This spring the Royal Academy of Arts will present an exhibition of prints by Stanley Anderson RA (1884-1966), a major figure in the revival of line engraving in 1920s Britain. Malcolm Cossons spoke to co-curator Robert Meyrick  

Illustration - Feature engraving of Sotheby’s auction room.

How did this exhibition come about?

The exhibition is the most recent in a series dedicated to the work of Royal Academician printmakers. I am co-curating/co-authoring the exhibition with Dr Harry Heuser.  The excitement for us has been to showcase the work of once-renowned yet nowadays largely overlooked painter-printmakers. Anderson’s later series of prints dedicated to artisans, tradesmen and country labourers have always remained popular among collectors but these have overshadowed much else that he achieved. There has existed little in the way of published scholarship on Anderson and the true diversity of his talents. The great pleasure for us has been in sourcing, documenting, interpreting and now displaying the artworks and archival materials. The Academy has given us the opportunity to raise awareness of a once influential now somewhat side lined 20th-century artist and to further our understanding and appreciation of British print history.  

How important is Anderson’s work in acting as a record of a vanished Britain?

A very important record, though he did not set out to record a vanishing Britain.  As we state in the Gallery Guide: The subjects of Stanley Anderson’s prints evoke a sense of nostalgia. Craftsmen and farm workers carrying out manual tasks that are now performed by machinery. Rural scenes that have turned into sprawling suburbia. Sights of London that have been demolished or that were destroyed during the Blitz. And yet, Anderson was very much concerned with the present. Rather than retreating into the past, he responded to the socio-economic changes he observed as, within a mere quarter century, the British Empire of his youth was transformed into a nation scarred by two world wars. His subjects are rarely wistful. There is anger and wit in his performances. Indeed, Anderson rewards those who engage more closely with his painstakingly wrought prints, thereby demonstrating that every line or mark serves  a purpose.

 What do you think gives his work an enduring appeal?

Anderson’s ideas about modernity and alienation, estrangement from nature and lack of fellowship have great resonance in the modern world, and it records an oft vanished disappearing way of life, which appeals to the nostalgic aspect of the British psyche. 

Was Anderson following a tradition in his depiction of workers and craftsmen? Which artists influenced him?

As a student at the Royal College from January 1909, Anderson was taught etching by Sir Frank Short RA.  Short was both a practitioner of and keen advocate of the Whistlerian etched line.  Whistler had died in 1903 and his presence was keenly felt among etchers of the day.  His influence upon Anderson is evidenced in the calligraphic line, plate tone, composition, and chiaroscuro.  Also in his choice of subjects away from London landmarks to the Thames side, to the markets of Leadenhall, Billingsgate, Smithfield and Covent Garden, to the back streets of Clerkenwell or off the Strand around Chancery.  William Strang RA whom Anderson befriended was also influential in his exploration of a wide range of media -- etching, drypoint, mezzotint, aquatint, and engraving.  As a student, he spent a lot of time in the BM and V&A print rooms studying historic prints. It was here he is said to have especially admired Dürer’s engravings -- St Jerome and the Lion remained one of his favourite prints. Anderson frequently said that “great art should stand 100 men deep” – thereby espousing the importance of tradition and learning from past exponents .

Tell us about his painting of Auction Room at Sotheby's

This is a composition derived from sketches made in situ.  Whether drawing country craftsmen, vagrants, itinerant workers, Anderson was always recording ‘portraits’.  This is a wonderful study of different character types. There seems to be no extant record of who these people are but we are pretty sure they are portraits of dealers, collectors and curators. It shows a print auction and these could well be portraits of prominent figures in the print world.  The seated bearded character in the centre we think is the print historian/critic Malcolm Salaman. Why Anderson chose this subject is not known, but we do know he was a close friend of Montague Barlow, Sotheby’s chairman. Barlow and Anderson had been fellow students of Sir Frank Short RA at the Royal College of Art. As Chairman of Messrs Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, Barlow was instrumental in turning the company, which had been dealing in books until 1913, into one of the world’s foremost fine art auctioneers. He was also behind the company’s move from 13 Wellington Street to its current headquarters in the former Doré Gallery, 34–35 New Bond Street. Anderson made two etchings recording the move (Cats. 90 & 91) for inclusion in a limited number of copies of G. D. Hobson’s Notes on the History of Sotheby’s (1917).


An Abiding Standard: The Prints of Stanley Anderson RA
25 February ­ 24 May 2015
The Royal Academy of Arts