Editor’s note: Since this article was written, some historical inaccuracies have been noticed and will be rectified with a re-write.
Pat Harvey SGFA tells the story of one of Britain’s most unique and talented professional art organisations, The Society of Graphic Fine Art.
About fifteen years ago I attended a friend’s exhibition, only to find myself stunned by his fellow exhibitors’ work. The paintings of street scenes, abandoned boats, old railway carriages and strange, loitering maidens, had the elusive melancholy quality usually associated with surrealism. The man who painted them, Michael Harvey (no relation) was a quizzical 78-year-old, who was pretty surreal himself. Over the next three years, as Michael’s health worsened, I would visit him in his exquisite Georgian home behind Bognor Pier, and we became firm friends. I was much heartened by his warm reception of my work. One day he said, “Why don’t you apply to the Society of Graphic Fine Art? You draw as well as they do”.
I was intrigued. The association of the words “fine” and “graphic” was striking. Could it be that these people actually combined the two?
Later, of course, I found out that Michael Harvey was an honoured and respected member of the Society, an Honorary Member, in fact. Sadly, he died in 2000.
The Society of Graphic Fine Art was founded in 1919. It had its origins in the etching class of London County Council’s Central School of Arts and Crafts where, just before World War I, a group of students met regularly to discuss their work. Egged on by an exceptionally single-minded tutor, Frank Emmanuel, they determined that, in the face of the rise of abstraction and modernism, a society should be founded to proclaim the value of good draughtsmanship. Hence, the Society of Graphic Art (as it was then called).
Few British art societies exist specifically to promote drawing skills. In fact, the SGFA is the only one, and, as such, has withstood more than one barrage of criticism in today’s conceptually-driven climate. Yet its members are proud of the fact that, despite upholding the traditional disciplines associated with engraving, etching, scraperboard, pen and ink, charcoal and, of course, pencil, they also encompass a breadth and modernity of approach.
In 1920 the Society held its first exhibition in London. This featured the work of elected members, many of them distinguished artists, alongside that of non-members, a tradition which continues today. It was helped on its way by a pamphlet written by a founding members, A.J.Finsberg, an authority on watercolours and the work of J.M.W.Turner. But it really found its feet when, in 1948, Sir Frank Brangwyn, became its first President.
A brilliant draughtsman, Brangwyn had worked in William Morris’ workshops, where he made facsimiles of Flemish tapestries. In 1917 he moved to Ditchling, East Sussex and carried out many public commissions before, in 1924, having a highly successful retrospective exhibition opened by the Prime Minister, Ramsey Macdonald. By the time of his Presidency, he was an RA of high renown, although his turgid, rather grandiose style is currently out of favour.
Many of his successors left their mark. Dalguish Playfair (1966-77) saw it as his mission to break what he saw as an excessively conservative mould: true to the sixties he introduced 3D constructions and experimental objects which some members thought was going too far. Lorna B.Kell (1983-94), strong minded and authoritarian, was nick-named ‘Her Majesty’. Nevertheless, her keen insistence on standards saw the Society through some of its toughest times. Through her untiring efforts, Lorna saw to it that the Society remained buoyant and active as conceptual art claimed to set the agenda. More recently Jean Canter, a superb draughtsman, equally at home in colour and black and white, took the helm (1994-99), followed by David Brooke (1999-2005).
Roger Lewis, a specialist in pastels and coloured pencil, steered the Society from 2005-2011 and brought it to the Menier Gallery in London with a run of successful Open Exhibitions. The current President, Will Taylor, an artist/etcher based in Rye East Sussex, took over in 2011 and with a rare blend of artistic and business skills is guiding this historic Society into the next era.
The Society has grown steadily. Originally confined to monchrome, it opened its doors to colour work, provided that this showed true evidence of drawing skills. In 1988 it was decided to change its name to the Society of Graphic Fine Art to avoid confusion with work produced for advertising.
Over the years, many household names have been associated with the SGFA. Dame Laura Knight, Arthur Rackham and Feliks Topolski exhibited with it but were not actually members. Ronald Searle and John Piper were members. It includes artists from all generations and disciplines. The late Olga Lehmann sat on its Council. Trained at the Slade under Henry Tonks, she had a distinguished career in film, theatre and mural design and portraiture, with many solo exhibitions. Ronald Salmond, an Honorary Member, was elected to the Society when J.C.Moody, Principal of Hornsey College of Art, was President (1948-61). He is now one of Britain’s formost wood-engravers.
The Society is strongly represented in colour and mixed media, especially water-based media. In fact, the current President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, Ronald Maddox, is an Honorary Member, as is Professor Ken Howard RA and Victor Ambrus ARCA. Other members include prize-winning RI Chris Forsey, and international award-winning tempera artist Maz Jackson, who has shown several times at the Florence and Venice Biennales and appeared with Rolf Harris in his programme on egg tempera for the BBC TV series Rolf on Art.
Today the SGFA holds at least one exhibition per year open to members and non-members. The 90th Annual Exhibition will be held at the Menier Gallery, Soutwark from 3-15th October 2011.
Elections to the Society of Graphic Fine Art are held twice a year. Applicants must produce at least four finished works and a portfolio of drawings or sketchbooks. Interested artists should contact the Hon. Secretary on 01297 639705 or vist the website at www.sgfa.org.uk.
Pat Harvey is an Artist/Producer and SGFA Council Member.