Block by block: 60 years of printmaking

Washing Lines, a print created by Peter in 1959.

Washing Lines, a print created by Peter in 1959.

  • Experimental printmaker Peter Green turned failure into success and his work and teaching have inspired generations of artists. Sharon Dale reports.
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Peter Green doesn’t look back fondly on his school days. He struggled to fit in and learn, first as an evacuee and then as a perpetual “new boy” during a childhood with parents who moved around a lot with their work for the church. Now one of Britain’s most respected printmakers, he left school without any qualifications and says he felt “a failure” before experiencing the transformative effects of art. It’s one of the reasons why he is so passionate about art education and he has an OBE to prove it.

“Art is a wonderful way to help young people who appear not to be academically able. They can discover themselves through practical activity and realise that they are quite good at it. That gives them confidence to do other things. That’s what happened to me when I studied art at college. I found I wasn’t a complete failure and I realised that learning could be enjoyable. Then I started reading and I went and got myself some basic O-Levels,” says London-born Peter, who is sad that art in schools has been “diminished”.

Printmaker Peter Green at work. Picture: Alun Callender

Printmaker Peter Green at work. Picture: Alun Callender

“The curriculum is too narrow and focused on academic subjects. The object should be to give young people a breadth of experience because there are so many different types of ability and intelligence. Education should be about helping people and drawing them in, not making them feel excluded,” he says.

His own contribution to British art and education is set out in a new biography, The Workmanship of Uncertainty by Nathaniel Hepburn, which is due to be published by St Jude’s later this month. It is illustrated with examples from a 60-year-long career, the latest of which are on display in a new exhibition, Editions and Objects, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The YSP show has been staged in partnership with the much-loved St Jude’s gallery, which sells Peter’s work.

His path from failure to successful printmaker was unusual. He was not an artistic child and his talent may well have stayed hidden were it not for his interest in girls. He was on a book-keeping course at a technical college when he noticed that all the “charming” girls were in the art department on the top floor. “I was on the bottom floor and very bored and everyone seemed to be having a better time up there so I went and asked if I could do art. Luckily for me they were short of numbers otherwise I don’t think I would’ve got in,” he says.

Peter also credits the fact that his parents left him to it – quite literally – when he finished school at 15. They continued to move around with their church work while he became a lodger. “I had this marvellous freedom. I was left alone and found my own way without parental ambitions limiting me or dominating me. I was also very fortunate that I met super people who were good to me. The art teachers were so kind and supportive, unlike the sort of teachers I suffered in secondary school, and I had some lovely landladies who made sure I was okay.”

He first encountered Letterpress at his uncle’s printing firm and he dabbled with it at college but really caught the bug during his National Service in 1953 when he was attached to the Army printing unit. After being demobbed he went on to Brighton College of Art and then started teaching. He helped to pioneer new methods of teaching that saw students queuing to get into his Saturday morning sessions at Hornsey College. “I never saw teaching as a burden. I loved it. For me it was part of the creative process and years ago, we used to have famous artists coming into college to teach part-time so I got to meet these wonderful people.”

In the evening, Peter concentrated on his commissions, including illustrations for the Welsh coal board depicting the mines of the Rhondda Valley, but he soon slipped from representational art into abstraction and mark making.

Around 1960, he began working for London Graphic Arts, which brought his abstract prints to a mass market. “I was keen to get ideas and concepts into my work and I wanted to give it emotion and feeling. It’s left up to the viewer what they see in it, though for me it often alludes to landscape with objects that are juxtaposed in it like fallen trees and farm machinery,” says Peter, who uses memories and photographs of his favourite landscapes, including the sensual curves of the South Downs and the more rugged Yorkshire Dales, to inform his work.

Always keen to do something different and to make art more egalitarian, he has developed his own way of printmaking by hand – rather than using a press. He loves to fashion stencils and wood blocks from recycled material – most recently from old floorboards that were wrecked after a leak in his hallway.

“The aim is to demystify the process and make it accessible so anyone can have a go. There is nothing clever or mysterious about it. It’s why I like to call myself a printmaker and teacher because it sounds like a proper job. Artist sounds a bit posh and elite and art is not elite,” says Peter, who now collaborates with his wife, printmaker Linda Green, and works for around three hours a day in his home studio.

His biographer Nathaniel Hepburn believes that he is now “at the peak of his creativity, integrity and technical skill”.

“You always think your latest work is your best, whether it is or not, but one thing I am pleased about is that I have never repeated myself,” says Peter. “My work has always been a journey of development.”

• Editions and Objects runs at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until October 30. In partnership with St Jude’s, the group exhibition features the work of 13 artists including Peter Green. The Workmanship of Uncertainty by Nathaniel Hepburn is available to pre-order from St Jude’s, www.stjudesprints.co.uk

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