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Behind the print: "Egyptian Birds"

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Greenwich Printmakers founder member Elaine Marshall talks about how she made her linocut print “Egyptian Birds”, which was inspired by ancient wall paintings on display at the British Museum, and explains why lockdown has made her pick up her paintbrushes.

"Egyptian Birds", linocut by Elaine Marshall

Why did you decide to make “Egyptian Birds”?

I got the idea from a chance visit to the British Museum shop. I saw a postcard of some Ancient Egyptian wall paintings, so I went to the Egyptian Room 61, where they are displayed.

The wall paintings were discovered in the 1820s and were excavated from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun in the Valley of the Kings and shipped to the British Museum.

I especially liked the fragments of the The Hunting Scene, where Nebamun is pictured with birds and butterflies, waterfowl, a heron, and an egret.

The scenes were painted directly on to the tomb walls. Sections of the wall paintings were literally prised off the walls of the tomb-chapel using knives and crowbars on the instructions of the British consul Henry Salt (1780-1827). The book “The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun” gives the full details about it.

What was it about the wall paintings that particularly captured your imagination?

I loved the immediacy and fluidity of the wall paintings, and the colours derived from earth and minerals.

Elaine's original sketch for "Egyptian Birds"

Did you take inspiration for the colours from the wall painting?

The wall painting used pigments made from red and yellow ochres, cream gypsum and blue and green pieces of Egyptian flit. I’ve used the original colour scheme, but I changed the order so that the background colour is the blue pigment, instead of cream as in the wall paintings.

How did you go about translating your idea into a linocut?

I’ve used three of the birds perched on clumps of papyrus, but I’ve simplified the design. I made the linocut using four blocks to print the different colours.

The first block is the outline of the birds and papyrus stems cut out, leaving a background of phthalo blue mixed with white.

Proof of block 1

The second block shows two of the birds and papyrus printed in yellow ochre.

Proof of block 2

The third block overprints the two birds and papyrus leaves printed in burnt sienna mixed with poppy red.

Proof of block 3

The final block is the details of all three birds printed in raw umber.

Proof of block 4

Each block is printed in that order on my 1840 Albion printing press, and left to dry between printings. I’ve printed it on Saunders Waterford HP paper in an edition of 25.

The final print

I made two other linocuts from images inspired by the wall paintings, “Twenty-six Geese” and “Egyptian Cat", which are also in my featured artist show.

"Twenty-Six Geese", linocut by Elaine Marshall
"Egyptian Cat", linocut by Elaine Marshall

You’ve been working on some paintings as well recently, which you’re showing in your featured artist exhibition. You originally trained as a painter – how did you get into printmaking? What made you start a gallery dedicated to original prints?

I studied painting and lithography at Goldsmiths and the Slade School of Fine Art, and later continued making lithographs at the London Institute. I’ve always been more interested in making works on paper, and I was attracted to printmaking because there are intermediate stages or journeys between the initial conception, the etching or litho plate or lino block, and the final print on paper.

I co-founded the Greenwich Printmakers Association with two other fellow printmakers in 1979 as an artist cooperative gallery to raise awareness of the traditions of printmaking, and to exhibit and sell our original prints. We had no idea then that the GPA would be celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019!

What has drawn you to making more paintings again recently?

I made an acrylic painting from a watercolour I had previously done of my son Adam’s balcony in Berlin, and posted it to him for a present for his birthday in January 2021.

He and his family hadn't been able to come to Greenwich from Berlin for Christmas as usual because of lockdown. This set me off making more acrylic paintings, and I really enjoyed the discipline of a new medium, as a change from printmaking.

"Summer Balcony, Berlin", acrylic painting by Elaine Marshall

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m just finishing an acrylic painting of my granddaughter Natalie in front of datura flowers, when we were together in Cadiz, Spain.

Elaine’s featured artist exhibition runs at Greenwich Printmakers from April 26-May 16, and her prints are available in the gallery all year round. For more information, see her artist’s page and her website.

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