Riddell Hall Northern Ireland Screen Digital Film Archive
NI Screen Digital Film Archive

A Reminiscence of the Days at Riddel Hall

Written by BPW member Marcus Patton

For sixty years the kitchens were busy with the preparation of food and washing of plates - the rooms were filled with clouds of steam and enlivened by the clatter of china and metal, as people went to and fro ensuring that the lady students staying at Riddel Hall were fed and watered and generally enabled to complete their academic studies in comfort. The building had been endowed from the proceeds of their family ironmongery business by the wealthy but childless Riddel sisters and built to designs by probably the most prolific architect of his day, W H Lynn.

Then the students left and the kitchens went quiet while new occupants moved into Riddel Hall - the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. In those halcyon days the Arts Council was a small organisation largely administered by people involved in the arts - writers, musicians and artists - and the building soon filled up with arts organisations like the Ulster Orchestra, the schools art gallery and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. And when it was suggested that the Arts Council might house a print workshop in the building as well, the kitchens were the natural place for them to go.

So for another twenty years the kitchens were busy again with the preparation of plates, clouds of aquatint dust and the clatter of printing presses. The jawbox sinks and white tiled walls which had been designed for cookery lent themselves naturally to the new cuisines of etching and lithography.

Printmakers are artists certainly, but also craftsmen, delivering intricate images with a combination of rapidity and care that chefs share. The end product may be designed to last much longer, but an edition of etchings must be prepared with the same consistency of process as the servings of desserts each topped with an identical cherry on top.

The processes of printmaking tend to change slowly and the presses used for etching and lithography would have been familiar to 19th century printers, while the Columbia press used for relief printing works in a way that Gutenberg in the 15th century would have found quite comprehensible. James Miller’s relief linocuts are perhaps cut with more freedom, but with the precision Thomas Bewick would have used in his 18th century woodblocks, and Jim Allen’s etchings show the same draftsmanship that Whistler used in his Victorian etchings of the Thames. Kent Jones’ lithographs were drawn on massive blocks of limestone in precisely the same way as Alfred Concannon designed covers for the great music hall artists of the 1870s.

Mention of commercial posters brings to mind the dominance of Belfast in printing at the end of the 19th century. The firm of Marcus Ward & Co exported high quality chromo-lithographic posters and books from their vast Royal Ulster Works on Belfast’s Dublin Road from 1873 till their sudden bankruptcy in 1900, and they employed many of the best illustrators of the day such as Walter Crane. In its heyday Marcus Ward & Co had some 20,000 litho stones and its printing department was described as a great glass-roofed hall in which “the maze of flying belts and revolving wheels dazzles the visitor”. As the star of Marcus Ward waned, that of David Allen & Sons emerged, and by 1900 Allen’s business, started in Arthur Square in 1857, had become the largest theatrical printing business in the world, employing some fifty artists to supply posters for theatres and circuses from Calcutta to Sydney.

Some time between the wars the heyday of commercial illustrators began to decline, and mechanically produced photographs became the norm for posters. The machines that had been at the avant-garde of printing in the 19th century began to seem archaic and were replaced by the enormous four-colour litho printing presses of today, leaving the cast iron relief presses, limestone blocks and etching and engraving plates to become the preserve of fine artists.

Because prints are generally produced in editions or more than one copy, they are confused in the popular mind with reproductions. When an image is photographed and then printed by four-colour litho presses it is reproduced, and often in large numbers. But even the commercial work of Ward and Allen was actually not reproduction - the few hundred copies of their posters or books were images that did not exist before they were printed. The four or five separations of those hand-made images were drawn or engraved by hand and until they were brought together by the printing process they were effectively invisible. The few copies of these posters that survive are worth hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

It is the same with fine art printing today. The image is drawn by the artist in the wax ground over a copper plate, or using a greasy crayon on the burnished limestone, or on separations that are transferred to the nylon mesh of a screenprint, but until they are inked up and transferred by the printing process onto paper the images are as like the finished product as a pupa is to a butterfly.

During the 1980s and 1990s I was fortunate to work for one of the fringe organisations that camped in Riddels under the auspices of the Arts Council, a building preservation trust called Hearth. By getting in early or leaving late I could prepare silkscreens and then print in evenings or weekends, breathing in the sickly fumes of white spirits or the more toxic ones of retarder and screenwash in the poorly ventilated scullery area to which screenprinting was relegated. Images were transferred from drawn transparencies to red gelatine “Five Star” film by exposure to ultra-violet light, then dried onto the mesh of heavy wooden screens for printing using oil-based printing ink. In the tradition of David Allen I was often printing posters for musical events in four or five colours and runs of a hundred or so, and after a day’s printing one would be quite lightheaded from the fumes as well as stiff from the unwonted exercise of tummy muscles pulling the squeegee across the screens several hundred times and cleaning off the stencils and images - always a depressing and time-consuming part of the process.

The images in the Print Workshop archive are as varied as the artists that made them, and looking at them today brings back the atmosphere of those old kitchens.

The Workshop was managed in those days by Jim Allen, who of course is still heavily involved in the BPW. Whether working with a fine etching line or with meticulously-registered screenprints, Jim was a perfectionist, a careful craftsman as well as a fine artist. Fast working was anathema to him, but he would patiently explain to more carefree artists how to achieve the ideal print. He was grateful to his technicians Seamus Carmichael and Camilla Brown for their ability to spend time with less gifted artists, and both were generous with their enthusiasm and ability to pass on their knowledge. Seamus did some beautiful relief prints during his time at the Workshop, and Camilla made screenprints that vied with Jim’s for detail and accuracy of registration.

Jim’s wife Sophie Aghajanian was also in the workshop most of the time, working on copperplate aquatints that would soon develop into the brightly coloured monoprints of flowers reflected in mirrors that have become her trademark subject. Many artists would come in more occasionally to make prints, including some of the Arts Council staff like Brian Ballard, Francis Murphy and Ivan Armstrong, and others like David Crone who were more used to working in oils were invited in to make prints. Teachers like Dora McAvera and my wife Joanna Mules would spend school holidays catching up with printmaking.

The introduction of the Printmaker In Residence scheme gave a new impetus to the workshop, and each of the printmakers appointed brought new skills and knowledge to the place. A few, like Mary Farl Powers, preferred to work at night and so had little interaction with the ordinary members of the workshop, but others like Poncho Monreale and Kent Jones shared their knowledge freely. Poncho also worked as a painter and had a memorable exhibition of work based around the Mexican Day of the Dead. Kent lived in the gatelodge at the entrance to Riddel Hall, coming up every day to work on his painstakingly-composed lithographs.

Perhaps the resident printmaker who became most involved was Terry Gravett. Within weeks of his arrival all the tools and materials in the workshop had places to live and had been moved accordingly. A very productive and versatile printmaker who often combined different techniques such as woodcut and silkscreen in the same print, Terry also threw himself into the life of Belfast and stayed on for many years after his residency had finished. 

When the Arts Council’s lease of Riddel Hall came to an end the Workshop was able to stay on for a few years as the university had no immediate plans for the building, and its continued occupation provided a useful caretaker role as well as giving the organisation breathing space to look for a new base.

Looking over the archive of Belfast Print Workshop the range of techniques used by the members is impressive - etching, aquatint, mezzotint, linocut, woodblock, lithography, screenprint - and the variety of styles from abstract and symbolic to graphic and realistic equally so. But things were changing, with health and safety introducing new rules around nearly every aspect of traditional printmaking, from oil-based inks to safer acids and regulations around the aquatint box.

What probably no one could see when the Workshop left Riddels was that twenty years later many artists would be producing their artwork on computers. The personal line and brushstroke produced by hand and crayon or stylus has been replaced in many cases by a virtual line and the whole image can often be seen on screen before printing.

Who knows what changes will take place in the next twenty years? The archive records a moment in time and will hopefully continue to record the way artists think and work in future. What is certain is that the historic collection becomes not less but more fascinating as time and techniques move on.