Georges Braque (1882–1963) “The Bird,” 1949. Lithograph in colors on wove paper. Published by School Prints Ltd., London. Printed by W. S. Cowell Ltd., Ipswich. Sheet size: 19 x 30". Framed size: 26 1/4 x 34 1/2". Artist’s initials in the plate. Superb condition for this very fugitive item, with bright, fresh colors. Handsome archival presentation in goldleaf frame.
George Braque’s playful, bold lithograph represents more than a charming image by one of the great 20th-century modernists. It is a product of a fascinating experiment in lithography conceived and commissioned by Brenda Rawnsley in London in 1947. Called School Prints Ltd., Rawnsley’s project was a “spectacularly inventive enterprise,” according to Mel Gooding in Arts Review in 1980, meant to “put genuine works of art of real quality into the lives of many children in [the] visually hard times” of postwar London. Gooding continues:
The idea behind School Prints Ltd. was brilliant and simple. Commission good artists to create original lithographs which would be editioned in large numbers and sold cheaply to those schools adventurous enough to subscribe to the scheme. . . . In her introductory letter to artists, Brenda Rawnsley wrote, ‘We are producing a series of auto-lithographs, four for each term, for use in schools, as a means of giving school children an understanding of contemporary art.’ If that somewhat ambitious aim were not to be fulfilled, the prints would in any case enliven corridor walls and bring a splash of welcome color to dull assembly halls. And so they did. For many of those at school in the austere ‘40s their first memory of a genuine work of art will be of a print by one of the many artists who contributed to the two major series of 1946 and 1947. . . . The spirit which pervades the prints is of quiet celebration: they picture a world reassuring in its familiarities; a world of everyday work and occasional festivity. . . . Nowhere is there any reference to the late war and its devastations. Colours are bright and cheerful. The drawn frame round each picture meant that the print could be pinned directly to the wall.
The artists responded enthusiastically, prompting Rawnsley to embark upon a third series of lithographs, this time by European artists, which were published in 1949. Most of the prints were commissioned by Rawnsley in June 1948 during a week’s whirlwind tour of France by chartered plane. During this visit she secured, in a major coup, the participation of Braque, Picasso, Leger, Dufy, and Matisse, all of whom agreed to try the new plastic material specially created by the printer W. S. Cowell in Ipswich. Cowell’s unorthodox process was aimed at improving the quality and lowering the cost of large-scale lithographic printing. John W. Lewis, who was involved in printing the European series, explained the process in 1956: “Instead of drawing on lithographic stones or plates, the artists drew on a transparent sheet of plastic grained like a lithographic plate. The advantages were that any opaque material, chalk, pencil, ink, etc. may be used, because the sheets of plastic are not transferred but are used in the same way as a photographic positive would be. That is, placed in a printing-down frame against a lithographic machine plate and then exposed to light. . . . Colour separations are made easier, for the artist can superimpose one sheet on another.”
As with their predecessors in England, the French masters all rose to the occasion, drawing original compositions directly onto the portable plastic plates and personally supervising the proofs. Braque’s composition of four simple shapes—a star, a flower, a fish, and a bird—against a bright blue field is a superb representation of the spirit and largesse of the project. Powerfully drawn in primary colors, the shapes are like toys floating in a mysterious space.
Unfortunately, the sheer logistics of the operation ended the great adventure in 1949 with the completion of the European series. Despite the large editions of the School Prints, not many have survived, and most, often faded, have not stood up well to the test of time. In their rarity, they have become prized collector’s items. The superb condition and color of the print offered here provides an exceptional opportunity to acquire one of the best works from the magnificent European series of School Prints. There has been nothing like them since.
Arts Review, July 1980.