April 2018

Rachel Gracey: South South-West in Perspective

by Dr Ursula Weekes (Independent Art Historian and Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She specializes in the history of print and in Indian Mughal art.)

Rachel Gracey stands out in the current British printmaking scene for her commitment to lithography as her primary form of artistic expression. In March 2017, Gracey was elected an Associate Royal Engraver by the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers, acknowledging her skill and contribution to contemporary lithography and linocut. Her work is widely exhibited and is now in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the Royal Collection.

Rachel Gracey’s practise is part of a long tradition of British landscape artists. Her work is marked by a deep involvement in the local landscapes of her life, especially Wimbledon, Oxford, and Cornwall. She works in sets, enabling her to explore the changing vistas, colours, moods and seasons of particular places.  Gracey intuitively perceives the rhythm and shapes of these landscapes. She is constantly outdoors drawing and painting, and it is these experiences and memories of the landscape that she transforms into the layered shapes and colours of her lithographs.

Rachel Gracey works on a huge Mann Direct Press in a garden studio at her home in Oxford. The press is 9 ½ x 5 ft, with a printing bed of approximately 3 ft x 4 ft (fig. 2). This means that she can work on a very large scale. Lithography is based on the idea that oil and water repel. When writing or drawing with a grease-based substance on a flat limestone (wax crayons, a greasy ink called tusche, pencils), oil-based inks can be made to adhere to this surface, while being repelled by water in non-printing areas of the stone. This occurs when the surface of the stone or plate is covered in a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid, creating grease-receptive image areas, and water-receptive non-printing areas.

The ambitious technical demands of Gracey’s lithographs, the complex layering and choices of colours, the variety of marks, and size, require a virtuoso ability to understand the precise physical demands of her medium and the press. It is a process that requires patience. Gracey prints all her own work and usually begins with pulling 12-15 impressions of the first plate to begin making an edition. Each colour in the finished work (normally she works with about 6 to 8 colours) represents an individual plate in the printing process. Each plate must be printed separately and hung for five days to dry. In her experience it is while printing the last two or three plates, that impressions have to be discarded from the edition. If, for example, she mixes a particular tone for colour seven and feels it is not right when printed, the impression has to be rejected, despite it having been patiently printed and hung for almost six weeks in her studio already.

In this series of lithographs, South South-West, Gracey has moved away from places populated by trees, such as Wimbledon Common and the Parks in Oxford, to pursue the open spaces of the coast line, fields, the sea and the sky.  These themes are first evident in her Suffolk Rivers, but in South South-West they are addressed more boldly in colour and mood, as well as in the range of representational and abstracted compositions.

Gracey’s South South-West series was conceived over a six year period, and captures both the momentary and the timeless: she conveys the changing patterns of clouds, the vibrancy or dullness of a day, the colours of open land, the reflection of light in water. The absence of humans or signs of their presence gives the landscapes a timelessness. Rachel Gracey’s work celebrates these daily cadences of land, sky and coast with the eyes of someone who does not take these miracles for granted.