On your left as you go down the stairs of the Bernard Jacobson Gallery are a series of miniature prints whose makers are a roll-call of some of the greatest talents of the British art scene of the 1960s and beyond – Richard Hamilton, Patrick Caulfield, Ivor Abrahams, William Tillyer, Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney, Robyn Denny, Richard Smith as well as the American Ed Ruscha. And you haven’t yet reached the more than 100 works in the main gallery!
The Prints I Published is a selection of some of the highlights of the prints Bernard Jacobson has published in more than five decades as an art dealer. They represent a small fraction of those in his collection. He began selling and printing in 1969 from a small fourth-floor gallery in Mayfair, and the exhibition is part of the gallery’s 50th anniversary celebrations and follows on from the earlier The Prints I Wish I’d Published. Though prints declined in popularity after the 1970s, they revived again when paintings became too expensive for most collectors.
The Swinging Sixties ushered in an exciting era for British culture. With post-war austerity over and with the advent of the so-called permissive society, there was a sense of renewal and innovation. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones led the way in revolutionising the pop scene, Biba, Mary Quant et al did the same for fashion and the bright colours that exuded a sense of joy and optimism were echoed in the work of the new generation of artists coming out of the Royal Academy and elsewhere.
Printmaking, in all its forms, was well-suited to the bold, hot colours that were a hallmark particularly of the pop-art and photorealist movements. Jacobson had seen at first hand what the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein were doing with printmaking in the US and he saw a momentum developing for it here. When he formed his publishing company, there was very little competition and he could do no wrong financially.
Jacobson got to know just about everybody on the art scene. What makes this exhibition rewarding is, apart from the works themselves, Jacobson has added explanatory captions to each of them, giving an insight into how the works came about, together with anecdotes and his thoughts on the artists involved. It’s mostly but not all positive, insightful and often very funny.
The first print he ever published was one of two horses in a field in hyper-real colours by Malcolm Morley. Jacobson is scathing of it now describing it as “ridiculous” and “stupid and vacuous”. Morley had to get permission from his therapist to print it! Next but one to it is the print above by Eduardo Paolozzi whom Jacobson describes as “one of the British art world’s most intelligent and original artists”. The print, Pop Art Redefined, is an image “where monkeys given enough materials to work with, will eventually make a Frank Stella painting”.
Facing you as you come down the stairs is a large, hand-coloured lithograph by Howard Hodgkin entitled For Bernard Jacobson, 1979. It’s a densely layered abstract with brooding colours that the artist made for his dealer as an apology for failing to fulfil a commission for a book cover. Jacobson tells a story about how he’d once met Hodgkin in Cork Street walking towards him in tears. He was angry that Jacobson had excluded him from the miniature portfolio commission – the one now showing on the stairs. He was an outsider who, as Jacobson tells me, “bludgeoned his way through to the top of the tree with, in my view, a very thin talent”.
Jacobson is, on the other hand, highly complimentary of “heroes” such as Robyn Denny and Richard Smith whom he believes “moved British art forward, from the rather dreary forties and fifties, to the glamorous and exciting sixties”. He is highly complimentary of Bill Brandt, with whom he worked in his one and only foray into photography as part of a portfolio celebrating the bi-centenary of John Constable. Also in this series is a lovely vase of flowers by Patrick Caulfield (see topshot) as well as a fine etching by David Hockney, “a gigantic talent” whom Jacobson feels did his best work in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Jacobson has included half a dozen prints in the Garden Suite series by Ivor Abrahams with their vivid, flat areas of colour that examined the artist’s interest in the relationship between nature, artifice and art. Jacobson lived only two streets away from Abrahams in Willesden and had known him since he was a schoolboy. “He was one of the most creative print artists ever,” Jacobson tells me. “He was impish but in some ways more intelligent than all of them. He said to me once you have to understand we’re all minor artists…by that he meant we were nothing compared to Picasso and Matisse. He knew his place.”
Other notable works include etchings by Frank Auerbach, Michael Sandle and a somewhat dark and ghostly one entitled Outside Kilburn Underground by Leon Kossoff. There are fine geometric abstracts by Robyn Denny, described as “one of the toughest and uncompromising painters and substantial painters of abstract art this country has ever produced”, and I particularly liked April Suite V by Tess Jaray though Jacobson assures us that her husband, Mark Vaux is the better artist, one who “continues to push the boundaries of art”.
Included in the show are five prints by William Tillyer whom Jacobson has worked with for most of his career and whom he believes to be perhaps the greatest British artist since Constable. He has written a book about him. Living in Arcadia II is a swirling intaglio print using an embossed technique to create depth and texture, reminiscent of the complex layering of his paintings. “When you get older,” says Jacobson, “you don’t need talent, you need greatness. To be great, you need to dig deep into yourself…Tillyer goes much deeper, is more obscure and more difficult to understand. It’s a different level of art making for me.”
The Prints I Published is more than just an art exhibition. It’s a personal record of a journey by a gallery owner on five decades of art history that he witnessed in the making.
It runs until 9th March 2019 at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street St James’s, London SW1Y 6AG.
The images are courtesy of the gallery.