Fifty years at the heart of British printmaking

Art histories can often be suffused with hyperbole, but it is truly hard to overstate the importance of Curwen Studio in the recent history of British printmaking. As the second half of the 20th century approached, Philip James of the Arts Council reported in 1949 that there was still no equivalent in Britain to the French ateliers, in which artists and professional printers could collaborate under one roof. Most UK artists who then made prints used art school presses, working alone or with limited technical assistance, with the inevitable result that the final edition would frequently lack the vibrancy and consistency of colour and image that professional printers could achieve. Therefore in 1956 Ceri Richards - who taught lithography at The Slade School of Fine Art, but whose gestural, evocative drawings on metal or stone rarely survived his technical incompetence - persuaded his student, Stanley Jones, to go study lithography in Paris. Two years later, Jones was invited by Curwen Press to return to London and found its new venture: Curwen Studio.

Curwen Studio cost only 2000 to set up, with this sum covering the first year's expenditure and the capital outlay to convert old stables into a workshop near the parent company in Plaistow, East London. Ever since, its resident genius has been Jones, who has combined his time as master printer with being a practicing artist of some note, as can be seen by the examples of his work shown in this exhibition.

During its 50 years history, the Studio has notched up an impressive catalogue of achievements. When it was established there were no specialist papers for printmaking that were indigenous to the UK. Jones recalls visiting Barcham Green with Curwen’s then Managing Director, Herbert Simon, to plead unsuccessfully with the head of the company ("an old battleaxe out of Dickens") to make a suitable paper for lithography, which needed to be acid free, opaque and non-stretching. Fortunately, his son proved more amenable and, six months later, Crisbrook Waterleaf paper appeared for the first time.

The roll-call of artist who subsequently sought the expertise of Curwen Studio is unparalleled, including Alan Davie, Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, Josef Herman, Henry Moore, John Piper and Graham Sutherland. For many of these artists, their time at Curwen saw the creation of seminal works of printmaking. Between 1963-65, for example, Piper produced his series of 24 lithographs entitled 'A Retrospect of Churches', which was the culmination of a lifetime spent studying and admiring ecclesiastical architecture. Featuring haunting, atmospheric scenes drawn with Piper’s characteristic intensity, the suite's stand-out innovation was the integration of the artist's own photograph - of the Baptist Chapel at Llangloffan – into one of the prints. This took place at a time when it was widely believed that a work had to, without fail, be wholly hand drawn in order to be labelled an ‘artist’s print’ and admired as such.

Barbara Hepworth’s two major lithographic suites, made in 1969 and 1971, were also produced in collaboration with Jones at Curwen and contained much that was experimental. Firstly, there was the novel combination of drawn zinc plates with ‘blind embossing’ (which raises but does not colour areas of the paper); secondly, Hepworth used painted washes on grained film that could only be printed using a new process, also pioneered at Curwen, of ‘continuous tone’ lithography.

One major benefit of ‘continuous tone’ was that, providing it was opaque enough, a printmaker could now draw in any medium that most suited his or her practice. This was especially useful as artists had historically found it problematic adjusting their drawing methods to cope with the very different materials required for lithography. A letter from Herbert Simon to Barbara Hepworth - who had worked one plate in Indian rather than lithographic ink - begs her to use the special crayons Jones had supplied and not "any old crayons that come to hand no matter how greasy they appear to be". Even John Piper and Henry Moore, despite their many years of printmaking experience, would get carried away by their ideas and pick up the wrong materials by mistake.

The desire to innovate remains strong at the Studio, as can be seen in this exhibition by Noel Myles’s use of Photographic Contone printing. Contone imaging is a new lithographic process for photography, invented at Curwen, which, unlike conventional lithographic reproduction, does not break up the image into minute dots. The result is that the final image captures all of the richness and depth of tone of the original. This development is symptomatic of Curwen’s desire to look to the future, rather than merely dwell on the achievements of the past. In the late 1990s, the Curwen Print Study Centre was established adjacent to the Studio in order to combat the decline in printmaking tutelage within the education sector. Ever since, it has taught fine art printmaking skills to a range of students, teachers and artists of all ages and abilities.

Several books have been written about Curwen and still it seems impossible to fully do justice to its rich history: the many artists, staff and publishers who have shaped its life and purpose over these last 50 years. Curwen Studio and Curwen Gallery have been separate entities since the former moved to larger premises at Chilford Hall in Cambridgeshire in 1989, but they remain united by a desire to provide an environment in which the artist can thrive. Perhaps it is still too rarely recognised that the visual arts are not, nor have ever been, simply the outpourings of a solitary genius; artists, particularly printmakers, will frequently require technical support and aesthetic advice from an expert in their chosen medium. This exhibition shows the pre-eminent status of Curwen Studio in this field. It has, since its inception, been an unparalleled place where artists can seek collaboration in order to fully realise their own individuality.

Pryle Behrman - Curator & Critic
(worked at the Curwen Gallery 1993 - 2004)