Ivor Abrahams The Masque of the Red Death 1976

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Artwork details

Artist
Ivor Abrahams born 1935
Title
The Masque of the Red Death
Date 1976
Medium Screenprint on paper
Dimensions Image: 275 x 198 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by Evelyne Abrahams, the artist's wife 1986
Reference
P11149
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Catalogue entry

Group of ninety-eight screenprints, lithographs and etchings, various sizes [P11099-P11196; incomplete]

Presented by Evelyne Abrahams, the artist's wife 1986

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] E.A. Poe: Tales and Poems 1976 [P11135-P11154]

Portfolio of twenty screenprints, some with embossing and/or varnish, various sizes, on wove Crisbrook paper 495 × 362 (19 1/2 × 14 1/4); printed by Bernard Culls at Advanced Graphics and published by Bernard Jacobson Ltd in an edition of 100 plus 10 sets of artist's proofs of which this is one
Each inscribed ‘Ivor Abrahams 76’ below image b.r. and ‘AP’ below image b.l. (except P 11135 which is inscribed ‘Ivor Abrahams 76’ below image b.r. and ‘A.P.’ below image b.l. and P 11143 which is inscribed ‘Ivor Abrahams 76’ below image b.r. and ‘AP.’ below image b.l.); each stamped with the printer's stamp ‘ADVANCED GRAPHICS LONDON’ in circular device b.r.
Lit: Norbert Lynton, ‘Ivor Abrahams/Edgar Allan Poe’, in Ivor Abrahams: Sculptures and Prints, exh. cat., Bernard Jacobson Gallery 1976, [pp.15–17], entire suite repr. pp.16–20 and on inside of back cover, no numbers (unspecified impressions). Also repr: Ivor Abrahams: Edgar Allan Poe, brochure, Bernard Jacobson Gallery 1976, entire suite, no numbers (unspecified impressions)

Abrahams was commissioned by Bernard Jacobson to illustrate a volume of selected tales and poems by the American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49). It took two years to complete the proofing stages of the twenty prints, which were first exhibited in 1976. It was the artist who suggested making the prints available as a portfolio. The portfolio proved popular, and the project of publishing a book (announced in the 1976 exhibition brochure as scheduled for the following year) lost impetus. The book was due to be published in an edition of 500, with four loose prints per volume.

Norbert Lynton wrote an extended essay on Abrahams' illustrations which was intended for publication in the book. Unfortunately, the manuscript cannot now be traced, and only part of the essay was included in the 1976 Bernard Jacobson Gallery catalogue. Lynton ([p.15]) wrote: ‘I suspect that Poe's popularity through text, illustrations and films is part of his attraction for Abrahams. Yet, unlike all the films and most of the illustrations, his images show little desire to profit from the more thrilling aspects of Poe laboured by Arthur Rackham and the film directors.’ He continued ([pp.16–17]):

Abrahams un-Hollywoods Poe but uses some of Hollywood's tricks to do so. His other means are astonishingly un-period, un-hagiographic, ahistorical - in short, devoid of nostalgia. He is a plastic artist, a sculptor whose primary means of expression are form and interval. His images show a marked response to the constructive artist in Poe and much less attachment to the incidents that others focused on.

In conversation with the compiler Abrahams said he had admired Poe's writings since a teenager. He also emphasised that illustrating the text had given him the opportunity to address figure-ground relationships, the underlying theme of all his subsequent work. For the portfolio he chose to illustrate those stories or poems he felt he ‘could put an image to’. Although some of the stories and poems are among Poe's most famous writings, others are quite obscure. Abrahams commented that he had some difficulty in finding a truly complete edition of Poe's writings. The edition he finally worked from was the three-volume Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, Massachusetts, I, 1969, II–III, 1978).

In 1976 Abrahams began work on a film on Poe with two friends, the painter Chris Battye and Richard Roberts, a cameraman and editor. Some of the film, which was never completed but was titled ‘The Sphinx’, after a Poe tale, was shot at Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge and Kensal Green (TGA 8315). A still from the film was used as a basis for the last print in the portfolio, also titled ‘The Sphinx’.

P11149 The Masque of the Red Death 1976

Screenprint 275 × 198 (10 7/8 × 7 3/4); watermark part of monogram ‘BJG | 75’

P11149 depicts a patterned diamond shape, printed in purple, pink, orange, green, blue and black. A red, blood-like substance appears to ooze and drip from the diamond. In conversation the artist said that the image's shape and pattern were taken from a decorative tile in his house in the South of France. The colours, however, were not those of the tile, which was made locally.

The Poe story that inspired this print concerned a prince who, at the time of a plague known as the Red Death, held a masked ball in his palace (Mabbott, ed., II, 1978, pp.670–7). The ball was held in an extraordinary suite of chambers each dominated by a single colour (blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, black). At the stroke of twelve, the revellers became aware of an unwonted guest dressed in a grave shroud and showing the marks of the Red Plague. The figure was a portent of death, and the prince and the guests died of the plague.

In conversation on 18 October 1994 Abrahams said that the colours of the print were largely those described in the story. He added that, from his point of view, the transformation of an ordinary object into ‘a powerful image, disgorging blood’ meant that P11149 was ‘one of the most satisfying works of the suite’.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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