Paul Catherall’s architectural linocuts are rapidly becoming stars in the firmament of great British design. Art historian Clare Barry looks at the artist’s career to date.
On the Tube, years ago, I saw a London Underground poster promoting the opening of Tate Modern, a striking design that immediately demanded my attention. The image, a linocut by Paul Catherall, was the first of many commissioned by Transport for London and his recent poster series of seasonal cityscapes are amongst their most popular and best-selling to date. Catherall has rapidly become one of the most exciting artists working in lino today.
Paul Catherall does not come from a conventional printmaking background. Having studied Illustration, he does not consider himself a printmaker in any strict sense as he is not ‘a specialist in every area’, but the route leading him into linocutting has been crucial to his distinctive style. After studying at Leicester in the late 1980s, he moved to London to work as a commercial illustrator, mainly producing figurative paintings for book covers, packaging and advertisements.
Like all illustrators using traditional techniques and facing competition from computer aided design in the ’90s, Catherall was at a career crossroads, having either to branch out or pursue a different line of work. He cites a trip to San Francisco as a turning point, when he encountered a poster series by American illustrator Michael Schwab, whose work inspired him to take a gamble and start producing his own linocuts. It was a gamble that paid off because, ironically, it has only been since taking the step to produce his own work (which offered creative freedom but little security) that commissions have become more numerous.
It was at college in Leicester that he first came across the work of the great designer-illustrators of the 1930s: Edward McKnight Kauffer, Frank Newbold and, especially, Tom Purvis. Purvis, who worked as a poster designer for L.N.E.R between 1923 and 1945, has been a particular influence. Not only do his graphic line and vibrant block colours find an echo in Catherall’s work, but “he was one of the first people to say ‘I’m a commercial artist and it’s as good as being a painter'” says Catherall.
While his work can clearly be seen to continue in Purvis’s lineage, it blends a 1930s design sensibility with an unmistakable modernity. Catherall’s choice of predominantly modern buildings as a subject matter, from Centre Point to the Trellick Tower, appear with equal regularity in architectural polls of both the most loved and most loathed London landmarks, but his prints tap into a strong public fondness for them. It is the combination of large areas of block-printed colour and rigorously considered composition which makes Catherall’s work so striking. The buildings themselves are iconic but his fresh treatment, capturing them from unusual angles and in surprisingly juxtaposed colours, gives them strong visual impact.
A series featuring famous New York landmarks is even bolder than his London prints, the buildings starkly highlighted with a light key-line against a single deep primary colour, perfectly echoing the architecture’s character. Other works comment on the socio-political climate: in an early linocut of the Millennium Dome, Catherall uses the red and blue of opposing political parties and scaffolding scattered in the foreground to reflect the project’s turbulent history.
The physicality of linocutting is crucial to Catherall. An edition of 50 large prints such as Tate Burgundy can take up to a month to produce but the labour intensity is part of the technique’s appeal. The immediacy of painting gives way to the careful crafting of the composition as a whole – each shade is considered and refined, different elements of the design are tested and the precise registration of the image is essential. His early black and white monoprints, such as Lloyds of London, brilliantly capture the hi-tech style and modern materials of Foster’s building, but Catherall is perhaps best known for his colour. An interest in Cezanne influenced his early painting and traces of that influence, including his colour palette and increasing abstraction, can be discerned in Catherall’s more recent colour linocuts.
Catherall’s work has been seeping into the popular consciousness across various platforms. In addition to high profile posters and prints, he has designed book jackets for surprise hit The Cloud Spotter’s Guide and Mark Gattiss’s recent novel, The Devil in Amber, as well as posters for the 2004 London elections that deftly alluded to Russian Constructivism. The public display of his work is a central part of Catherall’s motivation on moving to London, his dream was of seeing his work on the Underground, or on postage stamps, as opposed to in the gallery.
While instantly recognisable as his, each new print represents a subtle departure from the last. One of his favourite pieces, Southbank Magenta, depicts a view of the Southbank Centre from an angle that invites more than cursory consideration. Catherall is increasingly interested in exploring abstraction: “I like the fact that if you know where it is you can see it,” he says, “but that, at the same time it works almost as an abstract pattern in its own right.” A similar effect can be seen in his depiction, which could equally double as a modernist textile design, of Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery. “The more you work with flat colours and shapes,” he says, “the more the old adage of ‘less is more’ becomes so ingrained in you that you end up wanting it to be so simple. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have lots going on, but, in terms of composition, it’s wanting it to get away from just depicting something realistically.”
Visiting his studio offers a chance to see the printing process at first hand. Despite careful design, it is often while printing that certain decisions are made. On several occasions he has decided, at the last minute, to leave out a whole colour layer, opting for the simplicity and effect of fewer colours. Amongst other commissions Catherall is currently working on three posters to promote the new London Overground line. The images illustrate Kew Gardens, Primrose Hill and the Hackney Empire theatre and each incorporates the signature shade of orange that will represent the line.
The overwhelmingly negative public reaction to the 2012 Olympics logo is a reminder of Britain’s strong tradition of design and its importance to the public. Catherall’s work, whether on a book cover, at a tube station, or in a gallery, exemplifies the strength of printmaking in both the public and private spheres. He views the inclusion of his work alongside that of revered past designers in an upcoming exhibition celebrating 100 Years of Travel Posters at the London Transport Museum as a real honour.