‘I was kind of a rebel,’ says Stanley Jones, recalling his first encounters with printmaking. ‘As a student, I was fascinated by making images by lithographic means’.
Jones attended London’s Slade School of Fine Art, where Paula Rego was amongst fellow students. In the 1950s, the school’s traditional syllabus focused on painting and drawing. ‘I was fortunate because I found tutors — including Ceri Richards — who encouraged my avid interest in lithography,’ he says.
Jones was not alone in his interest, however. ‘Soon, my fellow students — including Rego — were keen to develop printmaking,’ he recalls. ‘There was a kind of atmosphere in the school at the time when we were studying.’
As the decade progressed, this focus was not restricted to Slade: ‘it had spread to other art schools. Teachers began to teach students. Artists began to be aware of it,’ Jones remembers. Viewed retrospectively, the early enthusiasm of a few London students appeared indicative of a broader, international interest in printmaking.
‘People like [Georges] Braque and [Pablo] Picasso were attracted to printing,’ says Jones. ‘You could say something of a school of Paris printmakers had already formed.’ Upon leaving the Slade, Jones followed the movement to its epicentre, moving to Paris to work in one of the city’s most adventurous independent lithographic studios.
‘It was an open door to so many artists,’ recalls Jones. ‘It was the only studio I knew that had this ambiance. Giacometti would come in the early hours of the morning and start working and talking — sometimes after a long dinner, but that didn’t matter.’
Post-war London, by contrast, was something of a print vacuum. As a student, Jones had exhibited his own lithographic works at St George’s, a small gallery run by Robert Erskine on London’s Cork Street. ‘At the time, he was the only person commissioning artists to produce original work,’ says Jones, ‘and he could because there were still people producing etchings professionally in London — but there was no lithography.’
For artists exploring print, it was a city that lacked Paris’s freedom: ‘Etching is a process that fights back — it will only give according to this historic methodology — scratching zinc or copper plates, to be soaked in acid. Lithography is different: it allows artists to use brushes, crayons — anything that can be held in their hand to make a mark in stone — and of course all the implications of colour.’
Keen to develop a lithographic print studio for British artists, Erskine coaxed a reluctant Jones back to the UK. ‘He was keen for me to spend time in St. Ives,’ he recalls. Convinced the town ‘wasn’t a place for printmaking’, Jones visited to find a group of artists eager to work in the medium — including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Patrick Heron.
‘And this is how it began,’ Jones says, ‘not really in London, but in St Ives.’ Working with Erskine, he moved from Paris and set up a studio: ‘We began to get machines in January 1958, including a very big one — what we called double elephant size.’ Assistants helped to install and grind the large stones on which prints would be made. It was, Jones acknowledges, ‘a pioneering act’.
The St Ives studio was a neutral meeting point for an otherwise fractious group. ‘A lot of the St Ives artists quarrelled amongst themselves,’ Jones recalls. ‘Peter Lanyon refused to speak to Barbara Hepworth — but by the time they’d met again in the studio and talked about printmaking, they were conversing again.’
Later that year, under Erskine’s guidance, the Curwen Studio began producing lithographic prints with artists in London. As studio director, Stanley Jones began a long series of collaborations, the Curwen ‘alumni’ expanding to include Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Elisabeth Frink, Alan Davie, Josef Herman and John Piper.
A chance encounter would reunite Stanley Jones with Paula Rego: ‘I was walking down the street where Robert Erskine’s gallery was, and who do I bump into but Paula,’ he recalls. Familiar with etching, Rego had been trying do produce lithographic prints, but was unhappy with the results.
‘Soon, Rego was turning up at the studio,’ recalls Jones. As a student, he remembers — smiling as he does — ‘she was a bit aggressive, but a charming lady. You’d see her arrive with rolls of transfer paper with all these drawings — not completely finished, but representing the basic substance of what she was trying to illustrate.’
Rego would stand at Jones’ side as the printing was done, directing and altering the work as it was made. ‘That’s what Paula liked about it,’ says Jones. ‘She could wander around, pick up bits of paper and make marks, or decide she liked a particular colour and try it. As a printmaker, it’s very much a diplomatic process — being there when you’re needed, and disappearing when you’re not.’
The artist’s series on Jane Eyre was perhaps the largest she made at Curwen. ‘She bought dresses and set models up in poses,’ recalls Jones. ‘She was eager to make a statement about child cruelty and feminism; that’s evident in this later work.’
Though Rego’s early relationship with lithography had been somewhat difficult, by the time produced the Jane Eyre prints, it had become the form that most convincingly conveyed her intended meaning. ‘In lithography,’ says Jones, ‘she had found a medium that blended with the idea of Jane Eyre as she wanted to express it. People have asked me what makes lithography so special and I think that’s really it: artists get something from it that they can’t get any other way.’
Many of the artists Stanley worked with at the Curwen Studio would continue to produce prints for the duration of their careers. ‘Henry [Moore] and I worked until his death. Lithographically, he was a very important printmaker. He treated it very seriously. It wasn’t a way of reproducing his drawings, but a very special way of working, that offered him something no other method could.’
Particular printing sessions stand out in Jones’ memory. Once, when printing with Rego, the stone on which they were working split dramatically. ‘It’s a universal possibility,’ Jones acknowledges. ‘You’re dealing with something that’s a geological object. Barbara Hepworth used to talk to me about getting a piece of marble, spending a year on it, then destroying it with a single slip of a chisel.’
Far from being disastrous, Rego’s printing ‘accident’ has produced what Jones describes as an ‘interesting idea’. ‘The split has formed a division in a dramatic drawing,’ he says. ‘It’s something that you would never get any other way. Other, less theatrical improvisations to prints include the ringed stain from artist William Scott’s misplaced tea cup.
After half a century of printing, Stanley Jones insists prints produced at Curwen retain a common sensibility. ‘I can recognise a Curwen print by just looking at it,’ he claims. This commonality is not the subject of the studio’s works — nor is it necessarily their form — but a shared sense of resolution between artist and method. ‘I think there is an ethic concerned with the Curwen Studio,’ Jones states. ‘What we want the artist to do is express themselves; their reaction to lithographic printing has to be in the work itself.’
The works by Paula Rego in this feature, as well as others, are offered in our online only sale Paula Rego: Thirty Years of Print, running 10-19 March.
Stanley Jones is the president of The Curwen Print Study Centre, established as an educational fine art printmaking charity in the late 1990s.