Hide and seek
Playing games with Norman Stevens ARA
By Annette Wickham
Published 11 February 2014
Certain exhibitions are especially rewarding to put together, and 'Norman Stevens ARA: Selected Prints' is definitely one of them. Not only has the project had close input from the artist’s family and friends, but it also feels long overdue.
In his lifetime, Norman Stevens was a respected artist whose prints and paintings were widely praised by those in the know. They can be found in major collections like the Tate and MoMA, New York, but he never received the broader public recognition that his work deserved. Elected as an Academician in 1983, Stevens died only five years later at the early age of 51 and never had a one-man show here at the RA.
Another reason that this exhibition has been so rewarding is that it has been a very personal project from the beginning. The idea for the show came from Jean Stevens, the artist’s widow, as a way to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. Although there are only six prints by Stevens in the RA Collection, Jean kindly offered to lend several from her own collection. It has been a fascinating experience to hear her recollections of Norman and his work.
One of the surprising things I learnt about Stevens is that he didn’t take up printmaking until the 1970s. He originally trained as a painter at Bradford Art College in the 1950s where he was one of ‘the Bradford mafia’ along with David Hockney RA, John Loker, David Oxtoby, and others. After building a career as a painter he decided to teach himself printmaking and in the process found an art form that perfectly suited his meticulous approach and fascination with light and shade.
In selecting prints for the exhibition, I wanted to illustrate Stevens’ development from early small-scale etchings to his ambitious, large-scale and vivid screenprints of the 1980s. Whatever the subject of Stevens’ prints, they are characterised by an evocative sense of stillness. It’s a quality of his work that I found really hard to define, until I came across an exhibition catalogue from 1974 written by Stevens’ friend, the art critic William Packer. Packer suggested that the windows and houses in Stevens’ prints were not so much depictions of particular things, but ‘distilled conventional signs with which Stevens plays his allusive game of hide-and-seek with the real world’. I hope visitors will be tempted to join in the game, and discover for themselves Stevens’ particular distinction as a printmaker: his intriguing compositions and his technical brilliance.
Annette Wickham is the RA's Curator of Works on Paper.