For Michael Rothenstein printmaking was his ‘real creative life’, and whilst the Fry Art Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention (27th May to 3rd September 2017) features some of his early drawings and watercolours, at its heart are the radical, sometimes startling prints that gave him an international reputation.
Too ill for war service, Rothenstein arrived in Great Bardfield in 1941, initially renting Chapel Cottage from the painter John Aldridge, and he went on to be a central figure in the Essex village’s famous Open House exhibitions of the 1950s. Yet if Rothenstein is fundamental to the idea of Great Bardfield as a centre for co-operating artists, he also retains a strong, independent identity. In part this is because he is also important in other stories, notably that of the Rothenstein artistic dynasty. His father, Sir William, was an established painter while his brother, Sir John, was Director of the Tate Gallery (Sir John politely declined Edward Bawden’s request that the Tate display a Great Bardfield exhibition poster on the grounds that, with the name Rothenstein prominent, there would be complaints of nepotism). However in part, too, it flows from his determined alignment with a wider, international avant-garde of printmakers.
Amongst his early lithographs, Rothenstein produced The Cockerel for a series distributed to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951. However it was the following year which saw him commit to printing and to the course of restless innovation which marked out his printmaking career. The defining event was an extended visit to Atelier 17, the Parisian engraving studio of Stanley William Hayter. Looking back on this visit Rothenstein was to say, ‘It simply transformed my life’, it was ‘a psychic turnaround, and when I got back to England I began to dedicate most of my energies to print’.
Rothenstein was less interested in Hayter’s work – and he never followed him into engraving – than in his experimental methods. He embraced Hayter’s emphasis on movement and surprise to counter predictability and harmony, making prints that emphasised texture and colour over drawing, so that his prints are objects to be seen first-hand rather than in reproduction. Rothenstein was certainly deeply impressed by Hayter himself, as an Englishman who had made himself indispensable to the Parisian avant-garde. For Rothenstein the attraction was in taking this approach back home. Thus, by turning to experimental printing he was able to give himself ‘an absolutely fresh start’ in a medium which he saw as unburdened by English tradition, and establish himself as a Parisian-influenced modernist in rural England.
Already by 1952 he was producing strongly abstracted images such as ‘Fireworks’, created for a series of Coronation lithographs that followed those for the Festival of Britain. Soon he was making relief prints by inking found objects like wood off-cuts and machinery parts. These reinvented the relationship between a picture and the stuff of reality and led Rothenstein to create images which abandoned the traditional rectangular format. Reflecting on this innovation later in life, Rothenstein neatly, and surprisingly, paired the influences of Essex and Paris: the idea occurred through ‘a series of personal revelations. One of the most striking was when I had settled here in Essex. I had a young family and took them for a picnic by a river. Unpacking the sandwiches, and looking round, behind us, on a rise, was a big timber yard, walled with big off-cuts of Elmwood. Elmwood has this wild grain – and this revelation was also to do with my contact with Paris, with knowing something of Dubuffet and Tapies’.
As the mantle of the avant-garde shifted across the Atlantic in the 1950s and 1960s Rothenstein’s influences evolved. From the later 1960s he began to investigate screen-printed photographic pictures, often combining these with relief printed elements so that in a work like Green Pagoda the clash of images sets off an elusive chain of symbolic associations.
In this later phase of his career, Rothenstein and his new works were increasingly embraced by international art institutions. A large number were acquired by the Tate and examples by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1984. Ironically, Rothenstein felt that his commitment to printmaking, the form which had liberated his imagination, had also delayed this recognition because ‘print-making is accorded second place’. Sustained Invention demonstrates his determination to show that printmaking could indeed be a high-art form.
Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention, runs from the 27th of May to the 3rd of September 2017. It will be accompanied by a new book, Rothenstein at the Fry, by Gill Saunders, head of prints at the V&A.
All quotations from Michael Rothenstein in this post are taken from: Gill Saunders, ‘Michael Rothenstein’ in Gill Saunders and Malcom Yorke (ed.), Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield (London: V&A, 2015); and Duncan Scott, ‘Hayter’s Legacy in England’, The Tamarind Papers, vol. 14, 1991/2.
With the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition of works by George Chapman, George Chapman, 1908-1993: From Bardfield to the Rhondda, running from the 2nd of April to the 21st of May 2017, the Fry Blog talked to its curator, Philip Neale, about what visitors can expect to see and the contrasting impacts of rural Essex and the Rhondda valley on Chapman and his art.
Fry Blog: What would you say to someone unfamiliar with Chapman about what to expect in the exhibition?
Philip Neale: George Chapman was an artist who found fame in a limited period of time in the 1950s and 1960s. Before then he had worked in commercial design for various companies including Shell and London Transport. He moved to North West Essex in the 1950s and became part of the thriving artist community in Great Bardfield. His work from this time shows that the other Bardfield artists did influence him, but he struggled to find his ‘own distinctive style’. In 1953, on a journey to South Wales, he discovered the Rhondda valley and the mining communities which lived and worked there. This was his ‘Eureka’ moment, as at last he had found subject matter which interested and inspired him. From then on he visited the Rhondda for sustained periods and painted and etched numerous works. This exhibition includes both paintings and etchings from his South Wales work, for which he is best known, together with some of his earlier graphic designs. There are also many photographs and artist related ephemera on display associated with both George and his second wife Kate, who was also an artist.
FB: What part do you think North West Essex and Great Bardfield played in Chapman’s life and career?
PN: Chapman was influenced by the other more famous artists in Great Bardfield, including Edward Bawden, Bernard Cheese and John Aldridge. Michael Rothenstein introduced Chapman to etching and his first prints were made under Rothenstein’s guidance in his studio. The first etchings displayed an inventive use of texture and an experimentation in process which fitted well with the environment of decaying buildings and gloomy light Chapman found in the Rhondda valleys.
George also became involved in the famous Great Bardfield ‘Open House’ exhibitions in the 1950s and played a large part in their organisation and promotion. He used these exhibitions to show his Welsh pictures and it was at these occasions that he came to the attention of galleries in Cambridge and London, which then started to exhibit his works.
FB: Chapman said he lost interest in the Rhondda when the sun shone: did he have a miserabilist tendency?
PN: There is no evidence that he had a ‘misrerabilist’ tendency. His colleagues and friends speak very warmly of him and stories demonstrate that he possessed a love of humanity and the environment. He did suffer problems with his hearing from an early age and this made him nervous and detached at times.
The relatively dark and wet environment of the Rhondda valley was very much part of the pictures he painted. The continuous dark and brooding weather created light and dark reflections from such things as the rain washing the wet pavements, and people hurrying to find shelter and keep dry, and these aspects made his pictures even more eloquent and unique. If the sun shone and the weather was bright, his subject matter became less interesting and inspiring to him, as he felt that the harshness of the weather was needed to convey the real spirit of the area.
FB: Chapman worked in oils and as a lithographer, as well as being a prolific draftsman: do you think different media meant something different to him?
PN: I believe his use of different media and particularly his experimentation with the etching process grew his confidence as an artist. He often etched his plates outside and used scraping, polishing and burnishing techniques to add texture and tone to his pictures. These different processes allowed him to become more inventive, something he also experienced with the two dimensional space and simplification of forms in his early lithographic work as a graphic designer, in the 1930s. When he discovered the communities of the Rhondda, and the buildings and street scenes he wanted to portray, he found that both oils and etchings satisfied his ability to observe and record the inhabitants and their way of life. Both types of media were able to reflect a mood inspired by the character of the place, and people and places were recorded with much sincerity, and often a lot of humour.
FB: Where do you feel Chapman’s reputation rests now and is the 2017 exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery part of a gathering interest?
PN: Chapman’s work has always been a key part of the Collection in the Fry Art Gallery, which continues to seek out and buy works by him. Sales of his works have remained steady over the years. Putting this exhibition together has made me realise that there are a lot of people out there interested in his work, often seeking out unknown work by him. His reputation obviously rests on the South Wales pictures and he is far more famous in Wales, as evidenced by the wealth of his work in collections and exhibitions held in the Principality. His contribution is not only to the history of British post-war art and culture, but particularly to the history of contemporary art in Wales. His depiction of social history is also important as he was able to portray the South Wales mining communities, in a snapshot of time, which have almost disappeared now. I am sure that the current exhibition will gather and generate more interest in him.
FB: Do you have a favourite work in the display and, if so, which and why?
PN: One of my favourite works in the exhibition is the etching entitled The First Building. This is one of the seven etchings which made up The Rhondda Suite, a portfolio of prints published by the St George’s Gallery in 1960. The Rhondda Suite and particularly The First Building epitomises the themes that were a continual part of Chapman’s work: dark brooding streets, telegraph poles, railway signals, slag heaps in the distance, dark figures walking along the street. There is also a strange little bubble car on the road, looking like a cartoonish space craft, but very characteristic of the time. The title of the piece refers to the first ‘open air’ gentlemen’s lavatories in the Rhondda valley, and Chapman must be the only artist ever to use public toilets as a subject matter.
Philip went to college in South Wales and subsequently worked in various scientific roles, mainly in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. He has a longstanding interest in Twentieth Century art and design, and has been a volunteer at the Fry Art Gallery since 2000.
The Fry Art Gallery’s first exhibition for 2017, opening on the 2nd of April and running to the 21st of May, features the work of George Chapman: George Chapman, 1908-1993: From Bardfield to the Rhondda. Chapman moved to Great Bardfield in 1950 with his wife Katy and stayed for ten years. It was only at the end of this time, however, that he found real success as an artist and then in association with a very different place.
On Chapman’s own account, he first went to the coal mining valleys of Wales by accident in the mid-1950s. He was forty seven and had just dropped off a picture for exhibition in Cardiff despite increasing doubts about his future as an artist. To get home in time he needed to take a short cut and that meant an unwanted trip through the industrial villages. However what he found there was a landscape unlike anything he had seen before and which he believed could be the basis for finally establishing him as a painter. Chapman’s instincts weren’t wrong. His 1960 exhibition of Welsh paintings at the Zwemmer gallery, along with the Rhondda Suite of etchings produced by the St George’s Press in the same year, transformed his reputation. In January 1961 the BBC broadcast George Chapman in the Rhondda Valley as part of an edition of Monitor. Though brief, the film gives a fascinating insight into the artist’s thinking and it will be shown alongside the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition; the autobiographical voiceover Chapman recorded is also preserved in a Monitor anthology which was published the following year.
Chapman is open and eloquent in talking about what he is trying to do in the Rhondda pictures. What first attracted him to the mining valleys was, he says, the romantic combination of old industrial buildings and dramatic landscape: ‘I don’t suppose everybody feels these valleys are beautiful, but I agree with Constable that time and the weather makes everything beautiful’. However that soon gave way to a feeling that it was the present and the people, intimately connected to their place and past, which really interested him; a humanised landscape where repeated television aerials structure the steep rise of a hill. His aim became to create a ‘visual novel of the mining valleys’, as full and encompassing as William Faulkner’s writing on the American south, ‘describing everything the people are doing’.
In this way, Chapman’s project was not so much about making individual pictures as the stories told by their combination. This was reflected in the way he worked. When he was in the valleys he sketched with concentrated productivity to create twenty or thirty drawings; back in the studio these would be worked up in parallel, with up to a dozen paintings in progress at any one time. Alternatively he might take etching plates and draw on them directly en plein air, combining the results into a ‘suite’ of prints.
In his Monitor recording Chapman is fully aware that the idea of story-telling through art had been deprecated since English formalism first made its attack from Bloomsbury, let alone following the triumph of American Abstract Expressionism, but he is unembarrassed, or perhaps more accurately uninterested, by this: ‘Of course narrative painting is supposed to be out of date and very dangerous ground for an Englishman, but so far as I am concerned it gives me an object and a purpose’.
He is also adamant, however, that despite his realism and his subject matter he is not a political painter. Across the 1950s the socialist critic John Berger, who died in January this year, had attempted to marshal realist artists under a political banner, as one side in a ‘battle for realism’ (in the phrase coined by art historian James Hyman). Chapman explicitly denies that there are any overt political messages within his work, but that’s not to say there might not be some social meaning to be found in the scenes depicted. He saw his job as an artist as to portray reality with veracity and sympathy, ‘to take things as they are’, and if he did his job properly ‘the social comment, if such a thing is needed, will come over by itself’.
Certainly there’s a moral quality in Chapman’s determination to look at and record every aspect of the mining village’s self-sufficient world. The Monitor anthology includes a still of him, sketchbook in hand, eyeing the scene in front of a pebble-dash wall, the oracle of the valleys.
All quotations are from Huw Wheldon, ed., Monitor: An Anthology, London: Macdonald, 1962.
A brand new exhibition of the permanent collection awaits visitors when The Fry Art Gallery reopens on Sunday the 2nd of April 2017, along with, of course, the new temporary show of works by George Chapman in the Gibson Room.
Amongst the more eye-grabbing highlights are the return of John Bellany’s vibrant Woman of the North Sea and two of John Aldridge’s more magisterial oils, Builders at Work, Brick House, Great Bardfield and February Afternoon. Alongside Woman of the North Sea is another vivaciously coloured Bellany, the large watercolour, Self Portrait, Kinlochbervie. While the Woman’s schematic features hint at myth, the artist’s swiftly but more closely modelled face in the Self Portrait is very much alive in the moment – as are the smattering of water blotches suggesting a day of sunshine and showers. John Aldridge’s February Afternoon was last seen in the Gallery’s 2013 Aldridge exhibition and once again it commands attention with its powerful combination of calm and clarity, of warm brick and cold light, horizontal walls and vertical trees, evergreens and bare, deciduous branches.
The display gives plenty of room for Bawden and Ravilious, both established favourites such as Tea at Furlongs and less familiar work. There’s a prominent position for Bawden’s giant linocut of Lindsell church enchanted by strong moonlight, and this is matched in size by his 1958 architectural fantasy, Brighton Pier. After the dramatic intervention of Michael Rothenstein’s coloured wood constructions in the Gallery last year – who needed Rauschenberg’s combines at the Tate – for 2017 Rothenstein returns with an experimental linocut, Radcliffe Camera from the Old Bodleian, Oxford. The hang rhymes the Radcliffe Camera’s wonky dome with Bawden’s more assertive St Pauls which is placed nearby.
Amongst the more immediately compelling pictures are plenty of opportunities for subtle discovery. Near the entrance, Sheila Robinson experiments with a cardboard cut in The Melon Cart, Istanbul. The result contrasts a cloudy and rather uneven background with the sprightly orange and blue cart which is executed with surprising detail, right down to the folk-art side panels. On the back wall of the Gallery is Welsh Coast, a characteristic and rather lovely small oil by the underrated John Bolam which was painted in 1960, ten years before he became Head of Cambridge School of Art. Its vigorous brushwork, strong tonal contrasts and ambiguous landscape are reminiscent of John Piper’s neo-Romanticism, but there is also a contemporary clarity, even a touch of minimalism, in the central white and grey chapel. Opposite are a pair of watercolours from the joint trip to Sicily made by Bawden and Edward Hoyle in August 1951. Hoyle’s picture Enna, Sicily – a view of the hill town to which the two artists fled from the heat and dust of Palermo – is a mysterious evocation of a steep alley, the thick-walled, white washed houses populated by strangely static figures, all turned towards the viewer.
There’s much more than this short and partial tour can do justice to: it’s a hang to visit and, if possible, return.