Wednesday, 25 July 2012

ARLIS Conference 2012 - Tate Prints and Drawings Room visit

I was fortunate to be able to attend Day 2 of this year's ARLIS Annual Conference "From Beijing to Bloomsbury: Art Librarianship in an Olympic Year", on Thursday 28th June. The morning began with sessions on digital futures, and in the afternoon I attended breakout sessions about art classification and its future, and about diversity in libraries. The day was very pleasantly concluded with a reception at the mysterious Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University of London, and dinner at the marvellous Grand St. Pancras restaurant.
Before lunchtime, I went on the visit to the Tate Prints and Drawings Room, and here's my report from excursion:

Being a fan of printmaking I was very excited to visit the Tate Prints and Drawings Room at Tate Britain, and a small group of us got to enjoy a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour by staff member, Julia Beaumont-Joyce. The items held are essentially divided into two collections, that of the Turner Bequest of watercolours and sketchbooks, works by his contemporaries found in the OppĂ© collection, and other historic British works on paper; and the modern prints and drawings collection, consisting of around 16000 British and international works. These collections are spread over two rooms, and we got to see a sample of the diverse work, from the complete set of the ‘Tailor of Gloucester’ illustrations by Beatrix Potter and a range of Turner watercolours to large contemporary prints by Paula Rego and Robert Rauschenberg.
With no plan for Turner’s watercolour drawings and sketches after his death, this collection of 30,000 works went with his bequest of his main art works to the National Gallery. This was moved to their new building at Millbank, and the collection was relocated at various points through the 20th century before resettling back at Tate Britain in 1987 with the creation of the Clore wing. Turner predominantly worked on wide format card bound sketchbooks (which are not dated so is often hard to keep a timeline), and smaller pocket sketchbooks when travelling. He didn’t keep written diaries or journals so these sketchbooks are invaluable in following him in his journeys and understanding the artist further. We saw a series of Venice sketches, and examples of how he would revisit a location at various times of the day to depict the changes in light and atmosphere, and how he was famously keen on depicting modern life in his works, such as including a steamboat in a river scene.
This Clore Grade 2 listed room and its fittings does allow for close study of the works, however was not as suitable for the larger pieces in the contemporary collection or for some modern library facilities, and so a separate room is used for the prints and drawings. The Modern prints and drawings room was converted from a gallery space in 1999, and is an excellent place for studying these often large works, with wide tables, wall space for displays and the inspiration of being surrounded by rack upon rack of prints. At the time of our visit, a small display entitled ‘The Body of Drawing’ was on show.
The Modern prints collection was first developed in 1970s and was originally acquired through the ‘Institute of Contemporary Prints’ agreement in which various printmakers donated work to Pat Gilmour, who ran the Tate Print Department from 1974-77. Her passion, connections and acquisition policies helped to further develop this remarkable collection. Julia showed us some fascinating prints including Paula Rego’s Pendle Witches series, a suite of twelve etchings from 1996 based around the Lancashire witch trial of 1612, which was also produced as a book in collaboration with the poet Blake Morrison. Another collaboration entitled ‘El Negro’ by Robert Motherwell and poet Rafael Alberti consists of a beautiful volume of lithographs and poetry published in 1983 by Tyler Graphics. Tate also holds a substantial collection of around 500-600 works by these famous New York based master printers.
Julia told us the majority of visitors to the Prints and Drawings rooms tend to be split into two groups, those coming to admire Turner’s work and other watercolours, and printmaking student groups and artists coming to study the contemporary prints. A previously stricter admissions policy has been relaxed to allow for visitors of all ages, and even groups of enthusiastic four-year old schoolchildren have got to enjoy the works.

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