In advance of Bouncing Off the wall: The 20th Century Graphic Arts Fair at the Erno Goldfinger-designed Greenside School in London this weekend, we asked co-organiser Neil Jennings, a dealer in 20th century original prints, to share some tips on buying mid century prints and posters.
Kenneth Rowntree, The British Restaurant at Acton, 1942, watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, image courtesy Neil Jennings
What drew you to mid century prints and can you tell us about the significance of print as a medium in the mid century art sphere?
I would first like to distinguish between original mid century prints (where, for example, an artist has cut directly into a piece of wood or lino themselves) and vintage posters. My ‘day job’ is as a dealer in original prints but I am increasingly drawn to the power of posters. The 20th century was the century of reproduced images, colour and slogans and the scope of printed material is vast and endlessly exciting. In the 1930s, colour lithography by high quality printers, such as the Curwen Press, was deservedly popular. However, some of the most interesting work produced in the early to mid century was in wood engraving, where artists appropriated a medium only recently rendered archaic as a form of commercial reproduction. What interests me about mid century prints is their collaborative nature – artists, studios, printers, galleries and collectors. The best mid century prints are invariably produced by artists who are both thinking and making in their chosen medium, rather than using it is a sort of (highly profitable) diffusion line.
Which mid century print artists do you rate highly?
I am very keen on the work of Edward Bawden, John and Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious. Eric Ravilious is now ‘namechecked’ everywhere but the reason for his popularity is surely because the work produced in his short life was of a consistently stellar standard, whether a stand-alone watercolour, a lithograph for a book or an illustration for an advertisement. The same consistency applies to his great friend Edward Bawden, although due to his long and productive life, there is, happily, much more for us to seek out!
Francis Carr, Bedford cafe, Sicilian Avenue, screenprint, 1950, image courtesy Neil Jennings
Are there any particular mid century print artists whose work is becoming increasingly popular?
There are three mid century print artists who seem to me to be chronically under-appreciated by the market, and this represents an opportunity for collectors: Barnett Freedman, Barbara Jones and Francis Carr.
Barnett Freedman was probably the most brilliant British lithographer of the 20th century. Most of his output was as an illustrator. He believed that there was no such thing as Commercial Art, “only good art and bad art”. His lithographs for Contemporary Lithographs, an initiative to provide original prints for schools, and for the Lyons teashops are superb.
Barbara Jones was a mural and exhibition designer, writer, illustrator, painter and printmaker. Her lithograph, ‘Coronation Coach’, 1953, is a delight. She was a major contributor to the Recording Britain project during the Second World War, a collection of 1500 watercolours commissioned to record the landscape of Britain at that time. She is the subject of an excellent monograph by Ruth Artmonsky.
Francis Carr was a pioneer of screen-printing as an artistic medium. He was a significant artist and teacher who died last year aged 93; his work unfairly neglected. He produced a beautiful mural in 1960 for the New Kings Road Primary School in Fulham, London.
How easy is it to find mid century prints today and do you have any tips for a new collector?
There is a lot out there to find! I started as a collector and then became a dealer (this is quite common in the Art and Antiques world). The best advice I can give from my experience is to get out, look at lots of things and talk to people! Public collections, dealers, galleries, fairs – the resources out there are vast. Last week I exhibited at the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy, where work by artists like Rembrandt, Henry Moore and Julian Opie are all on sale in one room!
A vital and relatively inexpensive resource is the wealth of good reference books: the books on the Contemporary Lithographs and the School Prints by Ruth Artmonsky and on the Lyons Lithographs by Charlie Batchelor, as well as the excellent Design Series published by the Antique Collectors’ Club. The new book on Eric Ravilious by Alan Powers is a brilliant read and very well illustrated. You can also view some of the best works on paper in the Prints and Drawings rooms at the V&A and the British Museum in London.
Edward Bawden, Aesop’s Fables, an old crab and a young, linocut, 1954, image courtesy Neil Jennings
Are there any potential pitfalls that a buyer should look out for when buying mid century prints?
Don’t get too hung up on signatures (or the lack of). Several mid century prints were not ‘called to be signed’ anyway. Posters are most usually unsigned. Experimental trial proofs, printed before the edition, can be both more interesting and very good value.
Although eBay is an excellent resource for catalogues, magazines and journals and ephemera of all kinds, it is increasingly unsatisfactory for original mid century prints – I’ve seen ‘wood engravings’ offered that are simply pages torn from a book rater than images printed from the block! As a general rule, try to see the work before you buy it, particularly if it is on sale at an auction or gallery and not a vast distance away. I occasionally buy something that I haven’t viewed, and the results can be very mixed!
Do you think mid century prints make good long-term investments?
If asked, I advise people against purchasing art primarily as an investment. I do this as art is relatively illiquid. For example, if you own a share in a company, you can sell it almost immediately – it might be worth more or less than you paid for it, but you can realise the value of it – however, a work of art might take months or years to sell. However I am keen to demonstrate that the items I offer for sale have an intrinsic value.
Have you observed any buying trends in relation to mid century prints over the last few years?
I have been dealing in 20th century prints for over 10 years. In that relatively short time I have noticed a shift – people are less likely to collect one particular medium (just etchings or just wood engravings, for example) and are more interested in the power of the image, irrespective of the medium. There is also an increasing trend for people to hang fewer, but bigger, things in their homes; great for the poster market but not so good for my stock of little black and white engravings!
I have also seen a marked increase in interest in the Festival of Britain, the Coronation and of work produced during the Second World War; not so much images of warfare but of the Home Front.
Neil Jennings runs Jennings Fine Art, specialising in 20th century works on paper. He can be contacted via email here.
Bouncing Off the wall: The 20th Century Graphic Arts Fair takes place at Goldfinger-designed Greenside School in West London on 10th May.