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] Oxford Gardens 1977 [P11157-P11166]
Suite of ten screenprints on Crisbrook wove paper, various sizes; printed by Advanced Graphics and published by Bernard Jacobson Ltd, 1977, in an edition of 250 plus 15 sets of artist's proofs of which this is no.VI
Each inscribed ‘Ivor Abrahams 77’ below image b.r. and ‘AP’ below image b.l. and stamped with the printer's stamp ‘ADVANCED GRAPHICS LONDON’ in a circular device b.r.
Lit: Ivor Abrahams, Oxford Gardens: A Sketchbook, 1977
This suite depicts ten views of the front gardens in Oxford Gardens, a street in the Ladbroke Grove area of London. While the street's name conjures up images of herbaceous borders and manicured lawns, the front gardens of these once grand houses were relatively neglected, and had suffered from injudicious repairs to the paths and walls. In conversation with the compiler Abrahams, who lived at 60 Oxford Gardens from 1966 to 1988, said that many of the large Victorian villas that lined the street had been divided into flats or were run as rooming houses. ‘To put it [the suite] into a sociological context’, he added, ‘this would have been around the time of the property slump in the mid-1970s’. The underlying theme of the suite, however, related to Abrahams' longstanding interest in the disjuncture between nature and human attempts to regulate and confine it.
To gather preparatory material for the suite, Abrahams took black-and-white and colour photographs of Oxford Gardens. The artist explained that it was the sheer number of the resulting photographs, taken through the seasons, that gave him the idea of making a sketchbook to be published as an accompaniment to the prints. He himself designed the layout of Oxford Gardens: A Sketchbook in which a great many of his photographs and some handworked stencil images were reproduced. Robin Wright, who worked for the National Trust and acted as editor of the book, selected the accompanying texts which were drawn from a variety of sources relating to the aesthetics and history of gardens and domestic architecture, as well as to the sociological and conservation issues raised by the current state of the street. In conversation Abrahams described the sketch-book as ‘a record of that time I lived in the street’.
In the Foreword to Oxford Gardens: A Sketchbook Robert Melville (pp.4–5) gave an account of the history of the street:
Oxford Gardens comes out into Ladbroke Grove. Building started in 1867–8 on land leased from Colonel St Quintin of Scampston Hall, Yorkshire. The builders had to build houses of at least £800 in value, so they were intended for the well-to-do, and the columns flanking the doorways and the lavish use of stucco advertise the fact. Most of the houses are detached: they have four storeys over basements, and small front gardens. The interiors still have much Victorian plaster work and decorated glass and the entrance halls are tiled in several colours. In the census returns of 1871 the average number of residents per house was only six, and one out of four was a servant. The Householders included members of professions and owners of small businesses, but within a generation part of it was involved in the deteriorating conditions that prevailed on the Portobello estate. The St Quintins were ground landlords until 1933, but by that time many of the freeholds had been sold.
Most of the houses have been converted into flats, but the facades still look rather handsome. The street is tree-lined on both sides, and the hedges are tall and bulbous with age. Many of the gardens are neglected, but one has been cemented over and the hedge uprooted, a solution not be to be recommended.
The artist and his family live in one of the ground floor flats. Watching the overgrown bushes and crumbling brickwork - and seemingly with the spirit of John Sell Cotman at his elbow - Ivor Abrahams has brought together a magical collection of fragments which pays homage to a London street in the autumn of its days, and once again has found in Chris Betambeau a collaborator prepared to stretch the resources of colour printing beyond its optimum limits.
Something of the artist's vision of the street may perhaps be detected in the first quotation selected by Robin Wright to accompany the illustrations (p.8), a passage written by Vita Sackville-West about the spirit of houses:
not merely a systematic piling-up of brick on brick, regulated in the building by a plumb-line and spirit-level, pierced at intervals by doors and casements, but an entity with a life of its own, as though some unifying breath were blown into the air confined within this brick box, there to remain until the prisoning walls should fall away, exposing it to a general publicity. It was a very private thing, a house.
The artist's collection of photographs of Oxford Gardens, and some hand-worked stencils, have been presented by the artist to the Tate Gallery Archive (TGA 8216). Some of the photographs have been cropped or partly tippexed by the artist in preparation for their subsequent use.
P11166 Oxford Gardens X 1977
Screenprint with embossing 155 × 242 (6 1/8 × 9 1/2) on Crisbrook wove paper 385 × 267 (15 1/8 × 10 1/2)
This print depicts a view of stone steps leading up to a raised ground floor entrance, seen through concrete gate posts. The gate posts are embossed. The house is not represented, only the columns that flank the door-way. The images of the columns appear to have been cut out from some other source.
A black-and-white version of part of this image is reproduced on the last page of Oxford Gardens: A Sketch-book (p.117). Accompanying the illustration is this couplet by Byron:
Hail to thy pile! more honoured in thy fall,
Than modern mansions in their pillared state.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996