The print Release derives its title from the name of an organisation set up to provide legal aid and social support to people who have fallen foul of the law, often as a result of drug abuse. In 1972, Diana Melly (married to the jazz musician, writer and critic George Melly and working for Release) asked Hamilton if he would make a print to help raise funds for the organisation which was in financial difficulties. The artists Jim Dine (born 1935) and David Hockney (born 1937) also contributed, deciding to divide the profits between Release and the National Council for Civil Liberties. Because of the focus of Release on those suffering from drug abuse, Hamilton decided to use one of the images he had created in his Swingeing London group of works. These were generated by the arrest and imprisonment of Hamilton’s art dealer Robert Fraser (1937-86) in 1967 for the possession of heroin. The artist had created a poster from a collage of press cuttings from the event entitled Swingeing London 67 – poster, 1967-8 (P01855), before embarking on a group of seven paintings entitled Swingeing London 67 1968 (private collection) and Swingeing London 67 (a) – (f), 1968-9 (Swingeing London 67 (f) is T01144).
The Swingeing London paintings are all based on the same image – a photograph of Robert Fraser and the rock star Mick Jagger in a police van being taken from jail to court. The photograph, taken by John Twine, was published in the Daily Sketch newspaper on 29 June 1967 and shows the two men, handcuffed together, trying to shield their faces from the press photographers. Hamilton had come across the image in the collection of press cuttings Fraser’s secretary had given to him when he was creating the print Swinging London 67 – poster and he placed it at the top left corner of the composition. In order to use the image to make an etching (Swingeing London 67 – etching, 1968) Hamilton purchased a ten by eight inch print of the whole of Twine’s photograph from the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Sketch. He extended the picture on all four sides, revealing a police guard on the left and second van window on the right. The image was also enlarged up and down, showing the curve of the roof inside the van and more of the prisoners’ chests than had been previously visible. The artist retouched the photograph to remove the outside of the van and the overlapping glass of the sliding window that cut vertically through the centre of the image. After making these alterations, Hamilton planned to silkscreen the resulting photographic image in black over a coloured, conventional oil painting. As this involved extensive experimentation, he created seven paintings, making line drawings to define the various colour fields for each version. When he came to make the print Release he found that by chance he had kept the drawing defining the colour fields in the (e) painting. Hamilton used this as the basis for producing seventeen hand-cut stencils for applying the layers of colour that make up the screenprint. A photographic stencil created to use on the Swingeing London canvases had been cleaned of residual black ink between each use on a painting by pressing it on white paper, effectively creating a print. As the stencil had been used first on canvas, the texture of the fabric had been pressed into the black ink, with the result that the accidental proof had both the photographic image and the canvas texture. The completed print Release combines the seventeen colour screens and the photographic black screen, with an additional collage of die-cut silver on the handcuffs and highlights on Fraser’s glasses at stage 17. The build up of the image through the progressive addition of colour is documented by the series of stage proofs Hamilton donated to Tate in 1977 – Release – Stage Proofs 1-13 and 16-19 (P02416-32; the series is incomplete). Stage Proof 19 is identical to the print Release.
The name of the organization Release is clearly an appropriate title for an image of two handcuffed men in police custody. In the mid 1960s, Hamilton combined a newspaper photograph of a politician with a magazine photograph of a masked actor to create Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1963) (P78721), an image that satirized the leader of the Labour Party for what the artist felt was a betrayal of his party’s values. Release extends the motif of political concern being expressed through the medium of art. Like Hamilton, Jim Dine and David Hockney had both exhibited work in the Robert Fraser Gallery. Dine’s exhibition there in 1966 had been closed down by the police and the gallery was prosecuted for exhibiting works described as obscene. Hamilton felt strongly that the punishment of Fraser, nicknamed ‘Groovy Bob’ for his role as a trendsetter around which a lively social scene orbited, was inappropriate. He wrote:
I had felt a strong personal indignation at the insanity of legal institutions which could jail anyone for the offence of self-abuse with drugs. The sentence in the case of my friend Robert Fraser was blatantly not intended to help him through a sickness, it was to be a notorious example to others. As the judge declared ‘There are times when a swingeing sentence can act as a deterrent’. There were several moves towards the subject at the time of Robert’s arrest in 1967. Gradually, the sense of outrage subsided into quiet deliberations on the technical requirements of the expression of that anger.
(Quoted in Collected Words, p.104.)
Release was printed by the artist and Chris Prater at Kelpra Studio, London on Hodgkinson mould-made paper. The edition was set at 150 plus fifteen artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is a printer’s proof. The edition was published by Petersburg Press SA for the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and Release.
Etienne Lullin, Richard Hamilton: Prints and Multiples 1939-2002, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Winterthur and Yale Center for British Art, New Haven 2003, pp.114-5, reproduced p.115 in colour.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, pp.166-8, reproduced p.166.
Richard Hamilton: Prints 1939-83, Stuttgart and London 1984, p.60, item 81, reproduced p.60 in colour.
Richard Hamilton: Collected Words 1953-1982, Stuttgart and London 1982, pp.104-5, reproduced p.105.