I have been a collector most of my life. At ten I was collecting matchbox toys. At 12 it was British and Commonwealth postage stamps. At 16 it was Cypriot wine bottle labels. In art college, I began looking at collecting the work of other artists, starting with work by friends like Geoff Turpin. This expanded into trying to buy the work of established ’names’, underpinned by the feeling that the only way I could hang my work on the same wall as, say, Patrick Caulfield, was to buy a work of his to hang alongside mine at home.
The prints later also became a teaching tool for art college students, taking them in to college so that students saw not just slides or pictures in a book but the actual art pieces, for example letting them hold a Tom Phillips ‘Page from the Humument’ as they learned about him from a lecture. The scale of prints, the feel of the paper, was an experience quite different and more magical than seeing reproductions.
As a onetime screen printer, teaching screen-print processes, my aim was to show the range of use of the medium by artists. I also wanted to contrast it with other process too, so the collection was supplemented with chance acquisitions of etchings, woodcuts and lithographs.
Above all, whilst I bought what I loved I also bought things I thought were of unmistakeable artistic quality, without necessarily knowing what they were or who they were by. I bought what I liked – the first rule of collecting.
The definition of an artist print has changed many times, so before talking more about my collecting habit I must pause to define exactly what I consider an artist print to be. The most authoritative work on this was Pat Gilmour’s ‘Understanding Prints: contemporary guide’ published by Waddington Galleries in 1979, which summarised much of what I learned as a student, and which remains a good guide to collecting today. Some things have changed dramatically since so I have refined slightly and added to her definitions, leaving me with:
· Relief print: made by removing material to leave a ridge standing proud to take the ink for transfer to paper such as a lino print or a woodcut
· Etching or intaglio print: made by incising or biting with acid into metal to take ink for transfer to paper
· Litho: a greasy image made onto a porous surface, traditionally porous limestone, more recently a grained alloy or plastic plate. Traditional stones came from a particular Bavarian limestone quarry, and were sensitised by grinding their surfaces with fine sand between two stones – a task I remember as a labour as a student, loved by some, loathed by others
· Screen-print: an open stretched woven mesh blocked out to allow ink only through open areas – possibly the only print process that allows opaque white to be printed onto dark colour, and also capable of printing on a variety of surface types
· Giclée: basically ink jet printing (snob title in the way ‘serigraph’ was used for a while to describe screen-prints). Images should be made specifically for print, but often used for copying and reproducing images from photographs, the web etc., none of which should form part of an ‘artist prints’ collection, lacking in originality and authenticity.
In all these processes the collector should look for results which will stand the test of time. This would include terms such as ‘archival’, ‘museum quality’, ‘acid free’ etc. After all one expects collected works of art to last at least one lifetime but really one should expect to be able to pass them down to future generations, not have them decay or disintegrate.
Prints are produced sometimes by the artist working alone, sometimes in collaboration with an expert printer in his workshop, and sometimes by a printer working with the artists information (drawings etc.) but without direct input by the artist. Traditionally the printer would show his best efforts to the artist who would signify that this was the standard all other prints should meet by signing the print, this becoming the artists’ proof that it met his standard. Likewise the printer would also sign the proof print to show it met his technical standards. Often both signatures would be present. Over the years these proof prints became bonuses for the artist and printer to sell, sometimes referred to as ‘hors de commerce’ as they were not normally sold through a gallery.
These printers proofs and artists proofs were my target buys, as not being a part of the commercial edition, they were often available without gallery mark up or commission and therefore considerably cheaper. I also like those marked printers proof with the artists signatures as to me having both parties signing added value, even where the print was not a part of the ‘official’ edition.
So how was an edition defined? Once upon a time it was what could be produced before the litho stone or etching plate deteriorated to the point where the end result was not acceptable. The prints then offered were numbered to show how many had been produced and at what point in a run that print came from. Thus 1/10 showed it was the first print in an edition of ten. Often the knowledgeable collector would want the first of an edition on the basis that this had the best, finest, quality.
With so many print processes being improved and commercialised, print runs of thousands became possible at which point the Inland Revenue intervened, saying that anything over 125 in number was a reproduction not a limited edition and therefore subject to Purchase Tax (a precursor to VAT). Artists then voluntarily limited edition numbers to avoid tax.
At the end of the numbered run the printer would destroy the plate/stone/screen to ensure no further prints could be produced outside the ‘limited edition’. Photographers, for example, often guarantee the number of prints to be made of an image in the spirit of producing a ‘limited edition’, in older times destroying the negative to ensure this happened. This is something that has become much more difficult to guarantee in these days of high quality scanners and digital processes, with fraudulent copies around.
Traditional media leave a mark quite different in nature to that produced by the giclée or digital photo print, the print usually betraying by its surface the means by which it was produced. Digital images themselves can be date stamped and digitally marked to prevent unlicensed copying. Techniques introduced in the 1950’s and 60’s saw more industrial production techniques used, epitomised by Warhol’s ‘factory’ where he and his friends would produce 80 works a day, not all of which were touched by Warhol’s hand.
Collectors need to be sharp eyed and sharp witted in making their collections, and not all worthwhile acquisitions need be made through traditional art routes as some of these examples from my own collection, which illustrate this article, show. I used them here as an example of how a significant small collection can be made with determination and a sharp eye.
Most of my artworks have been donated to Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, now forming part of their collection. There are over 30 prints in the collection, including works by Patrick Caulfield, Joe Tilson, Tom Philips, Peter Philips, Andy Warhol, Gerd Winner, Charles Spencer-Pryce, Hiroshige, Terence Warren, Terry Millington, Merlyn Chesterman and Patrick Hughes.
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