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Tim Mara, Wire Glass and Carrier Bag, 1997
Tim Mara Artist's Alphabet

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back to the alphabet grid The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) was one of Tim's favourite Museums and collections and one with which he had a very close relationship with throughout his artistic life. As a printmaking student at The Royal College of Art (which was then next to the Museum on Exhibition Rd in South Kensington, London) he spent a lot of time accessing its print room and viewing its collections, particularly its holdings of historical prints and drawings. He was also intensely interested in the many plaster casts of classical renaissance sculpture and the whole notion of their origination and authentic status, and the various displays of fashion, furniture and household objects.

The Print Making Department at The Royal College of Art was situated directly adjacent to the Museum and was connected to it by a communicating door which Students at that time could use to enter the Museum when it was closed to the public, on each weekday during term time. Shortly after Tim graduated these doors were kept permanently shut and locked after what has been described by the V&A's historian as "for security reasons, after a period of general student unrest". (In truth the Print Making students at this present time were famously boisterous and it was after a group of drunken Print Making students had climbed onto the V&A's lecture theatre's roof and one of their party had fallen through its glass skylight, narrowly avoiding his own accidental death, that the decision to lock the door was made). Whilst the decision to lock the door may have discouraged some students from visiting the museum, Tim continued to develop a relationship with it as a student practicing Artist and later as an educationalist.

Tim encouraged his own students to utilise the museums print room and accompanied them on research trips to their archive. When he became Professor of Printmaking at The Royal College of Art he continued to develop the relationship between the two institutions and regularly donated examples of the Department's publishing activities to their archive and encouraged his students to forge and develop their own contact with the museum's curators. The museum has many of Tim's prints in its collection including a copy of his book 'Imagery and Menagerie'.

In 1996 Tim, with Silvie Turner, co-curated an exhibition for the V&A entitled 'The Spirit of the Staircase' which showcased an overview of 100 years of The Royal College of Art's print publishing activities. The exhibition was shown from the 7th November 1996 until the 30th March 1997 in the Henry Cole Wing of the Museum.

(The exhibition began in the Print Gallery and extended through into the Techniques Gallery (which was re-hung to complement the exhibition) and finally ended on the ground floor with a showing of the College's most recently published print portfolio 'Twelve Artists').

The exhibition title referred to the actual staircase which Tim had used to access the museum as a student and also the phrase 'L'esprit de l'escalier' which refers to those many moments when a person remembers in retrospect what they should have said in the room they have just left rather than on the staircase outside of it. Both of these interpretations suited the exhibition title and the connections which it sought to make between the contemporary practice of publishing at The Royal College of Art and the traditions from which it emerged and continued to develop.

'The Spirit of the Staircase' charted the print publishing activities from 1896-1996 and was organised and conceived by Tim (with the assistance of Silvie Turner) as the Printmaking Courses' contribution to the centenary year of the College, to mark when, in 1896, it was granted its 'Royal College of Art' title by Queen Victoria. Previously it had been named The National Art Training School and the new title and Royal prefix recognised important advancements and changes in the College and its belief that excellence in art and design could and would improve the quality of life in Britain, assist manufacture and contribute to the enhancement of the visual environment of the country and the world as a whole.

The College and the Museum have been inextricably linked since the founding of The Victoria & Albert Museum in 1852. From its original conception an associated Art School of the highest standard was always planned for the designs of the new museum. Its creators and patrons had a vision to fuse art, science and learning together, and saw the College as essential in making this vision a reality.

The staircase, which connected the two Institutions, was often seen as a symbol of the closeness of their relationships and the connections between thinking, making, history and culture, the past and the future.

The exhibition celebrated this relationship and utilised the museum's collection, selecting examples of prints from their archive produced by students, staff, graduates and visiting Aartists from the history of the College's Printmaking Course and, in doing so, illustrated the aesthetic movements, philosophies, creativity, ambitions and technological advancements and developments that have occurred throughout this century of activity.

The structure of the exhibition traced the Department's history and its publishing work as it evolved through the tenure of each of its six Professors during this 100 year period, beginning with Sir Frank Short in 1891 and then continuing in an unbroken chronological chain of succession which passed from Professor to Student until Tim's professorship which began in 1990 until his death in 1997.

The exhibition outlined the history of this chain of Professorships, a synopsis of which is presented below:

Frank Short (1857-1945) was a Professor of The National Art Training School from 1891-1924 and trained his students in 'ornamental art' a term introduced to distinguish its activities from fine art practices.

'Ornamental art' consisted mainly of etching and engraving originally making copies from plaster artifacts and old master works. It also prepared its students for work in the commercial print publishing trade. There was a huge emphasis placed on craftsmanship at this time. Under Short's Professorship the etching class of 1891 developed from five or six students to eventually numbering sixty or seventy. One of his most influential developments was the emphasis he placed on the production of individual self originated pictorial conceptions and a departure away from sedulous copying. This most definitely played a huge part in the Department's appeal, popularity and growth. Frank Short directed this influential class for thirty-three years, until 1924 when Malcolm Osborne, assisted by his colleague Robert Austin who would himself become Department Professor, succeeded him.

Malcolm Osborne (1880-1968) had been a student at the College in 1904 and 1912 and became Professor in 1924 whilst the College was under the Directorship of the Principal William Rothenstein. During his time as Professor a new interest in wood engraving and relief printing developed and was used both to produce single sheet prints and private press books. Other Artists associated with the College such as John Nash, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Barnett Freedman utilised the mediums and also lithography which was still seen predominantly as a commercial print process used for the creation of posters and reproductions of designs in other media.

The College was evacuated during the Second World War and the etching and engraving class moved with it to a small Westmoreland village until the end of the war when it returned to London in 1945.

Robert Austin (1895-1973), who succeeded Osborne three years later, had also gone with him during the period of evacuation. Austin had graduated as a student from the College in 1921 and returned to become Assistant in Engraving from 1930 until his appointment as Professor in 1948. The Post War years were exciting times for the printed medium with various exhibitions dedicated to it and a renewed interest in its creative potential by Artists such as William Scott, Julian Trevelyan and Eduardo Paolozzi, all of whom were associated with Austin and the College.

The period saw an active increase in the number of Artists publishing prints and sponsorship and patronage of print publishing flourished. A notable example of the portfolios produced is 'The Festival of Britain' prints which were produced in 1951 and include examples of many of the College's tutors including Barnett Freedman and Edwin la Dell (1914-1970) who became lithography tutor at the College in 1948 and later the Departments Professor from 1955 until his death in 1970.

La Dell oversaw the production of several print portfolios during his time as both Tutor and Professor most notably 'The Coronation Series' in 1953 and 'Wapping to Windsor' series in 1957-8. The Department then produced a third collection of prints 'The Shakespeare' series in 1964 to commemorate the anniversary of the playwrights birth. All were lithographic based projects and were reflective of the mass-market appeal for illustrative fine art prints at a relatively inexpensive price.

The Department saw an increased ambition and confidence during La Dell's Directorship and was closely involved with many of the 'Pop' Artists and their usage and interest in print technologies, most notably screen printing, which had been introduced to the College by Alistair Grant (1925-1997) whilst he was a Tutor at the College.

Grant who had studied painting at the College became Professor of Printmaking in 1970 and held the position for twenty years until his retirement. Grant set up the Printmaking appeal fund which recognised the growing need to use publishing for self-financing of the Department and the support of its students, due to increasing Government cutbacks and the financial pressures of studying in London.

This encouraged a new wave of entrepreneurial publishing projects and the creation of a number of ambitious portfolios such as the 35 Artists project in 1982, 'Thirteen Artists' in 1984, and the 'Artists' Choice' portfolio in 1988. During his Professorship the Department moved from the School of Graphic Design (which had replaced the 'ornamental art' label) to the faculty of Fine Art in 1986 which would later be renamed School of Fine Art during Tim Mara's Professorship.

Tim became Professor after the retirement of Alistair Grant in 1990. During his seven years in the role he would work closely with three different College Rectors. Firstly Jocelyn Stevens, who was followed by Anthony Jones in 1992 and finally Christopher Frayling with whom he would develop a close camaraderie and intellectual discourse (see section 'R' to read more about Tim's RCA Professorship).

© Text: Mark Hampson / Images: Belinda Mara
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