RCA print exhibition is a radical take on Shakespeare

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In 1964, the Royal College of Art gave a group of printmakers du jour the loosest of briefs: to design work based around the theme of Shakespeare, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s birth. Judging from the farrago of images they got back, pictured here, from abstract and expressionist lithographs to one ‘pop art’ image which combined a Shakespearean sonnet with clippings of the Apollo space mission, they better reflected the tastes and trends of 1964 than 1564.

The 26 prints, which were part of a joint project between the RCA’s print department and the Royal Shakespeare Company, were originally exhibited at the RSC’s Mermaid Theatre in London, as part of a countrywide celebration ranging across venues in Stratford, Edinburhg and London.

Since then, they have since remained in the college’s archive, but now almost five decades later, the original work will be shown to the public in an exhibition entitled Folio, alongside a second set of contemporary images commissioned by the RCA this year with exactly the same brief.

The original set offer a slice of 1960s printmaking, with works by the likes of Norman Ackroyd and Joe Tilson, as well as Elizabeth Frink and Sandra Blow, at a stage in their careers when they were either still art students, fresh graduates or RCA teachers.

Tilson took Shakespeare’s XV Sonnet and incorporated its 16th century verse with cut-out images of lunar space flights in the ‘pop art’ tradition. Blow produced an abstract lithograph entitled Hamlet, featuring an eye and a tuft of hair alongside the Shakespearean words: “Nymph in my orizons be all my sins remembered.”

Ackroyd’s Richard III reflected an expressionist portrait of the Battle of Bosworth, and drawing inspiration from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the British surrealist Cecil Collins conjured the image of a fairy spirit in black and white. Less reverentially, Colin Haze used Taming of the Shrew to create a cartoon image.

Tilson’s print was inspired by Shakespeare’s XV Sonnet, whose astronomical theme and celestial imagery he found compelling and relevant to the frenzied space missions of the early 1960s.

“The sonnet said quite a lot about the stars,” he explains. “And I was working with the latest technology of the period.”

Professor Jo Stockham, head of printmaking at the RCA, said the original criteria was slim: “It was just to take a play or phrase around Shakespeare that interested the artist.”

The second set of prints have been created by guest artists such as Bob & Roberta Smith, Adam Dant and Christiana Baumgartner, as well as students and staff, which will be for sale. Some have taken his plays as inspiration and others have created more mischievous and witty interpretations, such as a collage of all the actors who have appeared in Shakespeare films or plays, and a work by Bob and Roberta Smith who have brought together images of Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III with The Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten.

Dant, meanwhile, decided to use organic material over digital technology to create a chiaroscuro woodcut, entitled The Theatre Shoreditch, in which he depicts ‘The Theatre’ - the Elizabethan home of Shakespeare's acting troupe. The piece captures the spot where archaeologists recently excavated the foundations of The Theatre, in East London.

“My woodcut has been made from a block of wood salvaged from a carpentry workshop which stood directly on the site of The Theatre. The image in my print combines the architecture of The Theatre with that of a similar polygonal, multi-storey car park which now stands close to the site. I discovered that the current car park on Curtain Road often appears in the subconscious reveries of local Shoreditch folk as an Elizabethan theatre.”

The two bodies of work – from 1964 and 2011 – when shown side by side, reflect the radical advances made in print technique and also the differing approaches to subject matter.

Folio, at the RCA, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU, 20-25 October