View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
This group of prints was bequeathed to Evelyne Abrahams by the artist's parents, Harry and Rachel Abrahams, on the understanding that she would present it to the Tate Gallery on their behalf. It represents the greater part of the artist's printmaking to date. Other works by Abrahams in the collection are a sculpture entitled ‘Lady in a Niche’, 1973 (T03369), a work on paper entitled ‘Winter Sundial’, 1975 (T02330), and a small number of prints: ‘The Garden Suite’, 1970 (P04001-P04005), ‘Sundial I (Summer)’, 1975 (P07384) and ‘Untitled’ [from the artist's book Oxford Gardens: A Sketchbook], 1977 (P08150).
Abrahams is primarily a sculptor, and many of his prints relate to particular sculptures. In the period 1967–79 Abrahams focused on garden imagery, exploring the relationship between art, artifice and nature. Many of the images used in early prints were based on small, relatively poor quality photographs of gardens reproduced in gardening magazines, such as the weekly Amateur Gardening and Popular Gardening, or, less frequently, better quality illustrations found in the series of volumes on gardens published by Country Life in the 1920s. This use of second-hand source material gives much of his printed output a conceptual quality, and links his work to Pop art. Abrahams has presented a large amount of source material relating to his printmaking of this period, including magazine clippings, photographs and sketches and acetate stencils, to the Tate Gallery Archive (TGA 8315).
The critical and commercial success of ‘The Garden Suite’ (P04001-P040054), published in 1970, helped establish Abrahams' name internationally, and in the following decade he went on to produce a significant body of prints, making approximately one print a month. The dealer Bernard Jacobson published many of his portfolios, and the Mayor Gallery organised a series of touring shows of prints and sculptures. In this period Abrahams was based in London, working at a studio in Leonard Street, EC2, from 1969 to 1982, and at the A & A Foundry in Bow from 1982 to 1992, with a second studio at Butler's Wharf from 1974 to 1979.
In 1979 Abrahams abandoned the garden theme for which he had become well known and focused instead on water-based imagery, using bathers and nymphs which were inspired in part by the landscape, myths and folk customs associated with the South of France. Abrahams and his French wife bought a home in Pézenas, in the Languedoc, in 1973, where he used the cellar as a studio. In 1988 they bought a house in the small village, Castelnau de Guers, in the same region, and have lived there on a full-time basis since 1992.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations by the artist in the following entries are taken from a taped interview with the compiler held on 18 August 1994. The entries have been approved by the artist.
[from] Garden Emblems 1967 [P11099-P11100]
Two screenprints from a suite of four on rayonflocked paper 766 × 565 (30 1/8 × 22 1/4); printed by Tony Wilson and published by the artist in an edition of 20 plus 5 artist's proofs
Repr: Ivor Abrahams: Environments, Skulpturen, Zeichnungen, Komplette Graphiken, exh. cat., Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne 1973, p.81, figs. 1–2 (unspecified impressions)
P11099 Garden Emblems I 1967
Screenprint 315 × 335 on red rayon-flocked paper 766 × 565 (30 1/8 × 22 1/4)
P11099 and P11100 are two of a suite of four prints, titled ‘Garden Emblems’, that marked the beginning of the artist's printmaking and heralded his use of garden imagery. P11099 depicts seven different ornamentally shaped shrubs, printed in green with gold highlights, and a pattern derived from crazy paving, printed in white. P11011 shows the same crazy paving pattern, partly overlaid by a striped rectangle, which represents a mown lawn and is printed in green and gold. Both works are printed on dark red rayon-flocked paper, of a sort used in commercial displays. The other two prints in the suite are printed on white flocked paper and show a horizontally striped rectangle, with the same seven ornamentally shaped shrubs in one and a garden statue in the other (repr. Cologne exh. cat., 1973, p.81, figs.3–4).
In the 1960s Abrahams produced sculptures from cast-offs of academic sculptures and plaster moulds of funeral monuments or building facades. He later said, ‘I always enjoyed the pomposity of academic sculpture, the grandiosity and rhetoric. The edifying or inspirational nature of the art has always led me to treat it with the greatest of disrespect. None of these things were sacred or profound for me they were just fragments that I could work with’ (‘Ivor Abrahams in Conversation with R.J. Rees’, in Cologne exh. cat., 1973, p.17). A crucially important work in this period, and one directly related to ‘Garden Emblems’, was ‘Nude Statue on a Lawn’, 1966–8 (repr. ibid., p.30). Abrahams said of this sculpture (ibid., p.17):
I took a malformed figure composed by a student and cast it in latex, added a drape, placed it on a base, and set it on a latex lawn, spraying the lawn a tone pattern. Llater reworked the piece incorporating rayon flock in the lawn and bordered it with crazy paving. I had always used landscape or pseudo-landscape elements in my work and commemorative statuary is often situated in gardens. This work corresponded with a critical period in my personal life and when I came through it I found that I had discarded the statue and kept the garden.
The crazy paving and striped lawn in P11099 and P11100 were motifs developed by Abrahams as he worked on ‘Nude Statue on a Lawn’. According to the artist, there were no preliminary drawings for the prints, just ideas relating to the theme of the garden that sprang from his work on this sculpture.
In the same interview quoted above, Abrahams (pp.17–18) described his discovery of the garden theme:
Suddenly at this point many things started to fall into place and I realised that the game that I had been playing with my fragments was already prescribed elsewhere in another area. The garden image was a ready-made. It did not require distortion - it only required permutation. The garden iconography was like an elaborate, endless chess-game that never stopped. It seemed that this was an area common to everyone and this I liked - I thought important. It was popular and available to everyone - easily understood. I had been working towards this with the commemorative work and now I had suddenly hit on an area that carried none of the loose ends that I was constantly being tripped up with. Intuitively I began to realise that I had a grand scheme on my hands.
He continued (ibid., p.18):
The numinous aspects of the imagery that I was gathering at the time were rather overpowering. I therefore went to the lower end of the scale: to the vernacular. My material came from popular gardening magazines, I read Loudon's treatises on gardens: how to organise one's house and garden - you know, prescriptions for the nouveau bourgeoisie-recipes and instruction manuals that I drew on constantly ... I'm interested in the rules behind the rules. Through the recipe or formula I am able to achieve a separation between myself and the work-an ‘alienation’ if you like. The garden image is not ‘my’ image. It is a collective image - a manifestation of a consensual desire - a public aesthetic given concrete form.
In conversation with the compiler the artist said that the seven forms in P11099 represented topiary-work, and were based on illustrations in The Shell Enclycopedia of Gardens. He described the shaped shrubs as a popular form of sculpture, which, like any art form or game, was developed within the constraints of particular rules and conventions. ‘I selected this image’, he said of the shrubs in P11099, ‘because it represented a parallel to a chess game’. The image of crazy paving was taken from a strip of crazy paving used in ‘Garden Model’, 1969 (repr. ibid., p.24), a model made using a children's kit and some hand-fashioned pieces. The paving was photographed according to the artist's instructions by a professional photographer employed by the printer. The image was worked upon and transferred onto a silkscreen. The golden highlights on the shrubs were designed by the artist. In conversation Abrahams said, ‘These outlines were made and then a highlight was printed on. It [the printed area] is as stiff and inkbound as the day we made it’.
The image of the lawn in P11100 was based on a photograph of printed or photocopied source, which was worked on and then transferred to a stencil. According to Abrahams, ‘There were a lot of printings on it to get that sort of pointillist effect. You can see what they call an articulated grain that we put over it. That would have been completely hand-created’. The shrubs in P11099 show the same grain effect.
Abrahams remembered that he had bought the rayon-flocked paper, which he described as ‘very cheap and very delicate’, in a fancy box and decorative paper shop called Kettle's, in Holborn. His discovery of the paper led him to investigate the use of flocking in his sculptures and subsequent prints. ‘There were some technical problems because nobody had printed on this stuff before satisfactorily, but we managed to do it’.
About the suite of ‘Garden Emblems’ he said, ‘It is a progenitor. It is the first attempt at a finished thing with a garden in it, so it is quite important’.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996