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IRISH ARTISTS & ILLUSTRATION 1830-1930

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Artists’ Books view gallery

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In the face of mass commercial publishing and new photographic printing technologies, the Private Press movement emerged in the 1890s in Britain. Lead by the philosophies and practises of William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, all private presses espoused a return to traditional production methods including hand-printing and the use of handmade papers.  Private press publications, given their labour intensive manufacture, were produced as limited editions for a luxury market.

The aesthetic relationship of text and image was of primary concern, many looking to early European manuscript and book design. Illustrations created for private presses were very often produced as original artists’ prints, such as Charles H. Shannon’s lithographs for the Vale Press and the wood engravings of contributing artists at the Golden Cockerel Press, led by Robert Gibbings.

The end of the 1800s saw the emergence of photomechanical processes for illustration, sounding the death knell for commercial wood engraving practises. Artists’ drawings were now transferable photographically to a metal block and cut mechanically, removing the engraver from the process.  Artists such as Jack Yeats and Harry Clarke embraced the new technology as each and every line or mark drawn by the artist was preserved. At Elizabeth Yeats’ Cuala Press, artists were employed to provide designs for mechanically processed relief blocks which were then hand-printed and often hand-coloured by Yeats and her assistants, which she described as ‘art printing’.

Whilst the Cuala Press and others utilised emergent photographic technologies to produce illustrations for their hand-printed publications, simultaneously, other artists rejected the mechanical and called for artists to re-engage with traditional printmaking processes. For example, Robert Gibbings and Mabel Annesley, alongside fellow members of the Society of Wood engravers (est. 1920 in London), believed that the artist must cut their own original designs into the block. They argued only then were it possible for an artist to fully realise their artistic vision as they explored the creative possibilities of the medium, claiming that direct engagement with the process allowed for a truly interpretative approach to the text. These illustrations were often presented in an expressive and modernist style.  

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