PUBLISHED: 17:54 01 December 2014 | UPDATED: 18:14 01 December 2014
Lucy Etherington gets that inking feeling at a woodcut workshop in Orford
There is a festive atmosphere at the print workshop in Sudbourne Park. The lady next to me says she comes every year to print her Christmas cards. Genius! Why didn’t I think of that?
Instead, I’ve come with a plan to make a Christmas gift for my mum – the only person who still thinks all my hand-made presents are “amazing”. She can always hang it in the downstairs loo if it’s a disaster. It’s the thought that counts.
I’ve got a rough drawing of a typewriter because mum, also a writer, gave me one for Christmas when I was 11 and I’ve been in love with old portables ever since. Like printmaking itself, they are in danger of becoming a lost art.
My parents were both journalists in the days of typing and print setting, so it’s a perfect present for them.
Except of course I’ve never done a woodcut before in my life and as I flick through the books laid on our table for inspiration – by Edvard Munch, Matisse, Picasso no less – I’m beginning to wonder if my idea isn’t a bit lame.
The workshop I’m attending is quite famous. It was created by Gareth Jones to fund running costs for a small group of printmakers and entice new members. As they grew, they moved into the ramshackle and deeply romantic outbuildings in the sweeping grounds of Sudbourne Park, home to the late Kenneth Clarke until it burned down in 2002.
And lo, The Sudbourne Park Printmakers were born.
The long building is divided into three rooms – one for etching with two presses, the middle for relief printing with two lovely old ornate Columbian and Albion presses, and the end room has tables, one for etching plates, the other for carving wood reliefs. It reeks deliciously of ink and metal.
Next to me Kirstyn O’Shea, an art student is making expressionist woodcuts of her family as Christmas gifts. Lucky them – they are jaw-droppingly good. Across the way is a lovely gentleman who is clearly a regular punter. He reminds us that the bits you cut out come up white and the rest is black. He has rather ingeniously sketched his blueprints with chalk on black paper.
I look again at my typewriter and wonder how on earth this is going to work. It’ll have to be very basic. Apart from anything, I haven’t got time to do every key with back-to front letters.
Peter Polaine is our teacher, a successful and talented woodcutter and artist who sells all over the world, although he acts as though he’s the one who is lucky to be there. He comes round and gives us our woodcutting tools and some pieces of wood for practising.
My first attempts are clumsy, but after a couple of goes, the wood feels soft as butter. It’s working! In my enthusiasm I stab myself in the finger and have to ask Peter for a plaster. I feel about five years old.
Back at the table, I sketch my typewriter outline on the wood and go for it. Next to me, Kirstyn the art student is going crazy with her expressionist gashes and all the older ladies on the table – including myself – keep reminding her in rather matronly tones to watch her hands. Every time we do, she nearly jumps out of her skin. We’re all so absorbed in the process that a gorilla in a tutu would wander through the room and we wouldn’t notice.
When mine is as ready as it’s going to be, with Peter’s help, I ink up on a piece of glass, roll the sticky black matter on to my cut piece of wood then transfer it gently to one of the giant presses. A piece of paper is carefully placed upon it, a cover lowered, then I turn one handle and pull another and hold on until it’s all thoroughly squashed. Then the press handle is released, I roll it back out, lift the paper and voila!
It is actually quite a wonderful moment. Even though my woodcut is a bit rough and ready, it’s still quite magical seeing the shape that you have made transformed into something so striking and unexpected. The form is naturally atmospheric, an eerie apparition from the past.
I realise at this point that I am hooked. Peter did warn me that this might happen.
But more pressingly, it’s time for lunch. We pile into three cars and drive to a lovely cosy old pub in nearby Orford. The food portions are huge and there’s wine on the table. The conversation buzzes as we all get to know each other. In the workshop, we are all so absorbed it’s silent, concentrated. Now at lunch we come alive. I meet some fascinating people from all walks of life. Some are regular attendees, others first-timers. Some have plans to produce gifts or commissioned work, others are simply using the opportunity to experiment. A woman who works at the BBC says she loves the fact you can’t get any reception out here. It’s like a time bubble.
“Some of our members started out doing workshops,” says Peter. “Now they’re selling and exhibiting work.”
As we head back, I realise I can’t wait to carry on carving. I wonder if I asked Santa nicely he’d book me into another workshop next year. What a great gift that would be.