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JFC Clarke Studio

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During 1970 and 1971, my first years of teaching Art at a Pretoria high school, I also took charge of an afternoon Art Club at another school, St Albans College. One afternoon a group of boys staggered past the art room carrying and dragging what looked like very large parts of a Meccano model and dumped them behind the school chapel. I suspected that the pieces of machinery were, collectively, some sort of printing press. I enquired and was told that it was indeed an ancient and obsolete press that had been given to the school Printing Club by Wallach's Printers of Pretoria. The club has found the press unusable and had jettisoned it. I thought I could rebuild it to print etchings - although I had no idea whether I could put the press together again or whether it would indeed be suitable to do the job. The Headmaster agreed to sell the press to me for a very reasonable price.

In 1972 I began teaching Art at Woodmead School north of Johannesburg and I transported the pieces of machinery to the school and assembled the press in the art room. It was a remarkable machine which consisted of a cast iron frame, steel gears and rollers, brass bearings and was, according to an inscription on a plaque attached to the press, manufactured at the Maschinenfabrik Kempewerk, Nuremberg, Germany. The name Kosmos showed in clear relief on the frame. The mechanical principle used in the design of the press was very similar to that of a traditional intaglio or etching press and great pressure could be applied by the geared top roller on the moving bed. The top roller had a much larger diameter than is normally the case with an intaglio press. It had a recessed steel bed which moved between the top and bottom rollers. There was a handle to operate the press on one side and a large flywheel on the opposite side. I estimated the press to be at least one hundred years old, but I have never been able to work out what it was originally used for in an industrial printing context. It may have been used for stereotype printing or to print 'type high' wood engravings, or it may have been a proofing press. Fortunately, I could use the press as I had assembled it - although it was not exactly what I wanted.

My next problem was that I needed to know more about intaglio printing techniques. Printmaking was not offered as a full fine art course at the University of the Witwatersrand during the Sixties, although my introduction to intaglio printing under Guiseppe Cattaneo was invaluable. I contacted the artist, Bill Ainslee, who owned a private art school in Johannesburg, later to become the Johannesburg Art Foundation. He put me in contact with two artists living in Alexandra, Johannesburg - Eric Mbata and Hugh Nolutshungu, who had recently completed their printmaking training at Rorke's Drift in Zululand. They were happy to teach me etching techniques in return for the use of my press. During the Easter holidays of 1972 Eric and Hugh stayed at the school and taught me how to make etched plates and pull prints the Rorke's Drift way. They had a profound influence on my etching technique which has remained with me to this day. My students and I used the press at Woodmead School for the next two years. I held my first solo exhibition in Pretoria at the Association of Arts gallery on Church Square in 1975 and included a number of etchings.

I later improved the press with a larger polished steel bed and a smaller diameter solid steel top roller made by a local engineering firm. I welded together a steel frame with cords and pulleys to assist in keeping the felt blanket off the bed during the printing process. The press is large and very heavy. I have moved it five times, with great difficulty, as I have moved my studio from one location to another in and around Pretoria. It is now in my studio in Lynnwood Glen, and I intend after some years to use it again, intensively, to make a series of etchings and monoprints. The press works superbly and is able to exert with ease the type of pressure essential for the making of good intaglio prints. Recently, merely as a decorative extra, I welded a flat steel depiction of a cow, which I had acquired on a trip to India, to the top of the steel frame on the press.

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