Industry meets country: a printmaker’s perspective

Peter Shread says he’s always on the lookout for shapes and colours created by changes of light.

This is perhaps why he is drawn to abstract art, his beautiful woodcuts and linocut relief prints conveying the mood of a landscape in the suggestion of outlines, the contrast of colours and tones drawn from a particular view.

‘I like the simplicity of printmaking,’ he says, then goes into great detail about all the stages that make up the process, making you wonder how simple it actually is, to the uninitiated at least.

‘I will work from a charcoal drawing in the first instance, using no more than four or five colours. I colour the charcoal drawing with, say, yellow or blue or red, then make a tracing of that drawing.

‘The relief prints are made by drawing a design on a block of lino or wood, then cutting away the background with a knife and gouges. The finished block is then inked with a roller and printed in a press.

‘To make a colour print a separate block is cut for each new colour. These are then printed in sequence, one colour over another, until the image is complete.

‘By adding a transparent medium to the ink it is possible to overlay two colours to provide a third.’

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The work is satisfying, methodical, repetitive… the process of producing woodcut and linocut relief prints not unlike manufacturing, each one worked with a roller and printed by the artist on his own hand press.

He is drawn to the decorative and topographical aspects of landscapes, and finds the local unique mix of industry and countryside a constant source of inspiration.

‘You find, for example, with the canals that there’s the mix of the man-made locks, bridges etc. contrasting with the surrounding landscape.’

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Peter has produced a whole series of prints inspired by the extensive canal networks of the Black Country, and finds inspiration in rural locations too.

‘My canal pictures started in the early 90s, and I’ve also featured the Clent Hills, Wyre Forest and Wales.

‘My Royal Academy prints were of the Elan Valley and Black Mountains. I did a lot of walking in Wales and got many of my ideas from there.’

Born in Birmingham, Peter trained at Birmingham College of Art to study painting then Moseley Art School. At art school, studying graphic design, he found himself drawn to classic poster series, the type of modernist works so popular as reproductions today.

‘Many were influenced by Cubism, by Nash and by Edward Bawden, but they still retained an interest in the figurative. I found my own influences in Picasso, and Abstract Expressionism.

‘Edward Wadsworth, the Vorticist, came to the Black Country once and did a whole series on the slag heaps and furnaces.’

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Edward Wadsworth, ‘Blast Furnaces in the Black Country 1919’ Woodcut

The influence of Wadsworth is clear, though on moving to the Black Country himself in the 1960s, Shread admits he experienced something of a culture shock.

‘In those days you could actually tell the difference between the accents… people from Quarry Bank sounded different to those from Dudley, who sounded different again from people from Netherton. Of course it’s all changed now. Back then,  some of the lads I taught had never even travelled as far as Birmingham.

‘There was a chainmaker’s  at the bottom of the school garden and we would sketch the men working. We’d go to the pit banks at Saltwells Wood and Doultons clay pit.’

Saltwells has a long history of coal extraction going back to the 1300s and the wood was planted to mask the scars left by industry. Shallow depressions and hummocks reveal the presence of out-cropping and bell pits surrounded by banks of soil are still visible. Large mounds mark the gin circles where horses would drive the winding apparatus.

Whether the boys took in any of this with an artist’s eye is anyone’s guess. Peter continues:

‘I remember some of them were talented kids, but most were just glad to get out of the classroom. We could do that in those days, before health and safety.’

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As well as appearing at the Royal Academy in London, Shread’s work has been frequently exhibited in the Black Country: murals featuring enamelled panels based on his landscape prints were a striking feature of an underpass in Stourbridge until they became so badly scuffed by the wear-and-tear of passing pedestrians that they were removed and stored safely away.

‘The sculptor and public artist Steve Field has got the panels now,’ Shread says. ‘Lumps got knocked out, and so they decided to tile it all over, and the work was taken down.’

Peter Shread trained at Moseley School of Art and taught in Dudley for many years. He is a member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and Midland Printmakers. Peter has exhibited widely, including at the Royal Academy, and has won a number of prizes including the Manchester Academy Prize and the First Prize in the RBSA Open Print Exhibition. He was asked to deliver a public art commission for Midland Metro stations. Peter now produces woodcut and linocut relief prints and paintings.