’ for many printmakers. Printmakers Council still has a part to play in providing a forum for the discussion of controversial matters like these and the related difficulties of defining exactly what is an original print.
At first sight, ‘Life Class’ 1968 by Allen Jones, looks as if it should be a screen print with its large areas of flat colour. Jones is known for his screenprints, but the piece is in fact a large two-part lithograph. Lithography is perhaps one of the more traditional print processes, but Jones demonstrates that the innovations in print of the period are not just confined to new media like screenprint.
One of the joys of the exhibition is its scope, going well beyond the mid-twentieth century resurgence of printmaking in Britain. The survey brings us right up to date and includes younger artists like Ciara Phillips and Kathryn Jones.
Phillips’ blatant use of a photographic screenprinted image combined with monoprint shows just how far we have travelled from the excessive conservatism in printmaking of the immediate post-war period. Kathryn Jones, a former PmC member, combines collagraph and block printing, a combination of process now widely accepted.
It would be absurd to suggest that Printmakers Council were the only innovators or reformers during the 1960s, or that PmC has in some unique way been solely responsible for the undoubted changes that have taken place since 1965.
Printmakers Council was a small but significant part of the drive to improve the status of printmaking in education and the facilities and opportunities available to practising artists. Print publishers like the Curwen Studio, Kelpro and Editions Alecto were all part of the story too. In practice these things frequently overlapped. The artist and master printer Stanley Jones for example, a founder member of Printmakers Council, simultaneously taught at the Slade School and worked at Curwen Press.
What of Printmakers Council today? Now a much larger organisation than the original group PmC continues to pursue the objectives set out by its founders. It continues to be artist led. It promotes printmaking and encourages interest in print and printmaking. It is an exhibiting society and has an on-going education programme of printmaking talks and workshops.
All of these were founding objectives; exhibiting, education, and promoting interest – as was the formation of an archive of contemporary printmaking. Initial and subsequent attempts were unsuccessful but now there is a growing archive of PmC prints at Scarborough Museum and Art Gallery. Donations are made of selected members’ work every two years and the collection is growing into a substantial print resource. Since 2015 the PmC document archive has been held in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The founder members of Printmakers Council wanted to encourage experimental, contemporary printmaking and this too continues to be an objective. In 2022 Printmakers Council will hold its first ever symposium on the topic of Relaxing the Line: the unconventional in printmaking. Full details will be published in due course on the PmC website.
Dr Michael Kennedy is an artist, teacher and writer, and a long-standing member of Printmakers Council.
You can visit the Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking exhibition until April 24 2022.