Certificate of authenticity

Printing Diplomas with artist Simon Lawson

Published 31 March 2014

New Royal Academicians are awarded a Diploma that has been printed by hand from the same copper plate since 1769. We visited Simon Lawson to take you through the elaborate printing process.

  • While many printmaking techniques continue to evolve and change, some processes remain resolutely unchanged. The production of the Diplomas for each new Royal Academician is firmly in the latter category. The way that Academicians are elected makes for fascinating reading: it’s a procedure that hasn’t changed all that much since our foundation. And fittingly, once the newly elected RA has donated a work – known as a Diploma Work – to our Collection, they receive an elaborate document, signed by the Sovereign. The exciting thing, and rather appropriate for Print Month, is that even to this day each document is printed from the same copper plate that was created by the pioneering Francesco Bartolozzi RA, one of our founder members, way back in 1769.

    Today, the man responsible for printing these exclusive documents is Simon Lawson. Simon studied at the RA Schools where he was tutored by Norman Stevens ARA (who is currently the subject of a fascinating exhibition in the Tennant Gallery) and his own work encompasses a range of different approaches. You may be familiar with his haunting images of pylons in the landscape from recent Summer Exhibitions.

  • Since 2006 Simon has also taught in the RA Schools – he is now the Etching Tutor – and in 2007 he founded Huguenot Editions, a collaborative editioning studio and gallery. Simon launched Huguenot in 2006, and since then has collaborated with a range of prominent artists, such as Ivor Abrahams RA, Tracey Emin RA, Grayson Perry RA, and Bob and Roberta Smith RA Elect, helping them to expand their practice by exploring new printing processes. “The relationship is most satisfying,” Simon tells me, “when it is seen as collaborative.

    “It generally works best when the artist is interested in discovering new processes and doesn’t have preconceived ideas of a final product.”

    It is here at the Huguenot Editions studio in Wandsworth that the historic Diplomas are now printed: using a large nineteenth century press which, incidentally, is owned by Chris Orr RA. Of course, printing from a copper plate that’s nearly 250 years old is very different to collaborating with a living artist. “There’s a sense of “cracking the plate”, Simon says, “doing a little bit of detective work to solve a puzzle, trying out different inks or paper for example. But you do feel a definite connection with Bartolozzi.”

    Francesco Bartolozzi himself was a prolific Italian engraver, who was appointed Engraver to the King shortly after moving to London in 1764. The design for the plate was actually by another founding member, Giovanni Battista Cipriani RA, with whom Bartolozzi worked extensively. The design incorporates a central medallion with a female figure representing ‘Royal Munificence’ accompanied by Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. These two preside over a scene which features Britannia and personifications of the sister arts of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. At the very bottom is a pair of what look like catfish. It’s an extraordinarily rich and detailed design.

  • Here is the plate itself waiting to be inked up.

  • Diploma printing 1
  • It has many extremely fine lines…

  • Diploma printing 2
  • … so Simon adds oil to increase the viscosity of the ink and avoid ‘gapping’.

  • Diploma printing 3
  • Once he’s happy with the ink it is added to the plate using a small rubber squeegee. “There is an economy of wiping,” Simon explains. “You want to get the ink in and then take it off as quickly as possible.”

  • Diploma printing 4
  • The ink is then removed from the surface of the plate in stages: firstly with a dirty piece of scrim, then a cleaner piece…

  • Diploma printing 5
  • …and finally, with the heel of the hand, which is occasionally dipped in a small pot of unrefined chalk known as whiting. “It’s a pretty laborious process,” Simon admits. “I’m surprised my hands have put up with it. You look at some other printmakers, and their fingers are like sticks of black pudding!”

  • Diploma printing 6
  • It is at this stage that Simon has to be extremely careful to ensure there is no excessive ink on the plate. This often forms in tell-tale ‘tails’ as here. Such imperfections are not acceptable.

  • Diploma printing 7
  • But there are certain blemishes that even Simon can’t do anything about – little dents such as the one below that are only to be expected in a plate that is nearly 250 years old.

  • Diploma printing 8
  • Once Simon is happy with the evenness of the ink on the plate, it is brought over to the press and carefully laid on the bed. On the roller is special handmade paper that has been dampened overnight to soften the fibres. This ensures that the paper gets right into the plate into order to lift out the ink. On top of the paper are wool blankets and then tissue paper to remove excess moisture from the paper and protect it from any marks that might be on the blankets.

  • Diploma printing 9
  • Now the wheel is turned…

  • Diploma printing 10
  • And, at last, the reveal. “It’s a good one,” says Simon. “You can tell straight away.”

  • Diploma printing 11
  • But even now we’re still a long way from finished. As you can see there is a large blank area in the middle of the design. This is where the Greeting goes, and is printed from an entirely separate plate. Before that can happen, the print is flattened and dried for a few days, and then redampened. “If we just went ahead and printed again now,” explains Simon, “then all the juicy ink sitting on the surface of the paper would be flattened out. This way may be more time-consuming, but you get a finer result.”

    So the second smaller plate is inked up in the same way as above, the paper very carefully lined up, this time on a smaller press, and the printing wheel is turned once more. And here is the beautiful end result.

  • Diploma printing 12
  • Well, not quite the end result… Simon’s work may finally be done, but the Diploma still has several stages to go through before it is completed. From here, it will firstly be sent to a calligrapher who adds the name of the Royal Academician and the category in which they have been selected into the text below…

  • Diploma printing 13
  • …before each diploma is then personally signed by Her Majesty The Queen. Then the Diploma is returned to the calligrapher, who writes in the date that The Queen added her signature, along with the year of her reign. The finishing touch is the Royal Academy seal, added by our Archivist Mark Pomeroy into the circular gap at the bottom of the design.

  • Diploma printing 14
  • Then, finally, the Diploma can be presented to the new Academician who is free to do with it as they choose. David Nash RA, for example, has his framed and hanging in his house. The plates themselves are given a fresh coat of beeswax, carefully wrapped up and returned to the archives at the RA, and wait here in storage, until the next time…

  • #PrintMonth

    To celebrate a triple whammy of print-related exhibitions here at the RA, we’ve designated April as Print Month. Alongside a wealth of articles, image stories and videos, we’re encouraging everyone to get involved via social media. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram, we’ll be sharing print-related material throughout the coming weeks, using the hashtag #PrintMonth. Feel free to share your favourite prints and printmakers, or ask us any print-related questions you might have. We’ll be sure to speak to one of our printmaking experts here at the RA and get back to you with the best answer we can.

    Renaissance Impressions is in the Sackler Galleries until 8 June 2014.
    Norman Stevens ARA is in the Tennant Gallery until 25 May 2014.
    London Original Print Fair is in the Main Galleries, 24 - 27 April 2014.