Tanya Crothers and Barbara Davidson, “Sydney Printmakers: fifty years,” in Hot Off the Press: new directions, Sydney Printmakers celebrating 50 years, Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Sydney, 2011.
Writing in The Australian in 1972, Laurie Thomas referred to a gathering that took place in his flat in Macleay Street Potts, Point in 1960. Friday nights were “open house” when half of Sydney’s artists seemed to turn up. Thomas went on to explain:
One Friday night – I’ve forgotten whether it was planned or just happened – there was preponderance of printmakers: Henry Salkauskas, Earle Backen. Sue Buckley, Elizabeth Rooney, Vaclovas Ratas, Jim Sharp, Eva Kubbos and lord knows how many others.
They were all grizzling because, whenever they showed their lithographs, their etchings, their screenprints, their wood engravings – which as often as not was in Farmer’s big old gallery – their smaller, more intimate works were always overshadowed and over-looked among the large canvases and splashes of colour in those mixed exhibitions.
They argued that, anyway, big or small, a painting for some reason or other was preferred by collectors to a print, however good.
And so the group known as the Sydney Printmakers was formed, the idea being to hold its own shows, once or twice a year.
A forerunner to its formation was an open exhibition of prints held in 1960 at David Jones Art Gallery, organised by the NSW Contemporary Arts Society in conjunction with the Lithuanian Society of Sydney in which ninety works were displayed including work from some founding members of the Sydney Printmakers. In addition to those mentioned above, the first members included: Laurie Thomas, Daniel Thomas and Karen Gould and artists: Joyce Allen, John and Barbara Coburn, Joy Ewart, Roy Fluke, Tom Gleghorn, Strom Gould, Weaver Hawkins, John Henshaw, Frank Hinder, Peter and Ursula Laverty, Eileen Mayo, Michael Nicholson, Margaret Preston, Paul Rees, and David Strachan. That some were already well established as painters probably helped legitimise the group, as did the experience of recent migrants from European countries where printmaking had a long and unbroken tradition.
In the introduction to their first show in 1961 Laurie Thomas wrote:
The Sydney Printmakers is a society of graphic artists who have come together to form a group, not because the print is a new thing but an old one, neglected. They hope to exchange their knowledge and experience, to show their works and, by exchange with overseas prints societies, to exhibit work of international standing.
This objective, articulated 50 years ago, has guided the group ever since – expanding to include regional, national and international travelling exhibitions, seminars and demonstrations.
In 1962-3, soon after the establishment of the Sydney Printmakers, Joy Ewart and Sue Buckley introduced lithography classes at the newly formed Workshop Arts Centre in Willoughby. This was another significant step towards acceptance of hand-printed images as original works of art, as was the introduction of etching in the National Art School under Earle Backen in the same year. According to Backen, these three events were responsible for the resuscitation of printmaking in NSW which (with a few notable exceptions like Frank Hinder and Margaret Preston) had been almost completely neglected by artists for 20 years. Soon after, the creation of original prints began to develop momentum with the formation of the Print Council of Australia (1966) and the establishment of well equipped printmaking departments in art schools throughout Australia. Ruth Faerber, an early member, returned from studying lithography at the Pratt Centre in New York and together with Michael West taught and worked at the Workshop Arts Centre.
It is unusual for a group run by a voluntary executive and funded by members’ subscriptions (for many years maintained at $5) to be lively and relevant 50 years after its inception. Like most similar organizations there have been high and low points. A period of intense activity followed its ambitious beginnings in 1961 with exhibitions in Sydney and interstate and participation in the Australian Print Survey organised by the Art Gallery of NSW in 1963-64. But two years later (1966) it appears that the group held no exhibition at all. The 1970s, a decade of consolidation, began with a major travelling exhibition organised in conjunction with the Arts Council of NSW (1970-71) shown in 15 regional centres, and in the next years, the group was again travelling exhibitions to various regional galleries – for example, 6 different venues in 1975. Una Foster, secretary for nearly a decade was largely responsible for much of the administrative work during this time. It became customary to invite some non-members to show in annual exhibitions – often as a precursor to joining the group. Until its closure in 1995, the Blaxland Gallery was the favoured venue for the Printmakers annual exhibition in Sydney, always with well-known names to open the show.
In 1981 the Sydney Printmakers contributed to a major exhibition at NSW House in London entitled 48 Australian Printmakers and their work was televised for an ABC arts programme. But by the late 1980s and early 90s membership had become less engaged, executive positions increasingly difficult to fill and some members wondered if there was a future for the group. Only eight people were recorded attending a meeting in 1991 – not enough for a quorum and there were no exhibitions held in 1992.
However, an influx of new members invited to join the Sydney Printmakers in1992 and subsequent years brought new life to the organization. Many of these printmakers contributed towards the revival, particularly Roslyn Kean – secretary for five consecutive years and later president. As treasurer for many years, George Lo Grasso kept the group solvent. Procedures were tightened, thematic exhibitions introduced and exchange exhibitions organised (with China through Ruth Burgess and Chile through Christina Cordero). Several exhibitions in Norway have provoked interest and sales from Scandinavian collectors.
Forty five years of the Sydney Printmakers was celebrated with a large retrospective exhibition held at the National Trust’s S.H. Ervin Gallery, curated by Anne Ryan, Curator of Australian Prints, Art Gallery of NSW. A comprehensive catalogue with an overview of past exhibitions accompanied the show.
In recent years, the increasingly competitive nature of promotion and sales has created an impetus for more sophisticated catalogues and brochures and a willingness on the part of members to contribute towards their cost.
In earlier days, members of the Sydney Printmakers were expected to conform with traditional definitions of an “original print”: – as one of a number of essentially identical copies produced by the artist in a limited edition from their own original work on a lithographic or etching plate, a lino block, as a wood engraving, or as silk screen stencil – either printed by the artist or printed under the artist’s supervision. Nowadays the Printmakers embrace a wider range of techniques including mono prints, hand-coloured unique state prints and original prints using new technologies such as inkjet and digital photo printing (laser imaging). Despite a better understanding and acceptance of an original printed image, there is still confusion regarding “original” prints – as opposed to those produced commercially. Educating the public about printmaking media and techniques remains an important function of the group.
Sydney Printmakers celebrates its 50th Anniversary with a membership of sixty two – still following the tradition of artist printmaker – making marks and producing images on surfaces that can be transferred onto paper or some other two-dimensional material. Prospects for a future of lively exhibitions and complementary events look promising.
 Laurie Thomas, 1915-74, gallery director and art critic
 The Blaxland Gallery – a long-standing fixture in the Sydney art scene was part of Farmers department store in George Street, Sydney. Now owned by Myers
 Laurie Thomas, “In defence of the multiple work of art,” The Australian, 8.2.1972