‘Funny old-fashioned artists’: Over 40 years of printmaking at Dartington

This article is part of the People Make Dartington series, meeting a wide range of the brilliantly diverse individuals and businesses who contribute to Dartington estate life. View the full collection here
It all started when painter Michael Honnor tried a day’s printmaking course in his youth: ‘lithography really grabbed me on that day’ he says. So much that he went on to start a printmaking evening class in Dartington’s Adult Education Centre in 1974 that celebrated its 40th birthday in 2016.

‘Everything was quite homemade,’ he says, ‘we converted old mangles for presses’ in two beautiful craft studios that had been designed by William Lescaze for the Elmhirsts in the 1930s. The place was ‘humming with activity’: abstract textile printer Susan Bosence was a regular visitor from her Sigford workshop, Ruth Ash taught weaving and Joy Nightingale ran a pottery.

The centre was founded and run by The Dartington Hall Trust on the principles of inclusion and aimed to blur the distinction between amateur and professional. ‘Dartington has always believed in offering anyone, especially locals, the chance to be involved in high art. I try to introduce people to amazing things, to encourage people that they can work at the highest standard.’

Michael Honnor in his printmaking studio
In his classes today you can learn how to make etchings, woodcuts, linocuts, collagraphs, engravings, drypoints, mezzotints and of course lithography – a printing process on metal or stone where the image is created in grease which attracts oil-based ink. ‘Funny old-fashioned artists like me still use lithographic stone’ says Michael, ‘which is quarried in Bavaria where it’s very pure and dense’.

Not funny, but of the moment: Dartington has recently expanded its adult education programme with a big new range of craft courses. Interest in the handmade is growing: a longing perhaps arising from our daily immersion in virtual and mass produced environments. Dartington has also reopened some of its underused spaces for artists, creating the Shippon Artists Studios, just next door to the printmakers. ‘For me printmaking is an art rather than a craft: it’s not just to do with skills and techniques, but it helps people to express things,’ says Michael.

It’s not all been plain sailing. There was the ‘night of the long knives in the 1980s in the education department where there were enormous cuts and I was shifted into the Craft Education building at Schumacher College’ for example; or the last ten years when the ‘irony is that things have survived by keeping a low profile’.

‘I’m very encouraged by what’s happening at the moment. It’s nice to see homemade signs going up – that people are free and not feeling cowed. I didn’t think I would see that day that we would be on the road to better things. I really wish Rhodri well. I would much rather we ran out of money doing what we should be doing.’

What gives him most pleasure forty years on is ‘the atmosphere of really contented absorption in the workshop. People, and children especially, love the element of surprise when the print is revealed; and the action of pressing, like making a footprint in clay, he says. ‘I enjoy finding the right solution for people. I feel that I’m sometimes quite successful at it. I’m pleased when I can find the right practical solution to what they want to express.’