John Coplans

Influential artist, curator and editor who found his greatest success as a photographer, producing astonishing nude self-portraits
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The Independent Online

In her obituary of John Coplans [23 August], Val Williams is wrong to suggest that "feyness and whimsicality" characterised painting in Britain in the Fifties, writes Cliff Holden. She says this prompted Coplans' move to the United States, and writes of "London's somewhat provincial art world" of that time.

The fact is that London in the Fifties saw one of the most remarkable periods of teaching in the whole of 20th-century western art. I'm referring to David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic in Southwark between 1945 and 1953, and Bomberg's numerous exhibitions in London together with his students between 1948 and 1955.

Here was a painter of international front rank from the pre-war avant-garde of 1914 who taught his practice in the manner of a Renaissance master, with complete disregard for official academic criteria and the National Diploma in Design. "Fey and whimsical" it was not. Bomberg had known Picasso, Modigliani, Derain and Marinetti; he knew about Russian Constructivism, and had debated with the German Expressionist Ludwig Meidner. His students' work in some ways paralleled what was taking place in New York. Hardly "provincial".

Coplans' problem in London was that he had not found a direction in painting. I met him while I was on a visit to London. He had heard that I was an expert silk-screen printer, having learnt the medium in Sweden. We got drunk together at his home. Later he told me he had secretly taped our discussions about how to use the screens. With this information he conceived the idea of setting up a commercial printing studio, called "The Graphic Workshop of John Coplans". He printed other artist's work for them eg Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Heron, William Turnbull, John Piper, Alan Davie, among many others, for a considerable fee. The venture was a commercial success and provided Coplans with the funds to go to America. He also collaborated with Robert Erskine who showed prints at his newly established St George's Gallery in Cork Street.

Lawrence Alloway, then at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, arranged a small exhibition at the ICA. All exhibits were printed by Coplans except mine, which I executed myself. In a review, Erskine wrote that "Cliff Holden . . . seems to have been the pioneer in England of silk-screen . . ."

Click here for original obituary

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