Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A sculptor's lithographs

Writing about Alexandre Falguière's etchings got me thinking about sculptors as graphic artists, and I think that they frequently, like Falguière, use printmaking as a way of exploring and refining their ideas for sculptures. This was certainly the case for Henry Spencer Moore (1898-1986). Moore and his close friend from the Leeds College of Art and Design, Barbara Hepworth, were to become the two leading British sculptors of their generation, but Moore was also a substantial figure in the graphic arts. His prints are catalogued in two large volumes edited by Gerald Cramer, Alistair Grant and David Mitchinson, Henry Moore: Catalogue of Graphic Work. The work of an international star such as Henry Moore is mostly out of my range, but I do have three very interesting lithographs, all dating from around 1950 when he first became seriously interested in autolithography. This interest coincided with, and was I believe prompted by, the invention by the printer W. S. Cowell of "Plasticowell" or "Plastocowell" film. These transparent plastic sheets were born out of necessity, to make up for metal shortages after WWII, but they were seized on by a generation of British artists, including Moore and John Piper, because of their flexibility and practicality. Because they were transparent, the artist, who drew each colour on a separate sheet, could easily get the colour registration exactly as he or she wanted. And as the drawings were transferred from the Plasticowell to specially-prepared zinc plates for printing, the artist could also work the right way round, rather than back to front as when drawing a lithograph directly onto zinc or stone.

Henry Moore, Upper half of Standing Figures diptych
Lithograph, 1950

Two of my Moore lithographs, both printed by W. S. Cowell on machine-made wove paper, were published in the Penrose Annual in 1950 to illustrate an essay by Noel Carrington on this new process, "Autolithography of plastic plates". The two Moore lithographs are described in the contents as "Plastic plate experimental lithographs". The first, untitled in Penrose, is described rather obliquely below the image as "Drawing by Henry Moore. First proof from a plate prepared experimentally." It is now known as Upper half of Standing Figures diptych (CGM 14), as Moore subsequently added a second panel below this image, with a group of five standing figures, and the resulting diptych was published in an edition of 50 copies by School Prints. Cramer et. al. seem to have been unaware of the separate publication of the upper half in the Penrose Annual. A printed note on the back tells us that this and the second lithograph, Seated Figure, were each drawn on four Plasticowell plates. For some reason, despite the fact this print is several times explicitly described as an autolithograph, that it was printed by W. S. Cowell specifically to show off the Plasticowell technique, and that it was issued as an illustration to Carrington's essay on this subject, I have seen this print described as a collograph (for instance by Stephen Laird in the catalogue to the exhibition Twentieth Century British Lithographs at Keynes College, University of Kent, in 2009), but I don't understand why.

Henry Moore, Seated Figure
Lithograph, 1950

Seated Figure (CGM 13) was also issued in an edition of 50 by School Prints, on a slightly larger sheet. Once again, the catalogue raisonné does not mention the separate publication in the Penrose Annual. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this monumental study is that when you turn over the sheet, you find, on the reverse, a second original lithograph - a charming study by Kathleen Hale from her autolithographed book Orlando Keeps a Dog.

Kathleen Hale, Orlando and Grace with a beetle
Lithograph, 1950

For sheer incongruity, this must be one of the most surreal aesthetic linkages of all time. Luckily the paper is opaque with no show-through, so you are free to admire either the Moore or the Hale, as the fancy takes you.

Henry Moore, Red and Blue Standing Figures
Lithograph, 1951

My third and last lithograph by Henry Moore comes from the rare first issue of the re-launched Nouvelle Serie of the art revue XXe Siècle, edited by G. di San Lazzaro, which appeared in 1951. Later issues of XXe Siècle had a substantial print-run estimated at 2,000 copies, but the run for the early issues must have been much more modest, as they are extremely scarce. Entitled Red and Blue Standing Figures (CGM 36), it was also published in a signed and numbered edition of 30 copies. It is printed by Edmond and Jacques Desjobert on cream wove paper. Three of the figures also appear in Henry Moore's first tapestry, Three Standing Figures, which was woven in 1950.


Jane said...

Similar to an architect's drawings or a ceramicist like Emile Galle, perhaps? The two-sided lithograph is another mystery waiting to be explained. Is Kathleen Hale British?

Neil said...

I think you're right, Jane - there are odd conjunctions of talents between various arts. The two-sided lithographs are easily explained - when journals such as Penrose, or even a really classy art revue like Verve, published original graphics, they didn't want to waste the other side of the paper! It's quite crazy, but part of the equation was money, I'm sure. If they wanted Cowells to print a Henry Moore and a Kathleen Hale to illustrate an article, they must have had to pay, not just for the images, but also to incorporate a separately-printed page into the journal. So they compromised by having them printed back-to-back. Kathleen Hale was English, I met her in the late 70s/early 80s, she had quite an interesting life - I wonder if there is a biography? She was one of Noel Carrington's proteges, he published at least the first Orlando books through Country Life, and I believe in the USA through Transatlantic Arts. All illustrated throughout with original lithographs, though I imagine Orlando Keeps a Dog was the first (maybe the only one) using Plasticowell film.

Michael said...

I think that in the late 40s and early 50s Cowells supplied large quantities of their plasticowell sheets to both professional artists and possibly to art colleges and night classes for them to experiment with. I have over a hundred trial sheets which came from their files. Many of them consist of drawings and sketches by unknown [to me at least] artists, although there are also examples by Edward Ardizzone, Michael Ayrton, Peter Scott, Robin Jaques, John Harwood, Sebastian Carter, R.A. Brandt, Stuart Boyle, Clarke Hutton, John Ward, Reynolds Stone, Blair Hughes Stanton...
It is obvious that these are trial sheets as many of the sketches are unfinished, and in some cases there is a variety of techniques used on a single sheet. To save paper Cowells also appear to have cut the plasticowell sheets up and mixed artists on a single sheet.
Its unclear what the purpose of these are other than trialing the techniques as I can't see how many of the prints would be commercial. It probably requires someone to do a lot more research on them...

Neil said...

Hi Michael - How fascinating. I think you're right that Cowells put a lot of effort into promoting Plasticowell (or Plastocowell, I have seen both spellings used) sheets, and that this involved giving away free samples to show artists how easy the process was. And of course it had the benefit that you could draw the image the right way round, rather than reversed as on a traditional stone. Your examples from the Cowells archives sound quite a treasure. Maybe as you say mostly the work of art students, but still a valuable record of the period.

Michael said...

actually it was obviously slightly confusing for some artists who were accustomed to the normal lithographic process as they signed the wrong way round on the sheet which meant that when printed their signatures were reversed. Ardizzone for example, reversed his signature.

Neil said...

Yes, better to be a novice in that situation than an experienced hand.