Did you know that Tate Britain holds hundreds of thousands of works on paper? Because only a small number can be shown in the public galleries at any one time, most of the collection is stored away in drawers in the two specialist rooms dedicated to prints and drawings. By appointment visitors can ask to see unframed works in great detail in the intimate environment of the study room.
I had the opportunity to visit recently, a trip organised by Richenda Court of Ochre Print Studios. Five of us accompanied her to look at a range of relief prints – you can ask the staff to get out whatever interests you the most, and as Richenda was teaching us lino cut, she had arranged for us to be shown works by Richard Bawden, Gertrude Hermes and others. The room itself is lit with low-level lighting to protect the works, and we were asked to leave bags and coats well out of the way, using only pencil to make notes. We looked through the selection of about twenty-five works with the invaluable knowledge of the curator adding to our experience.
Two works stood out for me. The first was a relief print by Gertrude Hermes – The Ring Net Fishers, (1955) a glowing swirl of colours which revealed the intricate drawing only on close inspection. But I was completely enthralled by a boxed portfolio set by Klaus Meyer, containing eight artworks each made up from four translucent sheets bearing partial images. When overlaid in the correct order, the artist’s intentions became clear, and simple geometry became beautiful works of art. Because we were looking at this in a small group clustered round a table the effect was curiously personal and moving, as though Meyer was in the room with us.
As well as prints, there are over 30,000 works of art on paper in the Turner bequest, mostly watercolours or drawings, unfinished work or preparatory studies, giving a unique insight into his working methods.
Details of how to organise a visit can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/prints-and-drawings