Saturday, 10 January 2009

Edwin la Dell's 'Tower of London'

This charming image is one of a series of lithographs which were produced towards the end of the Second World War under the direction of Brenda Rawnsley and her husband Derek. The series was named 'School Prints', and the idea behind the project was to introduce 'contemporary' art to children of school age who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to experience 'good quality work' in the average course of their day. Within a relatively short space of time, Rawnsley set up School Prints Ltd to produce and sell original artists' lithographs to schools throughout the United Kingdom, commissioning several of the most important image-makers of the period. She sought the advice of eminent art historian and collector Herbert Read, and together they chose the roster of artists that would take part in the scheme. The printing was undertaken at the Bayard Press using stones or zinc plates that had been directly worked on by the artists, and the main proviso was that they used no more than six colours in their designs. Amongst those whose work was chosen for the project were Felix Topolski, John Nash, Tom Gentleman, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein, Hans Tisdell and Barbara Jones. In all, over twenty artists participated in the scheme, and Rawnsley even succeeded in enlisting lithographs from Braque and Picasso, though these are now understandably extremely rare. Fundamentally, it was a very English exercise, and the prints proved hugely popular with children and adults alike. The patterned borders that were a fundamental part of the design of each image were intended to be seen as integral 'frames' to the lithographs, as the usual procedure would have been to pin them directly to a board or the schoolroom wall. The ephemeral nature of the print, specifically the flimsy quality of war-issue paper would have been a major factor in their short-lived existence; more often than not, one print would be replaced when another was received from the company. That so many of them continue to exist in mint condition is a testament both to their survival and to their enduring appeal. La Dell's captivating image of a pleasure steamer passing the Tower of London is possibly my favorite of the entire series, and is now one of the less common images to have survived from the series. For more information on School Prints, seek out Ruth Artmonsky's excellent book on the subject, which features the la Dell image as its cover.

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