DAVID ROSE: a sense of joy

BY Michael Kempson, Head of Printmaking UNSW COFA


David Rose drawing.jpg

In 1980, I commenced a Bachelor’s degree at Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education (now UNSW Art & Design) and promptly discovered the fascinating world of the fine art original print. It was in this environment that I learnt to appreciate the phenomenal achievement of engineering found in print technology – and the science of how we combine pigment, oil, water and paper under pressure in numerous ways to package and broadly circulate innovative ideas. I discovered in print’s seemingly arcane rituals that it is a method of making that encompasses many beguiling features, none more prominent than its unique expressive range: the tactility recorded in a traditional print; the haptic manipulation of layering, scraping or cutting that together provides a kinaesthetic experience of an individual’s creative process. This tangible and intimate link to the hand of an artist spans generations and attests to the wonders of human ingenuity.

A tertiary art school educative experience should foster knowledge, connection and discernment with the subject at hand, including the active cultivation of connoisseurship that facilitates the recognition and analysis of work by artists you admire. Of the many accomplished artists in Sydney during the early 1980s who were committed to using the autographic and photo-mechanical applications of print media available in this pre-digital age, three clearly resonated. There was Earle Backen, whose considerable experience, garnered initially at the fabled Atelier 17 in Paris, informed not only his etching practice but decades of work as a print educator; Ruth Faerber, who having established an enviable reputation as a modernist working with lithography, demonstrated her insatiable creative appetite by breaking new ground with cast paper pulp. And then there was David Rose, arguably the finest printmaker this country has ever produced.

David Rose had a substantial presence in the print world I sought to inhabit, and his graphic oeuvre was a constant presence in my life. His prints were everywhere, particularly his serigraphs, a more mysterious term the art world uses for screenprints. They told precise stories of place, expressed with such grace and elegance that it was clear Rose possessed a mastery like no other. To truly comprehend the remarkable achievement that is evident in the prints he produced in the decade of the 1970s and then into the 80s and 90s, there needs to be an appreciation that in reaching the pinnacle of one’s profession there is always a beginning. The development of an artistic temperament is the result of an accumulation of life’s experience, in concert with the insight and direction that is offered by a formal education.

Born in Melbourne in 1936, David George Rose was the son of George Linney Rose and Aubrey née Trevelyan. Hinting at his later creative interest in trees and the landscape, Rose graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Forestry) in 1959, at the now defunct Australian Forestry School in Yarralumla in the ACT. Then, in 1960, a significant personal event occurred: Rose married Jennifer Louise née Mannigel, whom he had met at the Australian Forestry School Ball in 1957, and together they established and shared a creative, intellectually liberal household in Sydney. 

While Rose worked briefly for the Forestry Commission’s Division of Wood Technology in Sydney, he had other more persuasive interests. A courageous decision was made that is best expressed in his own words, ‘My first venture into printmaking was in 1961, about a year after I left a position as research officer with the Forestry Commission to take on the profession of full-time artist. The first impetus in this direction may have been my admiration at the time for the later lithographs of Picasso and the early etching of (Paul) Klee. I was also attracted by the possibility that prints offered, of being able to keep a record of my work.’ This editionable nature of printmaking meant that whatever the tempting commercial scenarios, Rose could always retain a memento from each creative foray, suggesting a prescience about the substantial contribution he would go on and make to the cultural life of our nation. With the amount of thought, effort and commitment that went into the making of his art I imagine that Rose treated his prints like family, so understandably he didn’t want to wholly surrender his progeny.

Although lithography was the medium that was most insistent in its appeal to Rose, the reality for artists in Sydney at the time was that no fine art lithographic facility existed. Contrastingly, Tatyana Grosman’s Universal Limited Art Editions, established in 1957 in New York, was a lithographic workshop that set the benchmark for printmaking in post-war America. Ever the problem-solver, Rose turned to screenprinting, primarily because it was the closest way to achieve a similar result with the additional benefit of being relatively simple to establish in a home studio. 

Rose’s early attempts must have been so accomplished that he began teaching at the National Art School (NAS) at Darlinghurst in the early 1960s. The late painter and academic Peter Pinson, acknowledged as the great eulogist of his generation, recounted at Rose’s funeral in 2006, ‘It was 1962, and David shared the teaching of a printmaking class at NAS with Arthur Freeman. David was about 26 years old, although he looked younger. He was unassuming, but would bring to class a portfolio of prints he had recently completed, which we could look at if we wished. We were impressed with their semi-abstract vitality, and awed by their technical virtuosity.’ In 1963, demonstrating the perseverance that would define his legacy, Rose eventually found a way to experiment with lithography that resulted in prints such as Cow in drought (1963) and Mother and son (1963) in what he obliquely described as “hieratic versions of the human figure.”

This activity laid the groundwork for a 15-month journey of research and discovery in Europe that commenced in 1964. It also afforded Rose the privilege to be a student again. He committed time in the evenings for the formal study of etching at the Escuela Lonja in the Calle Hospital district in Barcelona, a school famous for its several centuries of graphic tradition. True to form, Rose also discovered a set of old limestone matrixes at Sr. Sales commercial lithographic workshop, also in Barcelona, where he drew with greasy crayons onto a smoothly grained surface of stone to produce ten images that hinted at Spanish themes.

When David and Jenny Rose returned from Europe, there were many ideas waiting to coalesce into coherent artistic output. Apart from resuming his part-time teaching position at NAS in 1967, a priority was to establish a lithographic studio to put these experiences into action. However, the perennial problems of infrastructure and a permanent address, were the bane of an artist/printmaker’s existence. With the common sense inherit in his ordered, practical mind he conceded that screenprinting was still the only viable alternative. Subsequent prints produced in the late 1960s bordered on abstraction, using a combination of contrary pictorial elements. The rich deposits of flat colour laid down by screenprinting actually suited the developing vision of Rose, to which he added a series of gestural, calligraphic marks. In addition, there were attempts to broaden his printmaking repertoire through an investigation of relief printing, where he experimented by inking up a variety of found objects and sheets of hardboard and printing them onto paper. As a way of reinforcing Rose’s inventiveness, these were created using a converted mangle press with its mechanism adapted to accommodate a bedplate with felt and foam blankets of the appropriate thickness sourced to achieve his desired results.

The 1960s were momentous times for the visual arts, particularly with the introduction of photo-mechanical technologies into fine art discourse, following the trans-Atlantic development of Pop Art in the late 1950s. Artists Richard Hamilton, Joe Tilson, Eduardo Paolozzi and R.B. Kitaj in England, and their contemporaries in the USA like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein manipulated and then experimented with the formal devices of commercial printing, the most notable being the half-tone method. This offered a way of depicting the infinite range of continuous tone found in a photographic image by using dots of varying scale and spacing between the non-printing area. A complex photo-generated image could be produced by using just one colour and it was an ideal development for artists and screenprinting workshops that could directly apply the principles of this technology. The printed images made at Chris Prater’s London-based Kelpra Studio, and the increasing dimension of printed art being developed in the burgeoning printshops in America, played a part in the evolutionary change of fine art practice and its instruction.

The Canadian artist and academic Walter Jule reasoned that the transformation of art education over the middle and closing stages of the 20th century came in part as a response to the introduction of photo-mechanical means of reproduction and the subsequent range of influential theories that espouse such esoteric notions as the phenomenological critique and deconstructive post-modernism. This led to a realigning of the focus away from art grounded in a personal or privileged vision and, by extension, from craft-centred practice and technical virtuosity. Over time, art schools began to restructure their programs to serve the paramount notion of the ‘idea’ that drives knowledge-based practice, the core focus of most contemporary visual art institutions in the world today.

Rose was a well-informed practitioner who would have sensed the winds of change while in Europe, but the consequences of these new developments were far from his mind in 1969 as he began a series of works that referenced half-tone dots. Ironically, in sourcing a new and increasingly pre-eminent photo-based technology, many of the stencils that he prepared, which controlled where a colour layer was to be printed, were hand-cut. This was counter to the accepted photo-mechanical method of exposing a light sensitive stencil film through a positive, constructed for the purpose, that was then attached to the screen for printing. This choice may have been a practical solution, as he did not have easy access to a process camera needed to create the positives. The Game series (1970), Inside (1971) and Fold (1971) along with Equilateral I (1971) and Equilateral II (1971) are fine examples of inventive visual essays that riffed on the structures inherent in square, rectangular and triangular grids.

All of the prints from this period, and the sparse clarity of each composition, underscore the shrewd technical problem-solving that was an essential component in their realisation. Rose’s supreme gifts were on display, for these prints are examples of art production requiring the synthesis of complex human endeavour constructed to look effortlessly simple. ‘At this time I was unaware of the hand painted half-tones used by Gerald Laing in 1965 and the magnified half-tones used in prints by Harold Cohen and others in about 1967.’ Rose would not have been immediately aware of contemporaneous applications of these technologies, so it is a measure of the scope of his creative intellect that he found intuitive parallels with many of the world’s leading artists of the period. Other coincidences were revealed when he hand-cut half-tone versions of photographs by the colourful Englishman Eadweard Muybridge, most famous for his sequential studies of human locomotion, into compositions that formed the Figure (Muybridge) series (1972). It was only later that Rose was to find that Francis Bacon, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney had created paintings based on similar sources.

As his early 1970s prints were being brought into the world, parallel events of greater significance transpired. Most importantly the Roses celebrated the arrival of their daughter Kirsten in 1971, with the birth of son Campion following in 1973. In this year, the family began to spend an increasing amount of time at their holiday cottage in the community of Bateau Bay to the north of Sydney. Interestingly, it was originally known as Boat Harbour, until the allure of the French word for boat swayed the marketing boffins at the local Central Coast Council, who changed it in the early 1970s to its more exotic moniker.

Time spent in Bateau Bay was to be pivotal for Rose’s practice, the most important early outcome being the production of some watercolour studies in 1973 that formed the basis of a series of seminal lithographs called the Bateau Bay series (1973), that would go on to position his vision of this small coastal environment into the broader national consciousness. This in turn would lead, over the following 30 odd years, to the creation of some of the most significant representations of the Australian landscape ever produced in print. For the Bateau Bay series Rose extended the abstracted motifs of the circle used in prints like Equilateral III (1973), Circle I (1973) and Circle primary (1973), while introducing into the underpinning geometric framework a figurative reference that sought to articulate the sweeping parabola of the water’s edge along the beach between the two headlands. Rose said of these works, ‘they were based on a circular format with a central horizon of sea dividing the upper dome of the sky from the lower arc of sand.’ A corresponding screenprint Bateau Bay I (1973) framed the composition within the rectangular format of the sheet, and used minimal pools of ink printed around the edge of the paper. The horizon line of the sea is depicted as an upward pointing curve, echoing a circular compositional strategy first deployed in the screenprint Rainbow (1967). 

During the 1970s, Rose would also make more intimate observations which led to a series of still-life images, depictions of wildlife, and landscape vignettes of the Central Coast region. One of the earliest was Peach Bowl (1973), a lithograph that extended the semi-circular motif of the Bateau Bay series but inverted it to create a vessel containing fruit. In the search for beauty in the everyday he sought to depict the inevitable cycles of growth and change in the sheerest way possible. ‘Growth is the only evidence of life’ said English priest and poet John Henry Newman, and so, it is not by chance that we use the same word ‘culture’ when we speak both of cultivating our gardens and of cultivating our minds. Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans believed, ‘culture to be the very means through which we realise the fullness of our humanity.’ Like all good teachers, in his own writing, Rose mostly focusses on revealing intentions relative to demystifying his method. Of his lithographs Hibiscus (3 o’clock) (1974), Hibiscus (4 o’clock) (1974) and Hibiscus (next morning) (1974) Rose states, ‘they show the strong urge toward austerity that I feel, and the importance I place on regarding the entire sheet of paper as the field of action of the print. Even when the print appears complex, I feel that simplicity tends to be a common factor.’  In terms of the conceptual motivations that drove his practice, Rose only ever hinted, for the thinking and feeling of this cultured man was evident in every work he made. He was wise enough to let the work speak for itself.

The role of empty space in an artwork and how a carefully placed line can mediate it, in concert with the frame of reference defined by the dimensions of the sheet of paper, are qualities of an Asian visual sensibility. The influence of Asia was beginning to slowly gather momentum in this period of Australian history, despite the fact that many of our most notable artists had long been connected with and influenced by the art of this hemisphere. Cold War dynamics were thawing following Gough Whitlam’s visit to Beijing in 1971, shortly before Richard Nixon’s 1972 détente, and the tide of public opinion was turning on the war in Vietnam. The writer and academic Joanna Mendelsshon described Rose’s Bateau Bay prints along with the Eucalypt series (1975/76) that followed, as coming from ‘an aesthetic that partly derives from Japanese prints’. This was confirmed by one of his most memorable screenprints, Rain – Bateau Bay (1975) that revealed the direct influence of Utagawa Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower at Shōno (1834/35) from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, from one of the great masters of mokuhanga and the artistic genre we know as ukiyo-e.

Prior to his homage to Hiroshige, the screenprint Bateau Bay – late afternoon (1974) had signalled the beginning of a transition from his earlier sparser landscapes to the more complex style of his latter images. There was a restrained reference to the Japanese woodblock print, but the image resembles a photograph, despite that fact that all the stencils, bar one, where made by hand. Rose’s parched humour is at play, like an 'in joke' for colleagues who would understood how it was constructed. In the lower right-hand corner is a splash of black ink that firmly declares to the viewer the hand-crafted antecedents of the image, but his gestural deposit is the only layer of colour applied to this image that has been made photo-mechanically. While it is an exemplar of technical virtuosity and a wry concession to photography, the image reinforces an unwavering connection to this thin ribbon of coastline that he returns to again and again. Writing in 1975 for the Print Council of Australia’s journal Imprint at close to the mid-point of his artistic production, Rose said, ‘Today I feel a sense of identification with the natural environment which earlier tended to be with the human figure. It seems likely that this deep response will be a central factor in my work for some time to come.’ There is a contentedness underpinning all of the works in the period from the mid to late 1970s.

A decision was made to move the family during the Christmas of 1976 to a property called ‘Hillside’ in Ourimbah, not far inland from Bateau Bay. Rose didn’t commute to Sydney, as he left his part-time teaching work in the same year. A familial routine was established and he was never far from his work as the studio he built, converting the property's derelict fruit packing shed, was a short stroll from the house. At David’s funeral in 2006, his daughter Kirsten eloquently and affectionately reminisced about her father and their time together, for a parent is a precious thing no matter how old you are, or they get. ‘I loved being in his spacious, well-organised studio with its atmosphere of industry, inspired enthusiasm and cheerful hard slog. He spent long hours there working every day he was able, perhaps humming along to a favourite Charles Aznavour or Frank Sinatra cassette, and ignoring such irrelevant details as eating or drinking.’ David sported the lithe physique of a whippet, and while a stringent work ethic may keep you slim, Kirsten revealed that he had energy to burn. ‘After a hard day’s work, if there was any daylight left, he enjoyed nothing better than flogging up and down several kilometres of hills along Peach Orchard Road… This would result in him limping home happy and exhausted, and so drenched with sweat the floor would need mopping.'

It was here in this idyllic setting, within his studio in the midst of the garden used for inspiration, that he forged a successful career as a full-time artist/printmaker. In an Australian context during the 70s, this alone was a colossal achievement. Even today, printmakers face an enormous challenge to maintain a livelihood through their work. When Rose purchased an etching press, he was finally able put into action one aspect of the skill-base established in Spain during the 60s. He cut metal printing plates into circles and reprised the Bateau Bay themes, to create Bateau Bay plate I (1976) and Bateau Bay plate II (1976). Rather than duplicate the graphic structures of the previous lithographs and screenprints, he used the inherent qualities that intaglio processes possess; the delicate line of hardground etching and the nuanced tonal range of aquatint. Then, using almost exclusively the lift ground aquatint method, prints like Aubergine aquatint (1976), Gerbera (1976), Marigolds (1976), Coloured in Zinnia (1976), Palms at Ourimbah (1977), Ourimbah studio as a willow pattern (1978), Landscape with kookaburra feather (1978), Donkey (1978) and one of my personal favourites Guinea hen (1979) followed, each offering surprising new turns in Rose’s creative journey.

Rose’s prodigious output of screenprints during the late 70s and early 80s spanned explorations of his home environs and various other locations on the Central Coast. Autumn mulberry (1977) and Chrysanthemum (1980) were sourced from his garden. Ourimbah morning (1977), Open stand (1977) and Ourimbah profile in late afternoon (1979) were an outward looking glance from the confines of the property. Further afield subjects such as Berry’s Lane hill with low flying kookaburra (1979), Return to Bateau Bay (1979), Clouds and sunshine, Bateau Bay (1980), Angophoras (1981) and Colo River (1981) resulted from excursions within the vicinity. An intimate understanding of country was developed in each of these images, providing opportunities to hone his skills of observation and depiction. The subtle nuances in the compositions of trees, grass, stone and earth were rendered with conviction through the accumulation of an increasing amount of thin stencilled layers of colour. When Joanna Mendelsshon opened a retrospective of his prints in 2008 at the Gosford Regional Gallery she said, ‘David Rose was so much an artist of place. Look around you. This is the great artist of the Central Coast.’

Tragedy visited the Rose family when Jenny died on September 17, 1982. Suffice it to say it left those that remained bereft. The screenprint, Winter sun, Bateau Bay (1982) takes on a more poignant reading with this intimate insight into the artist’s personal circumstances. Following a period of mourning and inconsolable despair, David developed a relationship with Hannelore Berry, who had been living in Ourimbah after migrating from Germany in 1966. Both David and Hanne shared the experience of the loss of a life partner, and she brought into the developing dynamic two children of her own, Susan and Ron. They were married and began a new life together with their children, open to the challenges that blended families face.

Slowly, Rose was able to re-enter the studio. His compulsion to make was so innate that there would have been comfort in the discipline of a familiar routine. Furthermore, there was the practical necessity of supporting the family with his work. A sense of melancholy pervades the majority of the prints produced between 1983 and 1985. In a medium designed to convey the colours of the spectrum, his still-life screenprints Daisies, brush and ink (1983), Drawing magnolias (1983) and Daisies (from close up) (1984) were predominantly monochromatic. The landscapes Maitland Bay, Boudi (1983), Bush (winter morning) (1983), Bush drawing with magpie (1983), Rock split (Lisarow) (1984) and Drawing the bush at Ourimbah (1985) are subdued to such a degree that they suggest an overcast sky. While Rose never formally made connections between his personal experiences and the outcomes of his work he did confess, ‘What you are going through can certainly show in your work. Maybe I use the work to forget the bad times, I don’t know?’ Hindsight proffers that these prints may reflect the pain of loss. Rose needed to continue to express himself creatively and rediscover, in the action of doing, the raison d'être of his work - that it affirms life. Over time, the palette gradually lightened, the greys made way for primaries and eventually it was suffused with a multitude of hues. 

Normally artist/printmakers specialise on one of the core print mediums of relief, intaglio, lithography and serigraphy and then spend their working lives honing its specific language to best articulate an idea. Rose had a thorough working knowledge of all of the mediums and chose to work consistently with three. He was exceptional in each. There would only be a handful of printmakers in the history of Australian art who could even come close to Rose’s comprehensive range. He should be remembered as a nonpareil in his profession even at a time when there were many great printmakers plying their trade. He was best known for his astounding screenprints. Joanna Mendelssohn commented, ‘This is the medium of millions of street posters. It can be as rough as guts for political protests, but David Rose made it as smooth as silk.’ 

Peter Pinson remembered the curator and publisher Lou Klepac saying of Rose, ‘David seemed to know trees from the inside as well as the outside. That is, he plumbed their character as well as their appearance.’ His affinity with the core content gleaned from his primary degree was fundamental in his creative process, which almost always began with a preliminary drawing done en plein air. Sometimes they were simple drawings made with pencil or ink that needed considerable work to extrapolate into a print, but if he was doing a gouache study he could describe the information in front of him with such precision that the prints he made subsequently were very close to this initial drawing. Rose understood the stencil based process of making a print and he had such control as a screenprinter that he could render just about any type of atmosphere or surface, but it was always in the service of his creative intentions.

He knew what was important in a picture. ‘My means has to be appropriate to the theme. I think about things like whether the ink should be shiny or flat… I like a sky to be transparent, I like a rock to be flat, water to be shiny. You have to be in sympathy with the material chosen. You have to enjoy solving problems to be any kind of printmaker.’ His later works were remarkably consistent in their quality, and there was never a shortage of material. ‘More and more information kept flooding in… Eventually I became more concerned with the feel of being there. More the total atmosphere than the elements – more the time of the day.’

Over the next 21 years, Rose’s engagement with the landscape was extended beyond the Central Coast as there were opportunities to travel and discover new experiences. These were synthesised into material form in a consistent regimen of printmaking that resulted in images like Sunrise – East Kimberleys (1987), Near the entrance to Echidna chasm (1987), First Creek Frazer Island (1988), Baobab near Kununurra (1988), On the road to Kajabbi (1989), Rain at Ellery Creek, Central Australia (1989), Late afternoon in the Bungle Bungles (1990), Autumn at Macquarie River (1993), The Fish River in April (1994), Creek near Jindabyne (1995), Morning moon, Leichhardt Hills (1997), At Tidal River, Wilson’s Promontory (1998), Angophora, Salamander Bay (2001) and Evening from Horseshoe Bay (2002), all of which emphatically declare that, as a screenprinter, he was without peer as an artist of the Australian landscape. 

In 2001, Rose reprised his interest with lithography and in the figure. He approached me to investigate the possibility of gaining access to some lithographic plates and a press. I jumped at the chance to work with a man that I idolised. Two monochromatic lithographs Life drawing #2 (getting near Degas) (2001) and Life drawing #3 (2001) were editioned in black ink, using the skills of another sublimely talented printmaker Rew Hanks. Rose later added a transparent beige-brown as a base colour to ground the drawn elements onto the sheet of paper. When the prints were delivered to his home in Ourimbah, it was an opportunity to get to know David a little better and to see his studio, the source of so many treasures of Australian printmaking. One of the highlights of my professional career was the thrill of slowly examining prints in the presence of the artist. Although this spanned many hours, David was patient with my questions and openly generous with his answers. Sadly, I had the opportunity to visit only a few more times, but we developed a strong bond in our shared love of printmaking. It was during these visits with David and then with Hanne following David’s death that I came to fully comprehended his unquenchable drive to create and his love of experimenting with other ways of making. It is a measure of the respect other artists had for him, that when he developed an interest in creating work using ceramics, legends of the discipline in Australia, like Peter Rushforth, offered their support and guidance.

David Rose, this great and gentle man, passed away on December 10, 2006. Five days later the mourners who attended his funeral were offered two discreet keepsakes. They were simple, plastic-coated bookmarks that each featured a single photograph of the artist. In both versions David looks serenely at the camera, the first as a handsome vibrant younger man while the other is more wistful, with the passage of time and illness more evident. I treasure these modest tokens. They are constant companions on the workbench I use to create my prints. I’m not precious with them, they have been stained with the residue of years of labour and effort, then wiped clean before work begins anew, but their presence as a silent but insistent mentor, is a reminder of the standard set.  Although of a naturally reserved disposition, these definitive portraits epitomise David’s warmth and generosity, his talent and acuity, his determination and humility. Abiding lessons that focus on what is good in the world were offered from my brief friendship, and the much longer and continuing relationship I have with David’s work. They encourage me to always strive to do my best and not to be distracted by the expectations of others. A constant reminder that we are all both students and teachers, depending upon the situation; and when it comes to making a work of art, if you have something to say, do so with a sense of joy, just as David Rose would have done.


Michael Kempson

December 2017