Obituary: Paul Peter Piech
Thursday 04 July 1996
Piech studied at the Cooper Union College of Art, New York. In 1937 he went to work as a graphic artist at Dorlands Advertising Agency under Herbert Bayer. During the Second World War he was posted to Cardiff with the United States Eighth Army Air Force. Among his duties, he was called upon to paint images of glamorous blondes on to the front of the aircraft - to match the planes' affectionate female nicknames.
In Wales he met Irene Tomkins, a young nurse and midwife. When asked if she would like to return to New York as a GI bride she replied, "No thanks." So Piech stayed in Britain and they were married in 1947. A GI education grant enabled him to study further at the Chelsea College of Art.
Between 1951 and 1968 Piech worked as an artistic director for W.S. Crawfords Advertising. In retrospect it may seem an odd choice of profession for a committed political campaigner but what interested Piech, quite apart from the thrill of deadlines to which he could apply his boundless energy, was the chance to communicate to as wide an audience as possible. He made his name in advertising circles with a campaign for W. & T. Avery Ltd, the scales manufacturers of Birmingham. In all his work he showed a gift for designs that compelled the viewer to look hard and disentangle the message.
In 1959 Piech was keen to find a way of disseminating the kind of information that had no place in a profession geared to promoting Supersoft shampoo. To this end he set up his own press, the Taurus Press. Over the next decade he accumulated a Gem proofing press and other commercially redundant letterpress printing equipment. In the early years he used metal type to set his texts but he became increasingly attached to his own rough and expressive linocut lettering.
He printed his linocut images alongside the wise words of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King or the crass boasts of Richard Nixon. In 1979 the American Embassy protested at Piech's treatment of the United States flag. He had turned it sideways to illustrate it as prison bars above the caption "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty". When, however, he produced a poster of Nixon with the word "Dicktator" inscribed above his head, it was purchased by the Library of Congress.
Eric Gill once defined the private press as a press which prints solely what it chooses rather than what its customers demand. The Taurus Press exemplified the kind of contribution that a private press can make to modern society. It never ignored history, it republished numerous written works by William Blake for instance, not to mention De Profundis: the sayings of Jesus Christ (1972), but it did not trade on a book-collector's nostalgia for a long-lost and idyllic past. A hilarious book on the horror of car drivers, Ugly Pieces of Metal (1975), was produced with a text by William J. Leahy. This offers no reminders of green and pleasant lands but unsettles the viewer with its urban depictions of traffic jams and road rage.
The University of Salzburg was to take a particular interest in Piech's work and published some of his later books, including a collecton of John Gurney's poems, Coal, a Sonnet Sequence (1994), with Piech illustrations. This publication marked the closure of Tower Colliery, the last coalmine in South Wales.
From 1968 Piech worked freelance as a graphic artist but he also taught in numerous art schools including Chelsea, the London College of Printing and Leicester, where he reputedly made the artist Edward Bawden flinch by insisting on referring to him as "Eddy". Piech loved the contact with young people that teaching brought. Never a recluse, he always made time to stop work and talk, whether to supermarket cashiers or the curious passers-by who peered into his "press room".
Piech did not crave the perfect studio. He was happy to work in garages. In his series of suburban homes, in Middlesex, Herefordshire and Wales, he would spend evenings cutting his lettering direct on to the lino, whilst keeping one eye on Coronation Street. It was a family joke that Christmas Day ended at 10 in the morning. Once the presents were open Piech went back to his proofs.
His fellow printer and writer Kenneth Hardacre once described the urgency of Piech's output as that of "a man whose need to communicate his faith and his fears was so pressing that it often appeared to be impatient with the very means he had chosen for expressing that need".
In our current climate of fin de siecle despair at the state of the world Paul Peter Piech stood out as a man who knew how to turn any anger about man's inhumanity to man into creative work with a disturbing social message.
Paul Peter Piech, artist and printer: born Brooklyn, New York 11 February 1920; married 1947 Irene Tomkins (one daughter); died Porthcawl, Mid- Glamorgan 31 May 1996.
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