RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
The Primacy of Print
Two artists who saw printmaking as a medium in its own right, rather than merely a means of reproducing images, are exhibiting at the RA, coinciding with this year’s London Original Print Fair. Emma Hill assesses the contributions made by George Bellows and Sydney Lee
The RA’s exhibitions on George Bellows (1882-1925) and Sydney Lee RA (1866-1949) this spring provide an eloquent example of how posterity can deal with artists very differently. Both painter-printmakers were establishment figures in their time yet, while Bellows is deservedly regarded as an important figure in American modernism, Lee’s eminence (despite being an active member of the RA and founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers) waned quickly after his death.
Bellows and Lee were both prolific printmakers who saw print as a primary and expressive medium, rather than regarding it as an adjunct to painting. They worked at a time when there was a groundswell of interest in hand-printed editions, and etching and lithography, which had been adapted for commercial reproduction, were reclaimed by artists for the range of atmospheric and textural effects they offered. Print editions were widely disseminated through dealers, exhibitions and society journals to a new generation of collectors hungry for good quality, inexpensive art.
Bellows is credited almost single-handedly with the revival of fine art lithography in the US during the 1920s, and produced nearly 200 lithographic images from 1916-24, many of which feature in the major retrospective that has come to the RA from the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
George Bellows, A Stag at Sharkey’s, 1917. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund/courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington/Photo Ric Blanc.
Meanwhile, Lee’s drypoints, aquatints and mezzotints, his refinements into ‘white line’ wood-engraving and experiments with Ukiyo-e woodblock printing techniques, were described around 1912 as highly progressive and comparable even to painting. That Lee has largely been rediscovered by individual collectors browsing auction houses and fairs is testament to the quality and longevity of his prints.
Print enthusiasts unfamiliar with Lee’s work can see his show in the RA’s Tennant Gallery in conjunction with this year’s London Original Print Fair, which includes works by many of his contemporaries, such as John Copley and Ethel Gabain, the UK’s chief promoters of lithography as an art form. Indeed, the Print Fair reveals how some artists were equally creative as printmakers as they were painters: Sickert and C.R.W. Nevinson, like Bellows, reinvented subjects in their prints also treated in their paintings.
The intense, self-made and pragmatic George Bellows’ short but remarkable career was established in the first decade of the 20th century, through his powerful realist paintings of New York street scenes, river fronts, and no-holds-barred, quasi-legal boxing matches, or ‘stags’. His visceral, contemporary images exposed the darker undercurrents that came with increasing urbanisation and industrialisation in American society and he was to revisit these themes over the next 20 years through editions of lithographs, which he produced with the help of professional printers from a press he installed in his studio in 1916.
Bellows accorded the same status to his drawings, prints and illustrations as he did to his paintings. As a printmaker, in addition to portraits, domestic scenes and popular sporting events, he reworked rather than ‘reproduced’ the subjects of well-known genre paintings, in a way that reflected changing social and cultural attitudes. Many of his subjects originated from magazine commissions and addressed public concerns with urban problems, religion and race relations. Hard-hitting in his poignant evocations of racial subjection, poverty and violence, Bellows also traced the evolution of modern American life and marketed himself astutely as the pre-eminent artist of the sporting scene.
Bellows worked with enormous freedom. He relished the sticky qualities of lithographic crayons, using them not only to draw on stone but as an element of mixed-media works on paper. Though he never left America, he was familiar with the great European prints in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and New York Public Library. From Goya he learnt about the compositional drama of light and shadow, manipulating the velvety depths of black afforded by lithography to heighten the tension of his prints, subtly modifying aspects of the original compositions to strengthen their qualities as graphic images, or to make them more legible to a mass audience. The raw, fleshy mess of the fighters in the early Stag paintings was re-figured in his famous lithograph A Stag at Sharkeys (1917) into a timeless image of evenly matched, epic struggle.
Sydney Lee, 'The Bridge, Staithes', 1904. Colour woodcut. Private collections/photo Robert Meyrick, Mark Davey and Neil Holland.
If Bellows’ images pulse with humanity, Lee’s prints are distinguished by their tranquil evocations of landscape and architecture. Coming from a family of successful cotton manufacturers, Lee came under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, studying under Walter Crane at Manchester School of Art. Favouring a knowledge of technique over undue attention to ‘Turner [or] Velásquez’, he felt that if artists applied manual dexterity to ‘the beauty and nobility of some motif derived at first hand from nature’, they would achieve something that was honest and personal.
Lee’s private persona emerges from Robert Meyrick’s new catalogue raisonné, as somewhat reserved, but he was not afraid to experiment or to champion the validity of his prints, pricing them seriously. Working from a studio in fashionable Holland Park, Lee took regular trips to Europe and around Britain, providing him with the architectural and landscape subjects he favoured, that were ‘rich in the patina and atmosphere of history’. He exhibited regularly and a late association with the dealers P. and D. Colnaghi led to a solo exhibition in 1945, yet he paid little attention to preserving records or signing work consistently and most of his personal correspondence was lost after his death.
Meyrick’s book, the result of 20 years of research, brings together over 170 of Lee’s prints with a perceptive insight into how he developed as an artist. In a long overdue appraisal, the exhibition shows him to be a printmaker of considerable skill, who pushed the techniques of intaglio and wood engraving, reworking printing plates and blocks to achieve striking chiaroscuro effects. A sequence of different pulls of the woodcut The Bridge, Staithes, (c.1911) reveals Lee’s skill in re-imagining a single image, incorporating Japanese techniques of blended colour printing to change the tone and mood. The Limestone Rock, (1904-05) utilises all the expressive marks of the engraver’s tool and is conceived at a scale that defies conventional parameters.
The Print Fair offers both first-time buyers and seasoned collectors a vast range of art in which print is used, as Lee did, as the primary medium and illustrates the eloquent language of printmaking. For those interested in historic work, etchings by Anthony Gross from the 1930s-50s and lithographs by William Gear (both at the Redfern Gallery stand) are available, while Prunella Clough’s lithographs from the 1940s can be seen at Austin Desmond at prices up to £5,000. Contemporary artists, meanwhile are once again rediscovering older techniques. Look out for the subtle tonal variety of photogravures by Mat Collishaw (at Paupers Press) and Rachel Whiteread (Paragon Press).
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