The Prints of Patrick Caulfield: a Collector’s Appreciation

By Fowler W. Martin

I think is not uncommon that we do things in life that we did not set out to do. I did not set out to collect Patrick Caulfield’s prints, but many years later I find myself with a small collection that is broadly representative of Caulfield’s 35 years of activity in this field, a period in which 90 editions of his prints were released.

The 17 prints in this show span almost the entire period – going from simple, highly representational works, to images of greater complexity, to simple images again, but now slightly more abstract.

They are arranged in the gallery not by date, but rather in an attempt to best please the eye. A book of all of Caulfield’s prints, arranged in order of completion, is available at the reception desk for inspection as is other material about the artist and his work.

My interest in Caulfield’s work developed – rather indirectly -- as a result of living in Tokyo for five years during the early 1970s. I was a foreign correspondent for a financial news service and tried to live that life – keeping my possessions to a minimum such that, in theory at any rate, they could all fit in a single taxicab. Sky-high rents and tiny apartments made it relatively easy to stick to that goal. Consequently, I did not buy any works of art.

But I did come to appreciate a certain form of Japanese brush painting. These relatively simple, black and white images seemed very restful amid the non-stop intensity of life in a noisy, densely populated city where everyone appeared to be constantly on the move.

In 1975, I relocated to London, ready to buy a flat and settle into a more comfortable style of life. With the housing market depressed as a result of very high interest rates, I soon found one in Chelsea, just off the King’s Road and not far from Sloan Square where I caught the Underground to reach my office near Fleet Street, then the center of the British newspaper industry.

The flat was reasonably large with rooms on more than one floor, but it was a little like a tunnel in that the only windows were on the two ends. In between lay what seemed like acres of bare wall space.

The low-cost option would have been museum-type posters. But by then, I felt I was ready for a step up to “real” art – in this case what are known as original prints. These are issued in limited editions and are generally numbered and signed by the artist. I was familiar with such work because I’d long been a fan of prints made by artists such as Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder. But that was before I thought I might purchase one.

The route from my flat to Sloan Square took me past a shop displaying a rather eclectic collection of art objects, surely assembled primarily with interior decoration requirements in mind.

It had an extensive window display and one image that caught my eye was a black and white print of a spider plant, or at least some part of such a plant, the remainder obscured by -- what? Perhaps the top of a table?

It took a couple of months of eying it every day (perhaps I was hoping it would sell and I wouldn’t have to take the plunge) before I finally developed the courage to buy it – already framed and ready to hang. It was then that I discovered it was a silkscreen print done in 1973 by a British artist named Patrick Caulfield. I had never heard of him.

After living with the print for a while and finding that I liked it a great deal (it was, indeed, a very restful image promoting a sense of cool serenity after a hectic day in the newsroom), I returned to the shop and asked the owner if he had any more – particularly in black and white. He had none and was unable to suggest where any others, if they existed, might be found.

As a financial journalist in London, one reads “The Financial Times” and some months after I purchased “Spider Plant,” I read a review in the FT of a new edition of Caulfield prints, being published by a gallery called Waddington’s in Cork St., then the heart of the London art world. There I met Alan Cristea, who oversaw Waddington’s print operations (and later bought the division, forming Alan Cristea Gallery) and through him, I became acquainted with Caulfield’s other work and with the work of a number of contemporary British artists whose prints Waddington’s, and later Alan Cristea Gallery, published or stocked.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my life as a collector of prints had begun.

Caulfield, who died in 2005, was a significant member of a loose group of post World War II British artists who re-defined art in England. His work, which consists of paintings as well as prints, resides in the collections of a number of major art institutions.

What is the salient feature of Caulfield’s work with prints? In my mind these images offer viewers what might be termed a passport to aesthetics – a relatively easy, but at the same time intriguing, path to understanding what makes the felicitous arrangement of forms and colors in a defined space satisfying in the sense that one experiences, at a minimum, a sense of pleasure in looking at them, not just once, but repeatedly. That having been achieved, viewers, through additional consideration, may be able to achieve measures of emotional, spiritual and intellectual satisfaction as well.

To one degree or another, I have found all of these over the years. Visitors who wish to view and then make up their own mind about these prints might want to stop reading here and simply look at the slide show. What follows is my personal appreciation of some of these images – comments that are meant to be provocative as opposed to dispositive.