The market in artists' prints has a long history but a decline in popularity which set in before the Second World War continued for some years after. A number of artists, however, successfully pursued printmaking as part of their output and several specialist studios were created or revived to facilitate the production of 'original prints'. The 1960's saw a sudden and spectacular rise in the availability of prints; this was partly due to technological advances, such as photomechanical screenprinting, and partly to a strong desire among many young artists of the time to ensure that their work reached as large a popular audience as possible.
The Pop Artists in particular had the express aim of producing work relating to contemporary culture, with references to everyday life, pop music, films, advertising, pin-ups and celebrities. They wanted art to be glamorous, mass-produced, popular, and expendable. Peter Blake used an accessible, graphic style in his paintings and collages to create compelling images which frequently reflected and commented on aspects of American popular culture. His Babe Rainbow was screenprinted on tin in an edition of ten thousand and sold at £1 each. The artist credited with sparking off the Pop Art movement was Richard Hamilton who, with Eduardo Paolozzi in the 1950's began to attack idealist theories of art, using photographs and advertising images to comment on post-war, consumer-oriented society. His 1966 screenprint My Marilyn features a set of photographs of Marilyn Monroe published after her death. Hamilton underlines the poignancy of the obliterating marks made by the actress on the proofs. Another major Pop Art figure was R B Kitaj who drew on literary, historical and political images as well as those from contemporary culture as in Go and Get Killed Comrade, We Need a Byron in the Movement.
Prints were popular also as a means of promoting Op Art works which play tricks with the eye and evoke optical effects such as spatial distortion and the simulation of movement. Bridget Riley was the foremost exponent in Britain, an early example being Untitled (1962).
A number of prints by American artists are included in the collection. Birmingham Race Riot is a typical example of Andy Warhol's use of mass media communications which at once provides a political comment and questions the boundaries of art. Guy as Guy by Stuart Davis reflects the ideas of many artists at this time who exhaustively explored the relationship between colour and shape on the flat surface. Ellsworth Kelly's Untitled (1964) is a more extreme and pared-down treatment of the theme.