Obituary: Chris Prater

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In 1957, Chris Prater and his wife Rose, with a working capital of pounds 30, went into business as commercial screenprinters. Rose's maiden name was Kelly, so they combined it with Prater, and called the workshop Kelpra Studio. Inside a decade, the brilliantly inventive images that Prater printed for many of Britain's most famous artists had won his workshop an international reputation.

Prater grew up in Battersea wanting to be an artist, and could not remember a time when he did not draw or paint. As his father was a cripple however, he went out to work as soon as he was 15, and it was as teaboy to a signwriter that he first saw screenprints being made.

During the Second World War, he served in the infantry, then as a troop- carrying glider pilot, until his legs were injured in a crash. After the war, he won a scholarship to art school, but when his first wife complained that she would not be able to manage on the grant, he took a job as a telephone engineer. But he also studied drawing and etching five nights a week at the Working Men's College.

In 1951 he went on a three-month government training scheme and became a screenprinter. During the next six years - a period of tremendous growth in the industry - Prater worked for nearly every firm in London. Wonderfully adept at stencil cutting, he was soon enthralled by the effects that could be achieved with relatively simple equipment. Indeed, when he first set up Kelpra Studio in a single room in Kentish Town, he worked on a kitchen table, covered his screens with silk scraps Rose had stitched together, and dried the prints on racks they had made of plaster lath.

Although he made "2d Off" signs whenever finances required it, much of Prater's commercial work involved posters for arts organisations. In 1959 this brought him into contact with Gordon House, a painter and graphic designer, who made Kelpra's first artist's print.

House enthused so much about Prater's skill, that Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Joe Tilson and Richard Smith were quick to beat a path to Kelpra's door. By 1963, Hamilton, who had already made the seminal Adonis in Y-fronts with Prater's help, suggested to the Institute of Contemporary Arts that it sponsor an inexpensive portfolio.

Published in 1964, the 24 artists who were introduced to screenprinting as a result included Gillian Ayres, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Bernard Cohen, Robyn Denny, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Allen Jones, R.B. Kitaj, Victor Pasmore, Peter Phillips, Bridget Riley and William Turnbull. Many went on to make major graphic portfolios every bit as important as paintings - Tilson's Five Senses, Paolozzi's As is When, Kitaj's Mahler Becomes Politics-Beisbol, Riley's Nineteen Greys.

The rich deposit of colour left by screenprinting suited the precise requirements of Constructivist tendencies, while its capacity to recycle images from the mass media by means of photo-technology was relished by Pop artists. In 1965, an outraged official at the Paris Biennale des Jeunes tried to segregate Kelpra's work from traditional "hand-made" prints - but it was like Canute trying to turn back the tide. In 1967, Prater employed in-house the resourceful cameraman, Dennis Francis. He showed artists how the grain of a film, or a manipulated half-tone dot could turn the camera into a creative tool, and pioneered techniques not seen in printed art before.

In June 1970, the Arts Council exhibition "Kelpra Prints" at the Hayward Gallery revealed the enormous vitality of British printmaking. In the early 1970s, through the initiative of Alastair (now Lord) McAlpine, Prater donated 1,500 prints to the Tate, to help found its contemporary print collection. The gallery celebrated the gift with a major exhibition in 1980, and Prater was appointed OBE.

By this time, however, Rose, who had long been ill, was dying - agonisingly slowly. Although in this sad period Prater published some beautiful artists' books and diversified his production by introducing intaglio process alongside screenprinting, as the 1980s proceeded, he slowly wound down his operation. He called this activity, after his most perseverant collaborators, "Pasmore- ing and Piper-ing".

Patient at his craft, self- effacing and unassuming - but above all dedicated - Chris Prater transformed a commercial process into an exciting artist's medium. He will be remembered as a nonpareil of his profession, even in a period that has been rich in artists' printers.

Christopher Prater, screenprinter: born London 10 April 1924; OBE 1980; married 1956 Rose Kelly (died 1982); died London 2 November 1996.

Comments