Traces from the Registers: Animating the Slade’s Etching & Engraving and Lithography Prizes
By Andrea Fredericksen, on 27 May 2021
During 2020-2021, when UCL was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, UCL Culture’s curatorial team worked with students from UCL’s History of Art with Material Studies (HAMS) on virtual work placements. These projects provide opportunities for students to gain practical curatorial skills to prepare them for their future careers while undertaking valuable work towards better understanding the collections.
Since September 2020, Sabrina Harverson-Hill and Tianyu Zhang worked together on two virtual curatorial projects to research UCL Art Museum’s Slade Collections in preparation for the Slade 150 anniversary. Sabrina focused on the register for Etchings & Engravings and Tianyu on the register for Lithography to animate the Slade’s historic prizes in printmaking. Here Sabrina and Tianyu describe a few of the challenges and rewards of their placements:
What has been your favourite stage of the placement?
Sabrina: From day one my placement with UCL Art Museum was unusual in that it initially began remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrea, the Curator at UCL Art Museum, however sent all the necessary material that we needed by post. I was to be working on the register of etchings & engravings in the Slade Collections. It is unique in that it contains within it handwritten entries of students from the Slade who won prizes for etching and engraving between 1937-1981.
My favourite stage entailed researching into my list of prize-winners, particularly those who had perhaps fallen into obscurity. This for me was one of the most exciting stages but also one of the most frustrating. I reached a lot of dead ends with female artists. This seemed mostly due to potential surname changes. Subsequently, there was frequently no trace of where they went on to after their time at the Slade. Having said this, it was all the more rewarding when nuggets of information about artists were found through online research. One example was discovering that Zelma M. Blakely and her partner Keith McKenzie both studied at the Slade. Interestingly, there was more information on Blakely, her life and work, than McKenzie. The pattern with these discoveries was usually the other way around.
Tianyu: My favourite stage is looking into the lives of the artists. The process of identifying their names from the hand-written logbook and looking up the names online, looking for every possibility and narrowing it down to the one person who attended the Slade has been a very exciting stage for me, and might lead to interesting research questions. For example, to what extent is Catherine Armitage a talented woman artist under the shadow of her famous husband Paul Feiler, or about the impact of the war upon the students and their study at the Slade, as some of them seem to have paused and resumed their study in 1940s.
Catherine Armitage is recorded in the ‘Lithography’ register in the 1971-72 session, although not marked as prize winner, two of her works are registered on the list, so I went on to do some basic research about her. Armitage’s online biography stood out to me as it clearly shows the importance of her marriage to the artist Paul Feiler, who was a prominent member of the St Ives group in the 1950s to 1960s, in her artistic career. In her obituary published this year (2020) in The Times, she is described as a talented woman artist who ’emerged from the shadow’ of her famous husband, quoting a sentence from the director of the Picasso Museum in Antibes: “Why don’t we know about her?”.
Describe a particular method that enabled you to overcome a challenge:
Sabrina: During the first few weeks, I familiarised myself with the type of artists and prints held at UCL Art Museum by studying the books about the collection that I had been sent. Initially, because I could not see the register in person, I used a photocopy as well as a digitised version to study all the student names listed throughout.
In light of the pandemic, my workspace for this project was my desk at home and my companion – my cat. My first task was to add all the student’s names from this logbook into an online spreadsheet and highlight the names in gold which represented the prize-winner. The type of information I had to add included: artist name, title of work, dimensions and most importantly whether they had won a prize for that particular work. It was not an easy a task as I had initially thought, because all the entries were hand-written. This meant there was a lot of detective work in trying to discern what the handwriting actually said.
Tianyu: I will say that is ‘teamwork’. Transcribing the handwritten words wasn’t always easy, but we’ve taken advantage of the ‘posts’ function of the MS Teams platform as we helped each other with identifying handwriting and other related questions. We often got immediate responses which proved to be helpful. While transcribing the contents, some of the names might be spelled differently than the official records (UCL’s College Calendar, for example), and this is where more research is needed. I suspect the person responsible for the final two pages of the lithography book wrote the students’ names purely based on pronunciation. For example, Pere Puigross has been recorded as ‘Peri Puygros’, ‘Mohammad’ written as ‘Mohamed’, and so on. So being a part of a team, asking when I felt uncertain about something, really helped me to overcome the challenge.
Describe one interesting find:
Tianyu: One interesting finding during my work placement would be a previous misattribution, where a Chinese male artist Tseng Yu had been recorded as a Chinese American female artist, with the same surname, Tseng Yuho. Andrea told me that the male artist Tseng Yu had been identified as part of Transnational Slade, a project exploring the global networks of the school’s alumni and staff, and that a potential misattribution of the name had been identified. Being an international student myself, I was not expecting that my knowledge of my mother tongue would help with the placement until I encountered with some images of one work by Tseng Yu, surprisingly, that the artist signed his works in Chinese. The signature indeed says Tseng Yu, while the female artist to which the work was previously attributed had not been in the Slade at all. Due to my discovery we were able to update Art UK.
The information we’re adding to Art UK is relatively basic at the moment, I’ll say, but the key thing is that we’ve pointed out Tseng Yuho and Tseng Yu are two completely different artists, and the oil painting should be attributed to the latter. Now Tseng Yu has his own page, with his name and year of birth, and is linked together with the artwork housed at UCL Art Museum. Here’s the link to the webpage: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/tseng-yu-b-1930
Sabrina: An interesting find for me was from reading artist biographies and discovering several artists (women in particular) felt their artistic careers only really started to flourish when they started studying and making work at the Slade. This was particularly the case for post-graduate artists who had studied initially elsewhere, they commented they felt almost constrained by their former institution in some way.
What more did you learn once you had access to the collections?
Tianyu: In December last year, we visited the Art Museum physically, all maintaining social distance of course, and pulled out the artworks from the collection and matched them up with the information from the registers. Seeing the physical objects is an entirely different experience compared to the previous remote works, but both are great and exciting experiences. Having access to the archive and collections gave a more straightforward sense of the dimensions of the works, and texture of course. I remember seeing a piece of work by Tseng Yu and the almost 3-dimensional relief feature surprised me, these are the characteristics that might be difficult to represent or notice with digitised archives.
Sabrina: By physically going to the UCL Art Museum and looking at the prints based on the prize-winners spreadsheet it really helped to demystify what the actual title of a print was. Often in the Etchings & Engravings logbook it was either written really unclearly or was entirely different to what the artist had inscribed on their physical print. Additionally, I finally had the opportunity to see my logbook in person. This hands-on experience was particularly helpful in contextualising the whole project and gave me a clear idea of the materials with which I was working.
I also got a sense or more of an idea of the prize-winners’ personalities in terms of their work. That day, with the help of Andrea, we pulled out the physical prints listed in the registers and confirmed that we could indeed locate them. It was highly intriguing to see my list of prize-winners’ works in the flesh. For example, the prints start off quite muted in tone in the early 1930s, as the years progress etching and engraving becomes more colourful and more diverse in subject matter. The vibrant colours of all the prints and the mark-making, by the artists in general, really becomes apparent upon seeing the prints in-person.