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Behind the print: 'Postcards'

Ann Burnham’s ‘Postcards’ series explores her grandmother’s memories about fleeing Russia on a herring boat in around 1905, not knowing which country she would arrive in. Ann demonstrates some of the process of making these collagraph prints – a technique that involves creating different textures on a base plate of card, which is then inked and printed – and shows how she adds the chine collé details.

'Leaving Home', collagraph with chine collé by Ann Burnham

The ‘Postcards’ series is based on stories told by your grandmother. What do you remember about her telling these stories?

These prints are based on memories of the stories my grandmother, Sophie, told me when I was a child. She told me how they hid behind the sacks of grain under the houses when the Russian pogrom soldiers attacked the village, and how they fled Russia on a herring boat, not knowing exactly which country they would land in.

The Pale of Settlement was the term given to a region of Imperial Russia, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed, beyond which it was generally prohibited. The concentration of Jews in the Pale made them easy targets for pogroms and anti-Jewish riots, which often devastated whole communities. Pogroms happened throughout the existence of the Pale, but particularly devastating attacks occurred from 1881-1883 and from 1903-1906, targeting hundreds of communities, killing thousands of Jews, and causing damage to property.

Jewish life in the shtetls (Yiddish for ‘little towns’) of the Pale of Settlement was hard and poverty-stricken, and because of this, some two million Jews emigrated from there between 1881 and 1914.

My grandparents arrived in England around 1905, and lived in the East End of London, where they had a grocery shop. But there is so much I don’t know about them. I’m not sure if they came to this country together, or with their parents, or if they met after they arrived. My grandmother spoke about her experience very little. I’ve taken the detail from descriptions I can remember.

'The Crossing', collagraph with chine collé by Ann Burnham

Why did you decide to make these in a postcard format?

I’m interested in migrating people and refugees, and a postcard seemed a good ‘frame’ to put the series in, as it illustrates being away from home.

Is “Leaving Home” based on a specific place?

When I was making the first series, I did some research into whether the houses in the villages were built on stilts, as I remember my grandmother telling me that, but I couldn’t find any evidence of this, so I decided to go with my memories. I based this series on an imaginary Russian village.

This is a collagraph with chine collé. How did you make the plates? What was that process like?

I decided to make some collagraphs because I wanted a lot of detail in the prints. This is a technique where the printing plate is made by adding different textures – such as embossed wallpaper, tissue, fabric, carborundum, glue, acrylic and so on – to a base plate, which is often made from card. You can also cut into or remove parts of the plate to create lines and tones. You then seal the plate – I usually use shellac or spray varnish – to make it more waterproof and robust for inking and printing. When the plate is inked up, the ink is held by the different textures or cuts and prints as different tones and marks.

The "Leaving Home" plate before inking. You can see the different textures that have been applied or revealed.

For the ‘Postcard’ series, I used a thin drypoint card for the base plate, which I glued to a heavier card to make it more stable. The drypoint card has a shiny surface, which means the ink will wipe off easily, giving a nice contrast in the final print. It also enables me to make very fine, sharp lines by cutting into it with a scalpel. I’ve used small pieces of textured papers as well, which I cut out and glued to the plate to give different tones.

The other quality the card has is that I can peel away the top layer to reveal the fluffier core of the card, which will print as a dark tone and texture when it’s inked up. I’ve used this method for the sky.

Further textures and highlights can be added by using a brush to add glue, which I used to make dots and marks. You can see me doing this in the video (below).

The words are added using chine collé. This is where a thin tissue paper is brushed with glue and then placed glue-side up on the inked-up plate. It sandwiches between the ink and paper when the plate is printed. (See the video below, which is speeded up).

I printed the plates on an etching press, which you can see in the video.

I enjoyed the collagraph process, as I love adding the minute details. It requires patience. I think I like making the plate more than printing it!

Have you been back to visit where your grandparents are from?

I only have the name of the town my grandfather came from, which is Voldervesk, now in Belarus. It was flattened in the Second World War, so not much would be left from the time he was there. It also could just be where the administration was done, rather than where he was from, as that’s the town on his British naturalisation certificate.

There’s so little to go on. It’s very difficult to find out much, and any relatives that may have known more are no longer around. I wish I’d asked more when they were alive, but I suppose I wasn’t that interested then.

Do you think you will return to these stories again? How do you think making this series will influence your work in the future?

This is a subject I’d very much like to return to. I'd like to explore different ways of interpreting the theme, possibly in different mediums. I changed the way I made collagraphs for this series – this was the first time I'd tried using the drypoint card as a base for the plate – and I’d like to explore this technique further in the future.

Ann's collagraphs and reduction linocuts are available from Greenwich Printmakers. See her artist's page and her website for more information about her work.

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