The first time I came across a Willie Rodger print was at the artist’s friends Ian and Elizabeth Hird’s Kelso Pottery, a handful of them on the walls overlooking the ceramics. The Hirds were friends of the acclaimed Glasgow printmaker, whose talent was exceptional and whose work has wide appeal, but remaining highly individualistic. On view at the RSA‘s Academicians’ Gallery, Across the Board is the first posthumous exhibition in Scotland showing Rodgers’ work (he died in 2018) and features many previously-unexhibited screenprints, woodcuts and linocuts from the late artist’s studio, intended as an insight into the practice of one of Scotland’s most skilful and acclaimed printmakers.
It is emphatically not a ‘retrospective’ – his voluminous output making that a task of far greater order – but it is a welcome reminder of breadth of his eclecticism and industry, and the best overview that could be hoped for at this stage, while we look forward to a future comprehensive gallery-filler. And as a surface-scratching insight into his brilliance it succeeds capably, benefitting massively from the the support of the Willie Rodger Art Trust, and Willie’s eldest son and biographer Robin, who holds office at the Academy, giving a fascinating talk on 2nd June.
The profile of Scottish printmakers is arguably now much higher than in Rodgers’ younger life, when it was still an unpopular art choice, and he was the first artist elected an Associate Member of the Academy under the newly-created discipline of Printmaker in 1989, when he was fifty – more than a generation since English-based printmakers such as Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings had made their mark on print history with their Arts & Crafts-inspired modernism.
Rodger rarely used a press, working primarily in relief-printmaking techniques – linocut and woodcut. But his imagination was active from the age of five, when one of his pieces was not selected for display on the school classroom wall. Viewing the RSA’s Academicians’ Gallery walls, you can’t help but perceive a persistent wilfulness in his work: the exhibition’s introductory text documents that he failed his linocutting course in his first year (1948) at Glasgow School of Art, and that following his graduation in Commercial Art and gaining a Post Diploma, his career in London as a Visualiser lasted less than a year – he returned to teach at his former school, Lenzie Academy, going on to become Principal Teacher of Art at Clydebank High School. Another left-turn was his leaving teaching in 1987, finding the bureaucracy tiresome and unproductive, in favour of following his own practice as an artist.
This proved highly productive, allowing him time with family and garden and crafting his contribution to Scottish printmaking, recognised by election to the RSA, firstly as Associate, then Academician in 2005, election to the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1994, and gaining an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Stirling (1999). He became enormously prolific, drawing and painting in all manner of media, with book illustrations, record sleeves, stained glass windows and sculpture. The restlessness is evident when you realise his catalogue comprises several hundred prints, and roughly the same number abandoned after the trial proof stages, by which time the next idea will have taken hold. So, the exhibition presents pieces spanning most of his career decades, adding lesser-known pieces and collaborations, such as intaglios and screenprints produced at Aberdeen’s Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen.
Booking is via the RSA’s website, and all works are available for purchase.
With thanks to Flora La Thangue at the RSA for her assistance, and my apologies for the fact the illustrations only hint at the breadth of work on display.