Ivor Abrahams

The Valley of Unrest


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Ivor Abrahams 1935–2015
Screenprint on paper
Image: 246 × 200 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] 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’.

P11137 The Valley of Unrest 1976

Screenprint with varnish 246 × 200 (9 5/8 × 7 7/8); watermark part of monogram ‘BJG | 75’

The artist said that the image, which was entirely hand-drawn, concerned death. It depicts lilies in a blue and green expanse of water, the lower half of which is varnished. To the left and right are purple statues, with areas of grey, textured as if by a grid, suggesting distant mountains and clouds.

The Poe poem of the same title, finally revised in 1845, describes a valley which once was serene but now had a haunted atmosphere because a warrior had been buried there:

Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley's restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless.
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye-Over
the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave: - from out their fragant tops
Eternal dews come down in drops.
They weep: - from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

(Mabbott, ed., I, 1969, pp.195–6)

Perhaps picking up on the reference to weeping lilies, Abrahams has represented in P11137 water lilies in a completely flooded valley. In conversation on 18 October 1994, however, Abrahams agreed that in this he may also have been influenced by the poem entitled ‘The City in the Sea’, described by Mabbott as a companion piece to ‘the Valley of Unrest’. Describing the sunken city Poe wrote:

No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently-
Gleams up the pinnacles far and gree
Up domes - up spires - up kingly halls-
Up fanes - up Babylon-like walls-
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculpted ivy and stone flowers-
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.

Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

(ibid., pp.201–2)

Abrahams said of this poem that it ‘almost looks like a description of one of my garden pieces’. In this context he pointed to the visual and thematic relationship between P11137 and an earlier sculpture entitled, ‘Set Piece Garden’, 1972 (repr.Ivor Abrahams: Environments, Skulpturen, Zeichnungen, Komplette Graphiken, exh. cat., Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne 1973, p.49).

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

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