Ivor Abrahams

[no title]


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Ivor Abrahams 1935–2015
Lithograph on paper
Image: 415 × 315 mm
Presented by Evelyne Abrahams, the artist's wife 1986

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] 15 Lithographs by Ivor Abrahams to Edmund Burke [P11176-P11190]

1978 Portfolio of fifteen lithographs, various sizes, on Crisbrook wove paper 626 × 519 (24 5/8 × 20 3/8); printed by Alan Cox at Sky Editions and published by Bernard Jacobson Ltd in an edition of 100 in 1978; signed by the artist in 1979
Each inscribed ‘Ivor Abrahams 79’ below image b.r. and ‘95/100’ below image b.l.; each watermarked ‘Crisbrook | JBG’ in shield
Lit: Norbert Lynton, Notes on Burke and Abrahams, Bernard Jacobson Ltd 1978, pamphlet published as part of the portfolio

The portfolio consists of fifteen lithographs and ten sheets of Arches Crème paper with excerpts from Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in 1757. In conversation with the compiler Abrahams explained that, following the Poe suite (see entries on P 11135–11154), he had been invited by Bernard Jacobson to make a second portfolio. He had admired Edmund Burke's text since the 1960s, and was pleased to have the chance to work with it as, he felt, it ‘lent itself very much to visual interpretation’.

There is no one-to-one relationship between the excerpts and the prints, but the themes of power and terror found in the Burke texts were important stimuli in the artist's choice of imagery. Explaining his enthusiasm for Burke (1729–97), Abrahams said that he was drawn to the latter's aphoristic style and, above all, felt it was ‘interesting to see someone at that time dealing with these things that we understand now much more in psychological terms’. There is no particular order in which the following ten excerpts should be read or displayed:

The effects of SUCCESSION in visual objects explained.

If we can comprehend clearly how things operate upon one of our senses; there can be very little difficulty in conceiving in what manner they affect the rest.


When any body is composed of parts smooth and polished, without pressing upon each other, without showing any ruggedness or confusion, and at the same time affecting some regular shape, I call it elegant.


To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.


That power derives all its sublimity from the terror with which it is generally accompanied, will appear evidently from its effect in the very few cases, in which it may be possible to strip a considerable degree of strength of its ability to hurt. When you do this, you spoil it of everything sublime, and it immediately becomes contemptible.

In short, wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power, we shall all along observe the sublime concomitant of terror, and contempt the attendant on a strength and subservient and innoxious.

Proportion not the cause of BEAUTY in the human species

You may assign any proportion you please to every part of the human body; and I undertake, that a painter shall religiously observe them all, and not withstanding produce if he pleases, a very ugly figure. The same painter shall considerably deviate from these porportions, and produce a very beautiful one.


No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of action and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain.

The cries of ANIMALS

Such sounds as imitate the natural inarticulate voices of men, or any animals in pain or danger, are capable of conveying great ideas; unless it be the well known voice of some creature, on which we are used to look with contempt.


Pain and pleasure are simple ideas, incapable of definition.

I can never persuade myself that pleasure and pain are mere relations, which can only exist as they are contrasted: but I think I can discern clearly that there are positive pains and pleasures, which do not at all depend upon each other. Nothing is more certain to my own feelings than this.

Why DARKNESS is terrible

But though we were not apprized of this, I believe any one will find if he opens his eyes and makes an effort to see in a dark place, that a very perceivable pain ensues.

It may perhaps be objected to this theory of the mechanical effect of darkness, that the ill effects of darkness or blackness seem rather mental than corporeal; and I own it is true, that they do so; and so do all those that depend on the affectations of the finer parts of our system.


But as perfectly beautiful bodies are not composed of angular parts, so their parts never continue long in the same right line. They vary their direction every moment, and they change under the eye by a deviation continually carrying on, but for whose beginning or end you will find it difficult to ascertain a point.

In a pamphlet accompanying the portfolio the critic Norbert Lynton discussed the importance of Burke's Philosophical Enquiry. Lynton wrote that, in the ‘measured, dignified language of eighteenth-century England’, Burke outlined some of the principal attitudes and concerns of the later Romantic movement - a reliance on instinct to correct the excesses of reason, the belief that what is deeply felt must be true, a fascination with the inexplicable aspects of human experience. Regarding Burke's views on pain and pleasure, Lynton (1978,[p.3]) wrote:

Pleasure, to put it very simply, Burke associates with beauty; pain he proposes as a basic ingredient in an aesthetic experience he calls (adopting a term inherited from the ancients, but changing its meaning) the sublime. Beauty he almost denounces. It shows man as a social animal, determining his sexual focus, shaping his physical environment; it has the virtues but also the limitations of civilization. The sublime (and here Burke emphatically speaks of a human response, not of something possibly inherent in objects) reveals nature in man, and that also means the divine in man. Beauty goes with polish and politeness, with moderation and neatness, and thus with utility; the sublime is not a grander form of beauty, as had been proposed before Burke, but signifies an experience of quite another kind, associated with qualities that have nothing to do with the world of reason and order. Vastness is sublime, darkness is sublime; the ungraspable, the unknowable, immeasurable, infinitely awesome is sublime. Faced by enormous mountain ranges, craggy and threatening, or by tempestuous oceans, or endless and formless deserts, man experiences fear and pain but also, if he will but allow his appetite to speak, the sublime - and that means a sensation of joy more poignant than anything the reassuring effects of beauty and order can provide.

Lynton (ibid., [p.4]) went on to link Burke's ideas with the theme of the ordered garden versus wild nature, a theme which was an undercurrent in Abrahams' garden-based works of the late 1960s and early and mid-1970s:

Burke did not merely open a door; at the very least he knocked down one of the four-square walls that had circumscribed creativity and experience. Walpole said of William Kent, the painter and designer, that he had shown that ‘all nature was a garden’. Burke showed that outside the nature we adopt as a garden lies a nature that attracts us much more forcibly by refusing to be a garden, and that man's own nature is not garden-like but an imperious wilderness where darkness means not evil but elemental power and where the mysterious and the incomprehensible is true wisdom. It is not just that Burke points beyond Romanticism to Symbolism and to Surrealism, and out of the classical frameword [sic] towards exoticism, primitivism and abstraction. He announces an aesthetic response that is natural to man, not educated, let alone scholarly, but inherent in man the animal, with bodily needs and warning systems, and in man the possessor of a soul, capable of intimations of immortality-in other words, Everyman (or even every child).

Lynton had discussed the themes of his essay with Abrahams, and had watched the artist work on his illustrations over a period of some months. Each print, he wrote, had its origin in a photograph:

The photographic source material which Abrahams brought into the studio varied astonishingly in type and origin (yet I know that even so it indicates only a part of the material he has gathered, let alone what may be stored in his memory). Some of it is nineteenth century; some twentieth. Some has status as photographic art; much is documentary only. Old books, new anthologies of old photographs, fashion magazines, film anthologies. I am not citing specific sources for fear of destroying the pleasure and interest that unguided recognition may bring. (ibid., [p.7])

Describing his experience of watching Abrahams at work, Lynton (ibid., [p.6]) related the artist's printmaking to his activity as a sculptor:

In the workshop I saw photographic material enlarged, reversed, cut, augmented, sharpened and diffused, and the prints taken from it transformed through graphic intervention. The translation of half-tone images by means of colour could be one of the most decisive steps, but equally so in some cases was the imposition of graphic marks on finely gradated photographs. At times it could seem that Burke's words contributed directly to the working process, with ‘power’, ‘pain’, ‘pleasure’ and so on, characterizing the means whereby the final image was reached. For the bystander it could all be very disconcerting, as he watched attractive source material being chopped and changed and taking on a new guise in taking on a new role - a new role, I suspect, only for the bystander: in Abrahams' mind the association may long have existed, so that the process was one of finding the required image within the selection material, like finding a marble figure within the block. (Abrahams' physical activity in preparing his prints - cutting out, reducing, adding, bringing forward, putting together - was itself sculptural, and suggests that print making may be more naturally a sculptor's activity than a painter's.)

Lynton stressed that Abraham's images were not literal illustrations of the text, but ‘visual equivalents’. The artist, he wrote, ‘has been tempted by the non-descriptive passages, even by reverberations between sentences, by the flux of feeling and images as one reads the book that floods the mind without immediate relevance to the surface of Burke's arguments’ (ibid., [p.1]). Although many of the images are hard to decipher, they are all based on figurative sources. For Lynton, the suite signified a major turning point in Abrahams' work, a return to the figured sources of the artist's very earliest sculptures. Whereas the garden-based works addressed the human condition metaphorically, and with an element of parody, Abrahams used here ‘imagery with which we identify closely’. ‘In short, then’, Lynton concluded (ibid., [p.7]),

I note a diminution of black humour, of satire, of humanity placed harshly before the magnifying mirror of Abrahams' art. Instead I see images of suffering that are also images of dignity, images that are dramatic and invite empathy without throwing sympathy back at us, images where the awful and the terrible does indeed, without false rhetoric, take on sublimity.

In conversation with the compiler on 4 October 1994 the artist stressed the interconnectedness of the Poe and Burke suites. Both portfolios had taken a great deal of time to prepare, and marked in his view an important step towards his later figure-based works. While the Poe images had been inspired directly by particular texts, Abrahams had felt freer with the Burke suite to let his imagination work on the photographic source material. Lynton (ibid., [p.5]) wrote about the relationship of the two portfolios: ‘In moving on from the quasi-religious transcendental fiction of the American Romantic to the more earth-bound prose of the Irishman, in whom waking experience of the real world produced much the same exhilaration and wonderment as dream and perhaps drugs produced in Poe, Abrahams has moved closer to the true springs of creative magic.’

P11185 [no title] 1978

Lithograph 415 × 315 (16 3/8 × 12 3/8)

P11185 is based on a photograph of a brothel in New Orleans by E.J. Bellocq (1873–1949). Bellocq was not a professional photographer, and his negatives were discovered only after his death. Abrahams saw and admired an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the early 1970s.

In P11185 the nude sex worker, with a red heart on her bottom, is depicted drawing a heart on a wall. The ground is largely red, with an area of grey near the top.

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

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