During the 18th and 19th centuries, English printmakers did more than decorate books and provide cheap pictures for the masses: They were also influential satirists, often jabbing at misbehaving politicians and exposing the era’s rigid conventions.
These mainstream artists were the visual chroniclers of their time, and their print legacy can be an insightful link between the past and present. Golden West College in Huntington Beach will offer a look into that past with “The Golden Age of English Printmaking, 1700-1850,” an exhibit opening today in the campus art gallery and running through April 21.
Exhibit curator Brian Conley has gathered nearly 50 original prints by several major British artists, including Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth. The works are on loan from private collectors throughout Orange County and a few galleries in Los Angeles.
The subject matter is varied, covering a spectrum from political and social commentary to sporting scenes to maps and scientific illustration. But the whimsical and sometimes biting portrayals of British life may be the most intriguing, Conley said.
“The period we’ve focused on was one of the most prolific for printmaking, particularly in England,” he said. “And one of the main reasons is the satirists and social observers of the day. So many of the prints show what the (period’s) worries and concerns were like and how humor played a role.”
England provided fertile soil for printmakers with a social conscience, Conley explained, because the parliamentary government was responsive to civil liberties and did not stifle the resulting dissent.
The historic Magna Charta guaranteed commentary free of censorship, and English printmakers thrived more than their counterparts in other European countries, said Conley.
“England was unlike other countries, in fact was relatively unique, because Parliament prohibited much (official) restraint,” he explained. “France, which had its own share of excellent printmakers, still had a (repressive) monarchy, as did its neighbors. But not England.”
Hogarth (1697-1764) was one printmaker who flourished often tweaking the day’s political and social mores. Perhaps his most famous satirical print series, “Marriage a la Mode,” is featured in the exhibit and shows Hogarth’s ironic and less-than-sympathetic views on courtship.
Printmakers less interested in commentary also prospered, mainly because their work had commercial appeal and could be mass-produced. Great Britain’s middle and upper classes found all varieties of prints affordable, whether they were bought individually or taken from books, newspapers or magazines, said Conley.
One of the most successful was Gainsborough (1727-1788), best known for “The Blue Boy,” his oil portrait that hangs in the Huntington Library in San Marino. Most of his prints are landscapes and portraits, and examples are shown at the exhibit.
The works of more obscure printmakers, especially those specializing in scientific illustrations and map making, are also displayed.
Conley said many artists received hefty commissions to provide prints for natural science books and journals that were popular at the time. It was a lucrative field because England’s knowledge of the world was expanding, and the public was eager to learn of new discoveries among plants and animals. It was the time of English naturalist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin who, along with other scientists, made significant advances and often brought home unusual specimens.
“Printmakers were asked to take part in this scientific outburst by providing reproductions of all the discoveries,” Conley said. “And they were kept busy because there was an explosion of science books. They (printmakers) helped fill the need to be informed.”
One of the show’s interesting aspects, Conley said, is its documentation of the evolution of map making.
He noted that maps were clumsy and inaccurate during the early 1700s. But by the mid-1800s, they had become remarkably similar to maps used today.
Conley’s enthusiasm for the show can be traced to his artistic appreciation of printmaking and fascination with Great Britain. An admitted Anglophile, Conley believes that the time is right for the exhibit because others share his interest.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s visit to the United States last year and subsequent British decorative arts shows in Washington and San Juan Capistrano have inspired curiosity nationally and locally, he said.
“Our exhibit is really perfect for this type of interest; the prints provide a visual autobiography of one of the more interesting times in England’s history.”
The gallery is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.