A sense of place
One of only a few women printmakers working in the post-war years, Helena Markson’s contribution to the British art scene has been largely overlooked, until now. Emma Mason, author of A Sense of Place, a book about the remarkable life of the artist, discusses Helena’s body of work and place in printmaking history.
I first came across the work of Helena Markson several years ago, when I bought a couple of her prints at auction. Both were of buildings, slightly abstracted, with muted orange colours. The prints were from the 1960s and beautifully made. I’d not heard of Helena Markson and, at the time, I knew of few women printmakers working in the post-war years, so I was keen to find out more about her.
Then, a few years ago, Helena’s family contacted the Emma Mason Gallery – a space I founded and run with my husband Richard – to explain that Helena had passed away in 2011 and ask if we would look at her work. Having seen a few of her prints, but still with not much knowledge of her life and art, I was delighted to do so.
At our gallery, we specialise in original prints by printmakers working in Britain from the 1950s to the present day. It all began after I met printmaker Robert Tavener soon after Richard and I moved from London to Eastbourne. We immediately got on well and a friendship began. In the following few years, before Tavener’s death, I helped him organise his studio and archive, spanning nearly fifty years of printmaking. The inspiration for setting up the gallery came from Robert Tavener, his work and the conversations I had with him about printmaking and, over the years, the business has grown and today we represent over thirty printmakers – now including Helena Markson.
When I saw Helena’s full archive of work I was surprised to see such a wide variety of prints, covering a period of over fifty years. Both the family and we were keen to take Helena’s story to a wider audience and that’s when we decided to publish a book about her life, A Sense of Place. Helena had kept detailed records of every stage of her career, so we had ready-made material for a book. She had both a wonderful body of work and a very interesting life story.
Helena was born in London in 1934 and lived there until aged five, when she and her family moved to Salisbury, as it was a safer place to be after war broke out. Helena had a happy childhood and always enjoyed art. Aged sixteen she went to Salisbury School of Art, where she discovered her love of printmaking. From Salisbury, she went on to study in London at Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1952–1956 and here she developed her skills as a printmaker, and began her prolific career.
Helena primarily worked in etchings, which is a complicated printmaking technique that requires skill, patience and a clear grasp of the process. It also requires space and specialist materials that Helena was able to access in various studios throughout her long career. She learnt the techniques of etching while studying in London, and it was to become the print medium that she elected to use most in her work.
She enjoyed experimenting with print processes, adding aquatint and sugar lift to her etchings to give them a distinct feel. Aquatint involves using fine particles of acid-resistant material such as powdered rosin. The acid eats around the particles to create a granular texture and give tone to the image. She was also fond of using the sugar lift process; by using a brush to apply a sugar based resist, Helena achieved a tactile painterly quality in her prints.
In her early work, Helena’s prints often depicted her physical surroundings, Salisbury and then London; images of brick walls, houses, washing lines, park benches and the backstreets of North London. There are very few figures or faces in her work but it is the buildings and everyday objects that carry the dramatis personae of her pictures. It is a style that became very much her own and throughout her career she continued to create images that captured and reflected her local geography.
A favourite print of mine is one of Helena’s early prints, one of the few in which she shows people; ‘Stoke Newington in the Rain’ which depicts figures hurrying through the rain, with stylised orange umbrellas that make me think of orange segments. I am also very drawn to Helena’s prints where she uses the recurring motif of buildings etched into the plate – almost as if child’s building blocks such as in ‘Canonbury’ and ‘Hampstead Pond’. The way Helena places these simplified buildings is always so effective and beautifully balanced in the image.
Helena’s work began to get noticed very soon after art school. Her prints were selected for several important exhibitions of the time and shown in the pioneering print gallery, St George’s Gallery, and in the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London.
Due to its most frequent subject matter, Helena’s art became popular with architects and in the early 1960s Graeme Shankland gave her an important commission; to record the changing urban landscape of Liverpool in a series of prints. These were made in the mid-1960s and are known as the Liverpool Series. Later, the print publishers Editions Alecto published many of the Liverpool prints and her work was exposed to, and appreciated by, a wider audience than ever before...