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Prints for the People

Opens 25 July

An exhibition of popular lithographs produced in the 1930s and 40s to bring good art to ordinary people at affordable prices. All works are for sale and include School Prints, Lyons Lithographs and Coronation Suite lithographs. The post-war School Prints scheme commissioned work from well-known contemporary artists to give children access to good quality works of art in a time of austerity.

With the admirable aim of making good art accessible to everyone, several series of prints were issued in Britain in the years around the Second World War. At a time when there were few public galleries – certainly outside London – the opportunity to see contemporary works of art was very limited.

But there was an enthusiasm to find out about (and to acquire) new art – as for other forms of culture. And just as Penguin Books brought literature to the masses, and the BBC's Third Programme brought music, art was made available by several enterprises, including the School Prints and Lyons Lithographs.

Printed on flimsy paper and with limited inks, due to wartime constraints, remarkably few of these popular lithographs have survived. Although most were issued in editions of over 1000, the heavy wear and tear they received (often stuck directly to walls in busy places) means that – 70 years on – copies in good condition are scarce.

While the series commissioned works from some of the foremost artists of the day (including Julian Trevelyan, Henry Moore, Edward Bawden, and John Piper) the prints' themes and styles are comforting rather than cutting-edge. Despite wartime angst, the overriding mood is of optimism. For us today they present a nostalgic picture of a past time.

The pre-War Contemporary Lithographs (1937-38), for distribution to schools and colleges, were pioneering. Building on the popularity of poster-prints produced by Shell-Mex, London Transport and others, they sought to inspire students by giving them familiarity with contemporary art, with an egalitarian spirit which inspired many of the other series.

With shades of Socialist improvement, the large CEMA prints (1942-45), produced by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (a forerunner of the Arts Council), were to be hung “where war workers congregate”. A plan to produce a print for each month of the year, seems to have floundered.

The School Prints (1946-51) were set up on a subscription basis, with schools asked to sign up for four prints a term “as a means of giving school children an understanding of contemporary art”. After two successful series using British artists, a third series expanded to invite artists from across the pond (including Picasso, Dufy and Matisse) to take part. Whether it was too adventurous, or not to the taste of the British public, the series flopped. Later series (including for the Festival of Britain) returned to safer domestic ground.

Among the best know are the Lyons Lithographs (1947-55), originally conceived just after the war to provide redecoration for the Lyons Teashops at a time when materials for refurbishment were not available. Such was their popularity that customers wanted to buy them, and the canny producers ensured that they were available to customers “at a price within reach of the slenderest purse”, with further discounts for staff. Forty Lyons Lithographs were issued over a period of 9 years.

The brainchild of artist Edwin LaDell, head of Lithography at the Royal College of Art, the celebratory Coronation Suite (1953) was issued in a smaller edition of 50 copies.

This exhibition is in partnership with Gwen Hughes Fine Art. Based in South West London, Gwen Hughes deals in Modern British paintings and prints.