By Clive Jennings
From May 1958 to her untimely death in May 1982, modernist artist Birgit Skiöld ran the highly successful Print Workshop in the basement of 28 Charlotte Street, now the Rebecca Hossack Gallery.
It was the first open access professional print workshop in England and it soon became a destination of choice for international artists, working with such notable artists as Michael Ayrton, Jim Dine, David Hockney and Victor Pasmore.
In tribute to her enormous contribution to printmaking, The Victoria & Albert Museum, which acquired the Birgit Skiöld Archive in 1997, has a new free display entitled: Birgit Skiöld: Zen and the Art of Print from 20 January to 15 May in Room 74.
The exhibition is curated by Elizabeth James, senior librarian in the National Art and Alexia Kirk, of the Archive of Art & Design, and has examples Skiöld’s own innovative and varied printmaking. It also offers a window into the life of a busy print studio, with contemporary photographs, day books listing visiting artists and even cash flow forecasts. These two threads demonstrate the leading role in the London art world of the 1960s and 70s that Skiöld and the Print Workshop played.
Born in Stockholm in 1923, Skiöld arrived in London in 1948, studying at the Anglo-French Art Centre, where she met artists Francis Bacon, Edouardo Paolozzi and curator/writer David Sylvester. An exhibition of French lithographs featuring Max Ernst and Oscar Kokoshka sparked an interest in printmaking, which led her to Regent Street Polytechnic where she studied lithography with Henry Trivick and etching with Richard Beer.
Further studies in Paris followed and by 1954 she was living at 76 Charlotte Street, and had set up her first studio in a basement in George Street, Marylebone, having acquired the lithographic press and stones that belonged to Vanessa Bell (of Omega Workshop, Fitzroy Square fame) and which had been used by artist and illustrator, Edward Ardizzone. Here she and fellow students made prints and Skiöld identified the need for open access printmaking facilities in England.
Skiöld was in part inspired by the example of English Artist William Hayter’s famous Atelier 17 studio which had reopened in Paris in 1950, after a period in New York during and after the war. Hayter had collaborated with Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky in Paris, and Pollock and Rothko in New York with stunning results. Painter and printmaker John Piper’s wife Myfanwy had said in a BBC Radio review that what is needed “is an atelier where artists and professional engravers can inspire each other.”
Robert Erskine, who ran the St George’s Gallery at 7 Cork Street, and who was to be influential in encouraging Stanley Jones to set up the Curwen Press, another operation with Fitzrovia connections through the Curwen Gallery in Windmill Street, was a generous supporter of Skiöld’s vision. They were to organise several exhibitions of Print Workshop artists together over the coming years.
Against this background of increasing interest in the medium of print, Skiöld found a home for the Workshop in the basement of the artist Adrian Heath’s house in Charlotte Street. Heath and his wife Corinne were benevolent landlords, and only charged a modest rent, with Heath making use of the facilities himself.
The presses were moved in May 1958, and the Print Workshop provided a professional and friendly place where artists found a busy centre for avant-garde ideas, and a haven of print culture presided over by a “very special doyenne, who ran a fairly strict regime on a shoe-string budget”, at a time when it was unusual for a woman to be running her own establishment.
Having recently visited the very modest space, which is now used as Rebecca Hossack Gallery’s stock room, I found it hard to imagine how they managed to fit in all the etching and lithography presses and proofing facilities. Skiöld’s husband, Peter Bird, director of Bradford City Art Galleries and Museums, has described the studio as having “a lively and industrious atmosphere, when it was at its best, and a little chaotic on a bad day.
There was no house style or tendency, just diversity, individuality and excellence. One might have encountered Tom Philips working in one corner, or Maurice Payne proofing for David Hockney, maybe an American or Japanese artist over in London to work for a few months, or Skiöld herself developing one of here ideas.” The impressive list of artists who either used the studio, or whose work was editioned there reads like a survey of mid twentieth century art: Michael Ayrton, Boyd & Evans, Jim Dine, David Hockney, Tessay Jaray, Edouardo Paolozzi, Dieter Roth, William Tillyer, Joe Tilson, William Tucker.
Skiöld’s own achievements as a printmaker were many. She was a pioneer in championing the status of printmaking as art, and experimenting with techniques including embossing, mixed media, Xerox printing and collage. She was also an early exponent of the livre d’artiste, working on occasion with texts by other famous Fitzrovia residents, past and present.
Her first artist’s book incorporated texts by the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was born at No.38 Charlotte Street and later lived at No.50, and at 37 Fitzroy Square.
A shared love of Japan led her to produce three bookworks with poet and travel writer James Kirkup. The first, Scenes from Sesshu was published in 1977, the same year that the charge of blasphemous libel was resurrected and used for he first time in 50 years to prosecute Gay News for publishing the Kirkup poem, The love that dares to speak its name. Kirkup was a well known fixture in the pubs and clubs of Fitzrovia, and was renting a room above a shoe shop at 77A Tottenham Court Road from 1948.
The Print Workshop was a spawning ground for talented printmakers and many who worked there under Skiöld’s watchful eye went on to open their own studios, famously American artist Kathan Brown who set up the internationally famous Crown Point Press in San Francisco, in 1962. Students at The Royal College of Art, Central School of Art and Chelsea School of Art, amongst others, benefitted from her printmaking lectures, and she taught workshops in universities in the USA, Sweden and Japan.
She was also a founder member of the Printmakers’ Council, and was instrumental in getting the British International Print Biennale off the ground. An influential curator, Skiöld mounted printmaking exhibitions too many to number in England, Europe, the United States and Japan, delighting in experimental work by young artists, one of whom was Silvie Turner, who taught me at St Martins School of Art, ten minutes walk away on Charing Cross Road. Shortly after her death at only 59, at the invitation of Peter Bird, 118 artists, who had benefited directly or indirectly from her tireless championing of the print as an artform, contributed to a Tribute portfolio, many of these works can be seen in the V & A display.
Skiöld’s highly social personality, and international affiliations, had made The Print Workshop at 28 Charlotte Street an art world hub, as Skiöld described her domain: “Not a business, not a college, not a gallery, simply an idea which has worked.”
Exhibition on V&A website.
Gallery Talk: Join the curators of the current display in Gallery 74, which uncovers the fascinating archive of Birgit Skiold (1923-1982). Details Here.