Robert Erskine: The Quiet Revolutionary of Prints

The current exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery Too, Lithographic Fever (to 31st October 2021), features several works published by St George’s Gallery Prints.  This was a small firm owned by Robert Erskine or, to use his rightful title, the Honourable Robert Erskine.  Nor are lithographs the only publications by St George’s Gallery Prints in the Fry’s collection, others include the etchings of George Chapman’s Rhondda Suite and Michael Rothenstein’s linocuts of sailing boats.

Robert Erskine in St George’s Gallery Prints, from the Studio, May 1962

Robert Erskine himself has been credited with a revival in British printmaking, taking it out of the shabby 1950s and setting it on the road for the Pop Art boom of the 1960s.  Matching this reputation, there’s a picture of him taken in the St George’s Gallery Prints shop, for a 1962 profile in the Studio magazine, in which he looks every inch the beat impresario, from his trimmed beard to his pointed shoes.  So who was Erskine and what’s a fair assessment of his achievement?

Erskine opened St George’s Gallery Prints in 1954.  His shop was a tiny space, tucked at the back of an art bookshop in Cork Street.  But though small, it was significant – the only dedicated print retailer to have opened in the West End of London since the war.

Starting the gallery was Erskine’s first professional project.  He had only just graduated from Cambridge, where he had studied archaeology.  Before Cambridge, his school days had been spent at Eton, a reflection of his aristocratic background.  Indeed, he claimed descent from Scottish kings as well as the Hervey family, owners of Ickworth House in Suffolk.  As far as St George’s Gallery Prints was concerned, such family circumstances were more than just coincidental.  It was Erskine’s private income that allowed the firm to ride out a financial situation that was never less than challenging.

However, it was Robert Erskine’s energy – as much as his money – that was plentiful.  He was soon publishing as well as retailing prints and he introduced the idea of the ‘suite’, a set of prints on a particular subject and in a particular medium (the concept borrowed from Picasso’s etchings for the dealer Ambroise Vollard).  His roster of printmakers quickly included some of the leading names in British art, such as John Piper, Joseph Herman, Ceri Richards and Julian Trevelyan.  Two years after opening the gallery – and to encourage people to see prints as original works rather than reproductions – he commissioned a film, Artist’s Proof, in which six artists each demonstrated the creation of a picture using a different print technique.  The film was shown alongside the main feature at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, though sadly it is now unavailable in the UK.

Erskine also played a key role in the formation of the Curwen Studio, as a facility dedicated to artists’ lithography, though he had no formal role there.  In particular, he lured Stanley Jones from Paris to act as the Studio’s director.

Anthony Harrison signing prints during filming of Artist’s Proof, the director, John Gibbon is holding Harrison’s head out of the camera’s view, the Times Educational Supplement, 12th April 1957

Yet Erskine’s exit from the world of prints was as rapid as his entry.  His real passion always seems to have been for prehistoric civilisations, and when an opportunity arose to combine that with the glamour of television then his interests shifted.  From late 1962, he was introducing a slot called Collector’s Piece on ITV, though his career in front of the cameras never really took off.

In its later years, the main focus of activity for St George’s Gallery Prints was a large annual show held in an external venue and each time under the title the Graven Image.  The last of these was held in 1963, after which Erskine sold his remaining stock to the new publisher Editions Alecto where he became, in his own words, a ‘very sleepy director’. 

There was one last twist to Erskine’s influence on British art, though.  Student prizes were offered at the Graven Image exhibitions in the early 1960s and one winner was an RCA student named David Hockney.  The prize money paid for Hockney’s first trip to America and started the infatuation with that country so evident in the pictures that made him famous.

Contemporary critics were quick to praise Erskine as a ‘tireless champion of printmaking’, in the words of a 1957 article in the Times, or even as the leader of a ‘Quiet Revolution’ in prints’ popularity, according the to the title of a 1962 piece in the Tatler.  Not everything about St George’s Gallery Prints emphasised the new, however.  The choice of artists, in particular, tended to look back to a generation that had established its reputation during or just after the war.  Erskine’s insistence on high standards of production, on the other hand, was a marked change, banishing the grubby margins and poor paper that had marked some post-war production.

Michael Ayrton, Goat Carrier, Crete, 1958, lithograph, published by St George’s Gallery Prints

Perhaps Erskine’s most ambiguous legacy was in relation to prints’ reputation as an affordable art form, an art for the people.  When this idea offered a potential for sales, he praised prints as the ‘democratic media of art’ and expressed a desire to reach the ‘Mums and Dads of Pinner and Wigan’.  But on other occasions he complained that low prices meant prints were underappreciated and condemned the search for ‘a wider and more plebeian market’.  Perhaps his least impressive moment was offering tips on prints as an investment in the Daily Mail in 1964, after St George’s Gallery Prints had shut but when he was still a director at Editions Alecto.

However, such a lapse in judgement can’t detract from Erskine’s achievement during his brief moment at the centre of British printmaking.  St George’s Gallery Prints wasn’t simply a stepping stone towards the art world of the 1960s, as it has sometimes been subsequently seen.  Rather it published a substantive body of prints in its own right.  One from which the collection at the Fry Art Gallery benefits enormously.