Melbourne printmaking in the 1960s.
Melbourne printmaking in the 1960s.
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Melbourne printmaking in the 1960s.
by Tate Adams
The Diploma of Printmaking course, the first in Australia, began at RMIT in 1960 but, in actual fact, the foundations for the course were laid down in 1951.
That’s forty years ago, before many of you were born, and it was another world you can’t imagine, so I’ll take you back to the 50s and try and give you some idea of the art scene in Melbourne then.
I arrived in Australia in 1951, and coming from London, the culture shock was great. Melbourne was just a large country town, and very conservative. Six o’clock closing, everything closed weekends except for the footie, short back and sides haircuts and baggy Fletcher Jones pants were de rigeur men’s dressing. Beer was the only drink and wine drinkers were looked upon with more than a little askance.
There were no trendies in the 50s. I mean how could anyone dressed in similar fashion to Bob Menzies be remotely described as trendy? For what movers and shakers there were, Marios Italian restaurant in Exhibition Street was the in place to go. And being daring enough to order a bottle of sparkling burgundy was really living in the fast lane.
So, exciting or stimulating, are not apt words to describe Melbourne in the 50s. And what visible art there was reflected this dullness. The Vic Arts and Atheneum? Galleries exhibiting the gum tree school, the Max Meldrum school, the George Bell school and the usual mishmash of bad portraits. As for printmaking there were Murray Griffin’s linocuts of birds. That was it.
Contemporary Art 50s
I knew nothing about Australian art when I arrived but I had a name. An Australian artist had recently travelled in Ireland and had met Gerald Dillon, an Irish artist and good friend of mine. When I told Dillon I was going to Australia he told me to contact him saying, ‘He’s a very interesting artist, you’ll like his work’. The artist was Len French through whom I became involved in the local contemporary art scene.
It was a world of its own in the 50s; a sort of underground world. Dismissed with supercilious indifference by what rather smug art establishment there was. To them French, Boyd, Kemp, Nolan, Tucker etc were not to be taken seriously. They were just fringe artists. No threat.
However, in spite of such an atmosphere, there was one lone beacon in town for contemporary art. And that was the Peter Gray furniture store in Bourke Street, where, in a lovely gallery upstairs, a quite remarkable, but most unlikely lady artist, Helen Ogilvie, directed the gallery. In this oasis one could view the real art of Australia, Fairweather, Miller, French, Boyd, Blackman, Brack, Williams etc. They all had exhibitions there. And the prices for the work – 20-25 guineas. Great exhibitions and yet I can’t remember seeing many red seals or anyone viewing the works other than other artists whenever I visited the gallery.
There was absolutely no public interest in such work.
So, in this cultural wilderness when RMIT started its evening classes in printmaking it was, to say the least, quite an event. I can’t convey to you the atmosphere in the printroom on those evenings, or the enthusiasm with which we worked. The place was alive with activity and regulars like Len French, Charlie Blackman, Barbara Brash, Ken Jack, Harry Rosengrave and me never missing a class.
It was always the practice at the end of each evening for everyone to put a proof of their work into a drawer as a record. And it wasn’t long before there were hundreds of prints in the collection. A really unique record ... And what happened to that collection? It was stolen from RMIT. I know the person responsible for pinching most of the prints. But there was nothing that could be done about the matter. The prints should have been stamped RMIT Collection. Without that there was no proof.
In the third year of the class Vic Greenhalgh, head of the art school, had a chat to me saying that as the class was such a success, a full-time course should be planned and that he wanted me to run it. But for this to happen I had to have some qualifications on paper so that he could put me on the staff. I completed a Diploma in Illustration at the end of 1956, and as I had been working seven days a week to do the course full-time (while teaching half-time to support myself) I felt I needed a break. And so I went back to London and Dublin for a couple of years.
Towards the end of 1959, when I had retuned to Melbourne, I was made Lecturer in charge of Printmaking with the course to commence in 1960.
So there you have the background as to how the course came into being. But just before I start talking about putting the print room together, I think you may be interested to hear what happened on the very first day of the course in 1960.
I walked into the print room before the first class started to check that all was in order and I found a young student cleaning the presses to earn some extra money. I introduced myself and asked him his name. He replied ‘I’m George Baldessin, a painting student. Vic told me you were coming so I asked him for this cleaning job because I want to be a printmaker’.
Later that day when I saw him working on an etching plate I thought, he wants to be a printmakrer, hell, he already is a printmaker. What an incredible start to the course.
Four years later when he returned from Italy he joined me in the print room.
Now to setting up the print room ... First of all you have to realise that in the 50s and 60s RMIT was still regarded as the Working Mens College by the Education Department and as such was low on the list of funding. It operated on a shoe-string budget and it was only because of its dedicated staff that the tech grew in status. The staff made RMIT.
The setting up of the print room was a classic example of staff initiative. It was set up by the staff, off their own bat, and didn’t cost a single dollar.
Every press and every piece of equipment was scrounged from commercial printing houses by Harold Freedman and Lionel Harrington. Comes, the ink manufacturer annually donated the basic black letterpress ink and APM did the same with litho proofing paper.
Lionel Harrington, the evening printing technical, was also foreman printer at Trodel & Cooper, the lithographic printers in Port Melbourne, and he kept the print room supplied with zinc litho plates, carrying them back each week to Trodels for regraining. The firm knew of course what was going on but turned a blind eye.
Scrounging and making do was the way of life in the print room, and the thought never occurred to us that it could, or should, be otherwise. If the presses broke down or needed repairs, Lionel and I simply rolled our sleeves up and got on with it. He was a master printer and taught me every facet of printing – how to adjust presses and pressures, how to sew new typans on the old Albion presses, how to correctly pack litho stones on the hand presses etc, the lot.
Talking of litho stones, I remember Janet Dawson ring me one day tipping me off that a building in Lonsdale Street, used by a printer, was being renovated and that Whelan the Wrecker was throwing out hundreds of litho stones. I rushed down to the site with John Robinson, one of my students, and found a dozen labourers throwing litho stones into a sunken loading bay to fill it up before cementing it over.
Litho stones were flying in all directions smashing into pieces which were hurtling through the air. Never was a firm so aptly named as Whelan the Wrecker was. Shouting through the din and dust I asked the foreman if we could have some stones and he shouted back ‘Yeah mate, go for your life, take what you bloody want’. I found that he wasn’t joking when he said go for your life because they kept on smashing and throwing.
So there were the two of us in the middle of this chaos trying to salvage as many suitable stones as we could in the short time available. In the end we managed to save about twenty-five stones, but one of us had to stand guard over them while the other raced back to get the RMIT truck for transport. Otherwise our stones would have also ended up in the pit.
When we got back to RMIT with the stones, both of us were filthy dirty. Our faces were caked in dust and sweat because we had to work fast and litho stones are heavy to lug around. But being filthy didn’t worry us in the least so thrilled were we at getting such a windfall of stones.
That’s the way the RMIT print room was put together costing the RMIT nothing. A print room that the principal sitting in his office over in Building 1 didn't even know existed.
But it does need a budget to run and so I was given a $100 a year. One hundred dollars a year to purchase etching tools, files, acid, resin, bees wax, rags, shellack, blotting paper, etching ink, coloured inks etc., etc.. and also big ticket items we couldn't scrounge such as acid trays and blankets for the etching presses. Around the end of year exam time the materials position was quite desperate to say the least. The acid, for example, was so weak it had to be helped out of the bottle.
This shortage of funds lasted well into the 1970s when RMIT’s financial position improved greatly. I even got a special Commonwealth grant for a new etching press. I just couldn’t believe that after over twenty years of making do RMIT could actually buy a new press. George and I treated it like a baby and it was cleaned and polished until it gleamed. It even had a motor and all we had to do was press a button. It was so easy to operate you felt that you were not earning your salary.
Apart from being short of funds we were always pushed for room because the department was housed in just one large studio. Space and working conditions for the printmaking students were far from ideal as they had to share the print room with painting and sculpture students as well as evening classes. This meant that they had no permanent desk or work bench to call their own and so were continually either packing their equipment into lockers or unpacking.
But while this lack of space was a constant worry to me, it also had a great advantage because it meant the number of printmaking students was limited to ten – five in third year and five in fourth year.
These small numbers suited me perfectly because it meant that George and I could spend much more time with each student.
But no matter how crowded the print room was top priority was always given to creating space for outside artists such as Fred Williams, Len French, Edwin Tanner etc. to have access to the presses for a full day each week.
I regarded this facility as being an essential part of the printmaking department’s function for both artists and students.
For the artists, who in those days, could not afford to own their own presses, it was a way that they could keep on making prints. For the students, it was a lesson by example – to see how industriously Fred Williams worked when printing his editions never failed to impress and inspire them to more professional attitudes in their own work.
Unfortunately, when Vic Greenhalgh retired as head of the art school, I lost the only supporter I had in the art school and it wasn’t long before certain staff members jealous of the printmaking department’s close liaison with outside artists such as French forced the ending of this important part of the Printmaking Department work.
By 1965 we were producing some fine printmakers – George, Tay Kok Wee, Jock Clutterbuck and others. But there was no venue for their exhibition or possible sale. So I did the rounds of the few commercial galleries that were around to try and interest them in handling prints. The apathy I encountered was unbelievable, as far as they were concerned there was no money in it for them and they were not interested, period.
In a way I could understand their reluctance. Why try and flog a print when there was more money in paintings... But what really riled me was the fact that they didn't know what the hell I was talking about. A print to them was a reproduction and when I talked about lithography, etching and relief prints, I might as well have been talking about Einstein’s theory of relativity for all they knew or cared. And I'm not joking.
Their whole attitude got my Irish up so I though, right, if that’s how things are, there is only one solution, I'll open my own gallery, just for prints. And that's how Crossley Gallery came into being in mid-1966.
I had no idea of how it would go. So instead of having any opening or pre-publicity, and then having to close within a year and feel a bit of a fool, I simply opened for business and sat back with fingers crossed to see what would transpire.
Patrick McCaughey gave the first exhibition a good, but small review, nothing happened and not a soul opened the door in the first three weeks. Week four and I decided to bring out the big guns. So I put on an exhibition of the Japanese artist Hagiwara whom I had met in Japan. That did it. When the reviews, all excellent, appeared in print, the door opened, the gallery took off and never looked back.
I'm very proud of the gallery’s pioneering achievements. It completely lifted the status of prints from the perception of being only a minor art to what it can be – a major art form. It made the Australian public very much aware of prints and it opened up a new market.
It never once compromised its high standards often putting on exhibitions it knew would not sell a single print. But they were exhibitions that just had to be shown so good were the prints. The 1967 exhibition of Bea Maddock’s early wood cuts was one such exhibition I remember well, great prints.
Here I must pay tribute to the art critics of those years. They were quick to realise the gallery’s philosophy and were very supportive, I can’t remember a single poor review. But of all the hundreds of good reviews, the one I think that summed up Crossley best, was a review by Ross Lansell in the Weekly Nation in which he wrote ‘to the perennially downcast art critic Crossley Gallery is an oasis in a desert of visual diarrhoea’.
What more is there to say .. so I'll end on that.
© Tate Adams, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.