Jenny’s art belongs to Ironbridge

PUBLISHED: 11:44 10 July 2009 | UPDATED: 08:56 21 February 2013

Jack Holt goes up to see the etchings of an artist working with schoolchildren to create a huge iron bridge picture in time for this month's Heritage Festival

Jack Holt goes up to see the etchings of an artist working with schoolchildren to create a huge iron bridge picture in time for this month's Heritage Festival

High on the side of the Ironbridge Gorge a woman is busy. She's wearing scruffy jeans and an old top. Her hands are dirty and her face black smudged. The converted wash house is light and cool. In the winter, it will be cold and damp. A press and grinder have replaced mangles and washboards. She opens a tin of hard etching ground, sniffs its contents and is content.
"I love this smell," she says, only vaguely aware of my presence. I sniff it politely and murmur agreement. To be an artist, you have to love your work. Love your surroundings. Love your equipment and love your life.
Jenny Gunning exudes passion for her etchings. She reminds me that James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an etcher and demonstrates the particular way he wiped his plates (called white chalk wiping - not many people know that). She strokes her press fondly and explains that she and it have seen a lot of life together. "Don't tell my dad it squeaks," she adds, "he would be here like a shot to repair it."
Jenny's father, David, built the press. It's what he does - when he's not being an internationally renowned artist. David has drawn famous structures and World Heritage sites around the world. His etchings and paintings have been exhibited in The Royal Collection, the Houses of Parliament and the Wiltshire Heritage Museum.
The Gunnings are an artistic family. Mother Liz is a specialist ceramicist. David taught Jenny almost everything she knows. The rest she learned - painting restoration to conservation standard, framing to pass the Guild of Commended Framers test and how to survive as an artist.
Survival means working for profit as well as pleasure. When not in her wash house studio, Jenny Gunning is at her gallery in Dale End, Ironbridge. Her business is Ironbridge Fine Art and Framing Limited - located in the black wooden building most local people know as the former teddy bear museum. "I had another gallery in town," she says, "but this is much more convenient. It's larger, only a short walk from the centre of Ironbridge and there's parking."
It's light and airy too and allows Jenny to display the work of other local artists alongside the Gunnings' collections. These include Simon Stevenson (a wildlife painter who was featured in the July issue of Shropshire Life), Sue Roberts (papier mâché jewellery), Jon Baker (fine art photography) and artist in residence, Rod Willis (fine art paintings).
In her workshop at the back, Jenny does framing. She says: "It works very well alongside the gallery. Visitors to Ironbridge buy a painting and are a bit surprised that I can frame it for them to take home later in the day."
She does a lot of framing for Ironbridge residents and many local artists bring their work to Jenny for framing for exhibitions or to display in their own galleries. Unusual jobs come her way too. "There was an event at Silverstone racing circuit with certificates as prizes. They needed to be mounted and framed in 24 hours to be awarded on the Sunday. Local framers couldn't do it so they were brought to me."
For those interested in printmaking and drawing, Jenny runs workshops for small groups or as one-to-one tuition. These last half a day or more and cover subjects such as etching, photo-etching, relief printmaking, architectural and landscape drawing.
Are you feeling exhausted? There's more. Jenny runs drawing workshops and printmaking sessions for schools - for which she can provide the equipment and materials. At the time of writing, she has embarked on her largest project involving children - an art installation in Ironbridge for two weeks around the World Heritage Site Festival on September 27 and 28. Called the Young Hands across the Gorge (an appreciation of the iron bridge and the gorge by local children) project, pupils from 10 or more local primary schools will create a 19.5 metres wide by 9.75 metres high image of The Iron Bridge from a print etched by Jenny Gunning.
The enlarged original images will be divided into a number of sections - one for each school. Each section will be further divided into 16 smaller sections - one for each of 16 children. Each child then reproduces their section as original artwork. All 160 or more completed sections will be pieced together to produce the final image for display in Dale End Park, Ironbridge. It will be unveiled on the evening of Saturday, September 20.
Jenny says: "I'm really excited about this. Similar things have been done in other places around the world but nothing on this scale in Shropshire, as far as I'm aware. It's always great to get kids involved and to show them how by working together they can produce something spectacular."
And now it's time to watch Jenny at work as she produces something spectacular. Returning to her wash house studio, she explains that printmaking is thought to have originated with the Chinese in the 2nd Century. Printing from woodcuts was done in the 15th Century and was soon followed by printing from a metal engraving. It was later still that printmaking - intaglio printing - became an art form, with Hogarth, Rowlandson and then William Blake the best-known exponents.
"I use more modern materials and tools but the process is essentially the same as has been used for centuries," Jenny points out.
For Jenny, the starting point is usually a pencil drawing of a landscape or a structure. At the time of writing, she was working on several new etchings - one being a Manhattan skyline. Jenny visited America a few years ago and sketched and photographed several scenes she wanted to reproduce. For the skyline, she drew it freehand from a panoramic photograph - reducing the scale as she went along. This painfully slow and precise process took her no fewer than seven months.
The plate was then prepared for the etching process. Various metals can be used but Jenny invariably opts for steel sheet. Having cut the sheet of steel to the correct size, Jenny warms it on a hot plate and begins to apply 'ground'). To ensure an even layer of ground, it is worked into the grain of the metal with a 'dabber' - traditionally a rod of rolled woven wool blankets.
Jenny says, "You take the plate off the heat and as it cools, the ground dries. You then reverse your drawing onto the plate and go over the lines to mark the ground."
The result is fine lines. Jenny goes over them with a pointed scraper to remove more ground and make the lines more prominent.
Jenny says: "When I'm happy with the plate, I place it in a bath of nitric acid solution and leave it to soak. The acid etches the metal where there's no ground." Once the etched plate has been washed and dried, it is inked. A dabber is once again used to push the ink onto the (warmed) plate and the excess is scraped off and wiped away with newspaper as the plate cools and the ink begins to lose its viscosity.
Next, we move to the press which Jenny is so fond of. Sheets of tissue plate are laid down first, followed by the plate (face up). Wetted printing paper goes on next. More tissue paper follows before the printing blanket (or up to three) is laid in place.
With this being the first print from this plate, Jenny was becoming noticeably energised - months of hard work were about to be tested. She pulled on the handles of the press carefully and deliberately and as she did so, the plate was squeezed between the rollers in the manner of a shirt going through a mangle - except that creases were the last thing she wanted.
Lifting the blanket and then the paper, Jenny revealed a near perfect print. It was spectacular too - in scale and detail. Jenny says: "The first 10 prints are called artist's proofs. I'll use them to get the plate perfect. I'll burnish out unwanted marks or remove them with wire wool. If there are any scratches, I'll build these up slowly with metal filler."
Only a limited number of prints (called an edition) will be made from a plate. The first print of an edition is always the most valuable - Jenny has collectors who will bid for hers. There is also something called a Bon à tirer (the best of the edition), which is the last of the artist's proofs and is also highly prized.
Jenny says, "I have to mark all my prints and keep proper records so that they can be authenticated."
I asked another question but Jenny's mind was already elsewhere as she inspected the plate minutely. I think she was in love again...

Jenny Gunning
Ironbridge Fine Art and Framing Limited
Dale End
01952 434033
Gallery opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 9am-5pm and Sunday 11am-4pm



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