August 2021

Rachel Gracey – ‘A Walk in the Parks’ Catalogue Introduction

by Catherine Daunt (Hamish Parker Curator of Modern and Contemporary Graphic Art)
British Museum

For many of us, it has taken a pandemic to gain a familiarity with our local green spaces, but Rachel Gracey has been exploring, observing and drawing the University Parks in Oxford, the city in which she lives and works, since 2008. Over many visits, at times with a pram or a dog, she has come to know the landscape intimately and has captured on paper its various physical features from its ponds, paths and trees to the curve of the Rainbow Bridge and glimpses of the academic buildings at its edges. She has recorded seasonal and temporal changes, moments of striking light and those intangible qualities that form the essence of a place. There are no people in Gracey’s images, and few signs of human life, but as viewers we are invited to experience the landscape with her and share in her unique encounters with it.

Gracey is best known for her semi-abstract colour prints of the outdoor world, from Suffolk rivers and the British coast to the national parks and beaches of California. Her process begins with immersion in a landscape. If she has a sketchbook with her, she will draw en plein air using whatever is to hand: pencil, crayon, charcoal, conté or watercolour. At other times she will hold the details in her mind and make studies in her studio or transfer her ideas directly onto a block or plate. Her aim is to catch a sense of place and what is happening in the moment, so while the images begin with close observation, the colours and shapes might change and develop as she works.

Inspired by a collection of Abstract Expressionist prints that she saw as a student, Gracey has focused on printmaking throughout her career. She made her first prints of the University Parks, a series of linocuts, in 2012-14. At the time she was without access to a press, so made relief prints in her loft using a spoon to do the printing. In 2014 she acquired a Mann Direct press, which she installed in a shed in her garden, allowing her to produce the large-scale lithographs that form the series A Walk in the Parks, printed in 2015-17. Her affinity for lithography is unsurprising given her lifelong love of drawing, as the technique allows her to draw directly onto a zinc plate, initially with chalk and then with crayons, pencils and liquid tusche (a greasy ink), to create a variety of lines, marks, textures and tones.

The influence of Abstract Expressionism is evident in Gracey’s gestural, at times painterly marks, but most prominently in her bold use of colour, which was encouraged by the British artist Albert Irvin (1922-2015), a guest teacher at Wimbledon College of Art where she was a student. With the exception of a group of monochrome linocuts in which drama is created through texture, colour is central to the University Parks prints. Gracey goes far beyond the greens, browns and blues that we might expect of a park environment to find the colours that we see but don’t always register: soft pinks and yellows, near-neon greens, warm reds and the sombre purple that descends before the trees darken to silhouettes. We are there in the landscape with her, watching the sun pan across the sky to set the trees alight, feeling the icy chill of a winter’s day, and recalling those private moments in public parks when all worlds but our own seem to fade away.