Ink-stained hands: a graphic tale

 

Ink-stained Hands is a sumptuous publication that captures within its pages a fabulous history of the role of the Graphic Studio in fine art printmaking in Ireland

THE STORY of the Graphic Studio Dublin, and the people who created and nurtured it, forms a vital strand of the city and country’s cultural history from the mid-1950s onwards. After much discussion and preparation the studio was founded by Elizabeth Rivers, Anne Yeats, Liam Miller, Patrick Hickey and Leslie MacWeeney at the end of 1960. Early the following year it moved into the basement of a Georgian house, 18 Upper Mount Street, a limited but undeniably atmospheric space and its home for almost two decades.

While just five names are recorded as founder members, many others were involved directly or indirectly. The idea of the solitary genius has dominated the history of western art, but when it comes to printmaking the logistics (the presses and other necessary paraphernalia, the sheer diversity of skills and talents involved, the labour-intensive nature of editioning) build in a communal dimension.

In fact the roll-call of those associated with the studio over the years is amazing, encompassing not just printmakers per se but many artists better known as painters or sculptors, numerous writers and poets, and patrons and administrators. In a real sense they haven’t just contributed to or supported it, they are the Graphic Studio.

In its history to date it has faced two notable existential threats: a split at the end of the 1970s and the loss of its Docklands base in Green Street East at the end of 2005, when it almost fell victim to the rampaging Celtic Tiger in the form of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. Years of negotiations with the authority came to naught and but for a bold strategic initiative, the studio would almost certainly have faded away.

Brian Lalor was chairman from 2005-2008, an extremely challenging time during which he oversaw the departure from Green Street East and the acquisition of Distillery House on the North Circular Road. Working in a temporary studio space on Pearse Street one day, he spotted an advertisement for Distillery House in the previous day’s Irish Timesproperty pages and he immediately thought it was promising. He and others went to view it the next day. There followed an uphill battle to secure the building, with the gratifying result that, for the first time, the studio owns its home.

An artist and printmaker of long standing, Lalor is also a writer with considerable experience of architectural and archaeological history. Published earlier this year by Lilliput Press, his book, Ink-Stained Hands, is a sumptuous production, generous in scale and scope. Although it was published last February, it largely slipped under the radar and it is worth consideration before the year closes. The subtitle is Graphic Studio Dublin and the Origins of Fine-Art Printmaking in Ireland.

It is that and more, a detailed history interwoven with chapters individually profiling most of the figures centrally involved with the Graphic Studio, and a wealth of illustrations – mostly prints, as we might expect, but also a veritable archive of fascinating documentary images. Lalor’s archaeological experience informs the project. Those profiled include the founder members and John Kelly, Mary Farl Powers, James McCreary, James O’Nolan (of Stoney Road Press), Stephen Lawlor, Tom Phelan and Geraldine O’Reilly. The supporting cast, you could say, is extensive, including, to take just a few examples, Alice Hanratty, Michael Kane, Martin Gale and Paul Muldoon (the book’s title derives from his poem about Mary Farl Powers).

Lalor is surely right when he suggests that the establishment of the studio, as proposed in an application to the Arts Council in 1960, “can be seen as one of the final artistic thrusts of Anglo-Ireland to found a movement with a mission”, a late example of the “evangelical energy” that reshaped the Irish imagination from the 1880s onwards.

While extinction seemed a possibility in 2005, the studio’s earlier crisis, late in the 1970s, was equally serious. Sooner or later the history of any Irish organisation comes around to the split. For the Graphic Studio it happened when the Upper Mount Street premises, an erstwhile Georgian kitchen, became a pressure cooker, not only because it was too small and crowded but by virtue of “personality tensions or disagreements”. The alternative faction at the time, which became the Black Church Print Studio, mildly favoured technological innovation and other initiatives and was, crucially, backed by the Arts Council. In that case as well, the crisis, though resulting to some extent from its own tactical errors, galvanized the Graphic Studio. Although the odds were against its very survival it managed to find its Green Street East building and to significantly reinvent itself, opening a gallery space in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre. The sour mood that followed the split took a long time to fade, but now the Graphic Studio seems to coexist quite equably with the Blackchurch Print Studio and, indeed, Stoney Road.

Having a gallery to showcase prints has remained a vital aspect of the studio’s activities, as many visitors to the Graphic Studio Gallery, through the arch on Cope Street in Temple Bar, will know. The development of a visiting artists scheme has been equally important. A stream of artists flowing into the studio over the years, working with master printers, has not only produced a wealth of pieces that would not otherwise exist, the visitors have had an enlivening effect on the studio. The received opinion, not entirely unfounded, is that some printmakers can become obsessed by technique at the expense of aesthetic audacity and flair. The injection of outside energy is a useful corrective to any such tendencies.


Ink-Stained Hands: Graphic Studio Dublin and the Origins of Fine-Art Printmaking in Irelandby Brian Lalor (The Lilliput Press, Dublin, €60)