In 1979, a few friends borrowed a shop in Greenwich Market to exhibit their etchings. 40 years later, Greenwich Printmakers is still championing handmade, original prints and providing a community for its artist members. Elaine Marshall, founder member and gallery manager, talks about how it started and why the gallery is so special.
“I remember the first thing we ever sold… Someone came into the shop and they liked something, so we said, ‘Alright, well take it away, and if you like it, you can come back and pay for it’. We were quite naive. We had no idea it was going to last,” says Elaine Marshall, gallery manager of Greenwich Printmakers, which is now celebrating its 40th year.
She was one of a group of artists who had studied etching at Morley College and wanted to exhibit their work. When an opportunity came up to take over a shop in Greenwich, Elaine – along with other founder members Maureen Black, Elizabeth Morris and Jean Barham – moved fast. Three weeks later, it was their own gallery.
“Jean knew Joan Pickard, who had moved into 7 Turnpin Lane. Joan had moved into the flat above, and she didn’t really know what to do with the shop beneath it. So we said, ‘Well, we’ll turn it into a gallery for you’,” says Elaine. “Joan Pickard was a wonderful woman, and a great character, and she absolutely loved the idea. We just paid her a small commission, and she was very happy with that.”
Greenwich Printmakers is a co-operative, which means it is jointly run by the artists who exhibit there. They all have different roles and tasks and take it in turns to sit in the gallery. Today, new members are elected by a committee when a space in the group comes up, but in 1979, becoming a member was a bit more relaxed.
“Timothy Alves was just walking past and he called in and we said, ‘Hey, do you want to help? Here’s a paintbrush’. It was like that – it wasn’t any elections or anything like that. We even had a couple of potters as well,” says Elaine.
In 1979, Greenwich Market wasn’t the buzzy place it is today. There had been a fruit, veg, meat and fish market on current site since the 1830s, but it had declined after the Second World War and by the time Greenwich Printmakers opened, it was very quiet.
“It was an entirely different place,” says Elaine. “It had been a fruit and veg market, like Covent Garden, and the units around the edge, they were where the fruit and veg guys kept their barrows. So nothing much was happening… I can’t even remember any fruit and veg people there.”
But it was revived as an arts and crafts market in 1985, and in 1986, Greenwich Printmakers was able to move to one of the units around the edge – 1a Greenwich Market, where the gallery still is today.
It was hard work to turn the empty unit into a gallery, but Elaine also remembers feeling that Greenwich Printmakers had evolved from its early days at 7 Turnpin Lane. “We grew up and left home, really,” she says.
As well as having shows in its own space, Greenwich Printmakers began exhibiting at other sites. One of the first shows was held in Presteigne, Wales, and was opened by the artist Sidney Nolan, a friend of the gallery’s owner.
The group started putting on exhibitions at galleries elsewhere in the UK and places in London, such as the National Theatre, the Barbican, and the Festival Hall. There were exhibitions in New Zealand, Australia and Reinickendorf, Berlin, which Greenwich was twinned with. Exchange shows took Greenwich Printmakers’ work as far as Illinois, USA and Vancouver, Canada. And, most dramatically, Moscow, Russia.
“This is the 1990s, when it was all Open Door and glasnost and Gorbachev and everything opening up,” explains Elaine. Through some Russian dancers, the group met a woman who was interested in bringing some Moscow artists’ work to the gallery for an exhibition.
“We put on a big exhibition, which was opened by Royal Academy president Roger de Grey, at Woodlands [the borough art gallery for Greenwich at the time], and we did them proud. And then the idea was that we would have an exhibition back in Moscow,” says Elaine.
The woman who had helped them organise the Russian artists’ show returned to Moscow with 75 prints by members of Greenwich Printmakers. And then more than a year passed, with no sign of the promised exhibition.
“So two of us, Timothy and I, went over to see if we could retrieve them,” explains Elaine. “And to cut a long story short, we did end up in a police station and had to consult a lawyer.”
Elaine and Timothy, helped by some of the Moscow artists, had visited the woman they had given the prints to, but she wasn’t pleased to see them and they had to leave her home. On a second visit to see her, the woman’s grandmother let them in and went to fetch her. Elaine and Timothy spotted the portfolio containing all their prints in the hallway while they were waiting, and since it belonged to them, they picked it up and left. But the woman caught up with them. And then the police wanted an explanation.
“We were accused of breaking into her house – which we didn’t – and she accused us of assaulting her,” says Elaine. “But she was not believed and actually we did get the prints back. They came back via the British cultural attaché. We had a big bill from the lawyer. It was just a question of principle. But in spite of the worrying situation with the prints, we had a great time visiting the Kremlin, Tretyakov Gallery, and our Russian artist friends’ studios.”
Happily, after their dramatic rescue, the prints did eventually get exhibited in Moscow before they returned to the UK.
The draw of being part of Greenwich Printmakers is not just to have somewhere to show and sell work, but to be part of a community of other artists working in a specialist field.
“If you’re an individual printmaker, like a writer, it can be quite a lonely existence and I think it’s really nice to be in touch with other printmakers and get all their tips and things like that, and be supportive, really,” says Elaine. “If someone does something for me, I offer to do something for them.”
And, as the gallery has a new exhibition every two months, as well as the featured artist spot that changes every three weeks, it also provides a bit of deadline pressure.
“There’s always something to work towards,” says Elaine. “You think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something for the next exhibition’.”
The membership, usually 35-40 printmakers, changes over time as people leave and new artists are elected. Well-known alumni include Anita Klein, Mychael Barratt and Brenda Hartill.
“Over a hundred people, through the years, have been members of Greenwich Printmakers,” says Elaine. “A lot of people came and stayed quite a long time and left and joined other groups, including some people who became presidents of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. So we were the nursery, in a way, for a lot of people who started their careers at Greenwich Printmakers, really.”
As well as the exhibitions in the gallery, Greenwich Printmakers will have shows at the Salvation Army International Headquarters in London (May 7-29), the Landmark Arts Centre in Teddington (June 20-23), Watts Contemporary Gallery near Guildford (July 4-September 1), the Affordable Art Fair, Battersea (October 17-20) and the Barbican Level 2 Gallery (December 3-29) in 2019.
It’s an opportunity for people to talk to the artists about their work and the many different techniques that go into creating handmade, original prints, from etchings to screenprints, linocuts to monoprints. For some customers, it might be the first time they have been able to have a conversation like this in person or actually pick up prints to look at them.
“You don’t get so many small galleries any more,” says Elaine. “A lot of the galleries now are online-only. And I think art is probably not taught so well at schools, whereas years ago, some of those big comprehensive schools had almost like mini art departments.”
While Greenwich Printmakers has visitors from all over the world who come to the area as a tourist destination, Elaine says that support from local customers has been crucial to the gallery’s success.
“That makes a difference, really,” says Elaine. “We have a strong local following. We’re well known, really, aren’t we? We shall carry on.”
Thank you to all our customers for your support through the years. We hope you will continue to visit us for many more.