John Copley British, 1875-1950


John Copley was one of the most committed and prolific printmakers of the 20th century. He made over 400 prints, lithographs as well as etchings and our exhibition will show one third of the 74 etchings he made in the last decade of his life. The subjects he chose included people observed in Hampstead, where he lived, at concerts, on the London Underground and elsewhere. Others seem to tell of his inner feelings, most notably the two extraordinary and quite different self-portraits of 1949.

Copley left the Royal Academy Schools in 1897, and little is known about his life in the years from then until his first lithograph was published in 1909. He became a founder member and first Secretary of the Senefelder Club, set up in the early 20th century to revive interest in lithography among artists. Through the club he met the artist Ethel Gabain and they married in 1913. His first etchings date from this year, but he continued to make lithographs, the medium with which he is most closely associated. Early in his printmaking career he had made a number of complex colour lithographs, the last of them in 1914, but few impressions of these sold. Although he painted in oils later in life, black and white was to be the principal vehicle for his art.

Ethel Gabain found the family a small rented villa overlooking the Mediterranean in Alassio, then a little Ligurian town. John Copley spent his time in the garden, reading and working. Instead of stones he drew on lithographic paper. They stayed there for two years and on his return to London, a series of etchings of Italian subjects were issued. More followed in 1932 and for the next six years he worked in both etching and lithography.

His final lithograph was made in 1938. The heavy lithographic press had become more than he could manage, so instead he channelled his energies into etching. By this time the medium had been largely abandoned by other artists and by collectors which in a sense gave him a free hand to explore it. Etching had had its heyday in the 1920s when contemporary prints were immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Prices for the work of certain etchers had risen spectacularly but both the market and interest collapsed in the wake of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. He worked in what had become a highly unfashionable medium. After watching a polo match at the Hurlingham Club in 1939, he made two etchings based on what he had seen. Some years later these were submitted for the 1948 London Olympics, in which Art Contests were a sport. It was most likely Harold Wright, head of the print department at P & D Colnaghi & Co Ltd, who had represented both him and his wife for nearly 40 years, who made the submission. John Copley was awarded the silver medal in Graphic Art and he thus became and remains the oldest-ever recipient of an Olympic medal.

In 1947 John Copley was elected President of the Royal Society of British Artists and this brought him into contact with younger artists whom he encouraged, such as Michael Ayrton, Patrick Heron, Paul Hogarth and Carel Weight. 



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