Towards the end of his life, John Copley made a succession of etchings which are bold, clear and often startling. His line is strong, sure, idiosyncratic and emotionally charged. The period from 1939 to 1950 was one of the most productive in a life blighted by illness resulting from a chronic heart condition.

John Copley (18751950) was one of the most committed and prolific printmakers of the 20th century. He made over 400 prints, lithographs as well as etchings and our exhibition shows one third of the 74 etchings he made in the last decade of his life. The subjects he chose included people observed in Hampstead – where he lived at 10 Hampstead Square – at concerts, on the London Underground and elsewhere. Others seem to tell of his inner feelings, most notably the two extraordinary and quite different self-portraits done the year before he died.

He was born Herbert Crawford Williamson, the only child of William Crawford Williamson, Professor of Botany at Manchester University and his second wife Annie Copley Heaton. John Copley was always his working name, but this was not formalised by Deed Poll until 1927. John Copley left the Royal Academy Schools in 1897, and little is known about his life until twelve years later, when his first lithograph was published. He became a founder member and first Secretary of the Senefelder Club, which he set up with Joseph Pennell and A.S. Hartrick in 1909 to revive interest in lithography among artists. Through the club he met the artist Ethel Gabain and they married in 1913

However he resigned from the club in 1917 following a disagreement over whether it should adopt a more commercial approach. His first etchings date from this year, but he continued to make lithographs, the medium with which he is most closely associated. Early in his printmaking career he had made a number of complex colour lithographs, the last of them in 1914, but few impressions of these sold. Although he painted in oils later in life, black and white was to be the principal vehicle for his art.

In 1919 John Copley suffered a recurrence of his heart trouble and he was confined to his home, forbidden from even drawing for more than an hour a day. In 1925 he and his family moved to Alassio in northern Italy because the doctors said that his condition would improve in a warm climate. His son Peter recalled that his mother organised the business of moving for an indefinite period and they travelled by ship because it was said that his father would also benefit from the sea air. My mother was exhausted by the time we set sail and looked forward to a rest on board, but within 24 hours we hit a storm in the Bay of Biscay and she, my brother and I lay seasick and groaning in our cabin. Enter my father, upright and radiant: Oh, you should be on deck, the waves are magnificent.” (Pause, then to my mother quite gently) Carina mia, I’m ashamed of you just lying there.” I think she would have struck him had she had the strength.’

Ethel Gabain found the family a small rented villa overlooking the Mediterranean in Alassio, then a little Ligurian town. John Copley spent his time in the garden, reading and working. Instead of stones he drew on lithographic paper. They stayed there for two years and on his return to London, a series of etchings of Italian subjects were issued. More followed in 1932 and for the next six years he worked in both etching and lithography.

His final lithograph was made in 1938. The heavy lithographic press had become more than he could manage, so instead he channelled his energies into etching. By this time the medium had been largely abandoned by other artists and by collectors. Etching had had its heyday in the 1920s when contemporary prints were immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Prices for the work of certain etchers had risen spectacularly but both the market and interest collapsed in the wake of the Wall Street Crash in 1929

So John Copley now worked in what had become an unfashionable medium. After watching a polo match at the Hurlingham Club in 1939, he made two etchings based on what he had seen. Some years later these were submitted for the 1948 London Olympics, in which Art Contests were a sport. It was most likely Harold Wright, head of the print department at P & D Colnaghi & Co Ltd, who had represented both him and his wife for nearly forty years, who made the submission. The Olympiad exhibition was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum and John Copley was awarded the silver medal in Graphic Art. He thus became and remains the oldest-ever recipient of an Olympic medal.

This curious fact emerged in a quiz broadcast on BBC television earlier this year. The polo subjects came at the beginning of an extraordinary sequence of etchings made in the last decade of his life. This coincided with a rapid deterioration in his wife’s health. A kidney illness required major operations in 1938, 1941 and 1943, and, reduced to one kidney, she also became increasingly arthritic so that in her last years she painted with the brush strapped to her wrist. In early 1940 their younger son Christopher committed suicide and this tragic event seems to have stimulated a series of unsettling etchings as he wrestled with grief.

It is the scale as much as the subjects of John Copley’s late etchings which distinguish them from work by his contemporaries. In this, as in his style, he seems late in life to have had more in common with the rising generation than with his peer group. He made few pure landscapes, and in his work the urban landscape is never more than the backdrop for the scenes he has observed. Humans are central to his art, as in two of the etchings from 1940, Figures in the Wind, the forms placed so effectively in the picture space and London Snow, in which we look over a girl’s shoulder at two men, probably Jewish refugees.

In 1947 John Copley was elected President of the Royal Society of British Artists and this brought him into contact with younger artists whom he encouraged, such as Michael Ayrton, Patrick Heron, Paul Hogarth and Carel Weight. He staged exhibitions of works by foreign artists at the RBA, then in Suffolk Street, the most successful being of de Chirico. Carel Weight wrote in his obituary All progressive artists will feel a great loss at the death of John Copley … It is significant that at the age of seventy-five he was able to produce work which influenced and stimulated some of our most advanced young artists.’

Ethel Gabain struggled with illness for over ten years and curiously this period saw her previously invalid husband respond energetically, caring for her but socially active as he had never been before. He worked with equal vigour and expressed himself with freedom and originality, combining his natural oddity of vision with technical daring. When his wife died he organised a memorial exhibition of her work at the RBA. Unwilling to live without her, he took his own life five months later.

The etchings he made in the last decade of his life did not appear often in public. His dealers, Colnaghi, did not show the new work and at some point during the 1930s or 1940s Harold Wright moved the lithographs and etchings they held from the print department to his own garage, as demand had ceased and there was insufficient space for storage in their building. So John Copley submitted his new etchings to exhibitions organised by the RBA, the National Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers & Potters, the Society of Artist Printmakers and sent them to shows in provincial towns and cities including Sheffield, Doncaster, Bolton, Brighton and Glasgow. One group was sent to Sweden in 1946 through the offices of Orovida Pissarro and another group was shown at Manchester Academy in 1950. Two etchings were shown at the RA in 1940, London Snow and Trio, and some etchings were shown at the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers in 1949 and 1950

Of the etchings done after 1939, it would appear that the artist printed only such impressions as he required to satisfy himself. The editions were small. The British Museum acquired a number of them in 1945 and 1947, and the artist gave a large group of them to Manchester City Art Gallery, in his native city, which had already received many of his lithographs. 

The only exhibition of his work during his lifetime took place in Chicago in 1924, The Lithographs of John Copley & Ethel Gabain at the Albert Roullier Galleries. It was not until 1990 that the first one-man show of John Copley’s work was staged, also in America, forty years after his death. It took place at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven which also has an important collection of his work.

John Copley’s late etchings present one of the most powerful graphic statements of their period. It is difficult to identify the origins of his style: it is distinctly un-English in character. He had first fallen in love with prints when he was eight or nine years old, having been shown some etchings by a Manchester bookseller. From the first he found his subjects around him, on the streets of London, in theatres, shops, pubs, concerts and on public transport. In making the transition from lithography to etching he developed a simple and vigorous technique of lines and pattern. He observed his subjects without making judgements. In his hands everyday scenes and figures seem to be charged with strange significance whose meaning remains elusive. When they are seen together, the etchings seem to illustrate a private world, a succession of images which are direct, intense, poignant and haunting.