Stanley Donwood

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Stanley Donwood and the Albion press used to make the Fleet Street print

words William Wiles

Stanley Donwood is taking a break from being Radiohead’s official artist to make an enormous limited-edition print for the St Bride Foundation, just off Fleet Street in London.

“I’ve only got about a thousand little cuts to make,” he says of the second panel of his linocut, which is being printed today. But then he realises that that is actually a lot of work. “Oh, shit – that’s a really depressing thought,” he says, confidence evaporating. “Why did I have to think of that?”

Depressing thoughts are a fairly common phenomenon for Donwood. Since 1994, he has worked with indie supergroup Radiohead, a band nobody could describe as cheerful, designing its album art, merchandising and web presence. But he’s here at the St Bride Foundation, a print library and educational charity, on a more positive note. The foundation has just had its funding savagely cut, and Donwood is making the print to auction in order to raise funds.

Donwood has been experimenting with traditional printing since last year, when he produced a series of linocuts called London Views for an exhibition at the Lazarides Gallery in Soho. He started working with linocuts after seeing a copy of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, the first book to be printed in German. “They’d done it all with woodcuts, but really quite badly – there were meant to be pictures of these cities all round the world, but they looked a little like Nuremberg… it was all rather clunky and rubbish, and it very much appealed to my sense of how to do art.”

The Fleet Street print – like the Views before it – depicts London landmarks burning and collapsing into an encroaching inundation. It fits with a persistent Donwood theme: the sense of unfolding catastrophe. He’s profoundly gloomy about our prospects as a civilisation. “[I think] we’ve got to the point where the Mayan civilisation was just about to fall to bits, or the Aztecs or the Romans, they get to a point, and then… and I think we’ve reached the ‘and then’ moment.”

Discussing a series of works made last summer about suburbia, he says that they were inspired by a depression that came over him after reading a book about how wasteful car-based urban sprawl was: “I did the usual thing – I made some artwork to make myself feel better and infect others with my depression. Pass it on, really. Kind of like flu.”

After some busy cutting, the second panel of the Fleet Street print is ready to go. The limited-edition St Bride print is almost a metre across, far larger than the approximately A4 London Views, and has to be printed in two parts. It takes some trial and error to get the second panel lined up with the first, a process that produces a number of Nuremberg Chronicle-style mismatches. The tension that accompanies the reveal of each fresh impression – is it lined up? Has the ink distributed crisply and evenly? – makes the process one of continual minor drama, something that strongly appeals to Donwood.

“I’m very interested in how accidents, the unexpected and the just plain fuck-up, can create something better than you were expecting or intending,” he says. “The thing about printing is that you’ve got to keep it in your mind that whatever comes out is going to be a mirror image of what you’re drawing. It’s almost as if it’s not your drawing, like it’s your left-hand drawing.”

After some trial and error, the giant Fleet Street print is rolling (slowly) off the presses. An edition of 100 is being prepared, for probable auction in April. Donwood’s latest batch of paintings, I Love The Modern World, is on show at Tokyo Gallery + BTAP in Japan until 26 April.

images Duncan McKenzie

top image Stanley Donwood and the Albion press used to make the Fleet Street print

The linocut before inking
The linocut before inking

Donwood rolling on ink
Donwood rolling on ink

The first half of the finished print
The first half of the finished print

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