Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair stalwart is a hub for artists at all levels in south-east London
The buzz and pomp of Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in full swing is something to behold.
Display boards packed with vibrant work, gallerists, creatives and art enthusiasts all mix together under one roof.
There’s even a little smearing of ink and the smooth gearing of presses thrown in for good measure as new prints are made on-site.
While the physical event at Woolwich Works‘ expansive Fireworks Factory venue closed on October 29, 2023, the online version of the fair remains live until November 5, 2023, before it goes into hibernation to get ready for next year’s iteration.
Readers do not, however, need to wait 12 months before exploring print locally. In addition to showcasing work by big names such as David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Eileen Cooper and Gavin Turk, one of the event’s joys is the depth of its offering, which includes nearby businesses.
Take Thames-Side Print Studio, for example.
Director, Carolyn Nicoll, and artist and technician, J Yuen Ling Chiu, literally walked a collection of framed works along the path beside the river to hang on the organisation’s stand at the event.
But the studio is no simple gallery or dealer.
It’s located at the heart of a facility on the river close to the southern end of the Thames Barrier that provides space for hundreds of artists and makers.
Thames-Side Studios is the largest provider of its kind in the UK with a sculpture workshop, darkroom, galleries, cafes and an education space on-site.
For its part, the print studio is very much a working resource both for those artists or visiting creatives to make use of.
It offers a wealth of equipment including etching, litho and relief presses as well as digital printing, screen print beds, spaces for etching, aquatints and drying or finishing prints.
“We’re the local print studios to the fair and we’ve been open for nearly 13 years now,” said Ling.
“You can walk to us from Woolwich Works.
“We run short courses and offer various membership options – in some ways, the studio runs like a gym.
“People can dip in and out as they want to, or they can become regular users of the facilities.
“We also offer training for businesses, schools – so many different things.
“We’ve been exhibiting at the fair since it started and we were very happy to be at its eighth event this year.
“It’s a great way to showcase what our members have been doing.
“We have a huge and varied membership, with people who have just come out of school and are looking to be part of their first exhibition, to established artists with 40, 50 or 60 years of printmaking behind them.
“With people trying print for the first time, we can nudge them in the right direction.
“We get to see what they’re doing every day behind the scenes and how their work is progressing.
“This means that the selection we’re able to show is different to other galleries.
“We have a very strong working relationship with all the artists and know exactly how every single work we have has been made, who has made it and where.”
Having moved down from Glasgow, Carolyn established the print studio after her artist husband found space at the creative hub.
“I had experience of working in studios and galleries in Scotland before I moved to London,” she said.
“There were things happening in west and east London at the time, but nothing south-east.
“My husband was at Thames Side Studios and they wanted to set up a print facility, so it evolved from there.
“The fair at Woolwich is fantastic. It’s somewhere we can showcase the different processes and work of artists – what we have is really quite diverse.”
That also includes work by Ling – who in addition to working as a technician at the print studio – is also a short course tutor there and an artist in her own right.
One of her works on display is a print titled Dockyard Diary April, part of a series of progressive etchings inspired by plants found at the former Woolwich Dockyard, which she passes regularly on her walk to Thames-Side Print Studio from her home at Royal Arsenal Riverside.
“The dockyard was founded by Henry VIII in the 1500s but it lies abandoned today,” said Ling.
“There are two big dockyards, but they’ve been left to become overgrown.
“I walk past it every day, so I’ve started foraging the plant life from those abandoned places and turning it into a series of etchings.
“It’s an amazing place because this wild, derelict site now has wild poppies and there are baby birds there too.
“Something which was a vision of empire – of British maritime strength – has been reclaimed by nature.
“I started it in January and then, each month, I forage a bit more plant-life and add it to the steel plate etching.
“Then I produce prints from it, but in very small numbers because the plate changes each month and I can never go backwards.
“I’m now onto the 10th iteration and the image is getting busier and busier.
“The whole work has been made using low toxicity materials and methods.
“For example, I do not use any white spirits, any turpentine or any harmful spirits – things that can damage your lungs.
“I use a coconut ester, which is much better for the environment. It’s etched in a solution of saline sulphate, so it doesn’t produce any vapours.
“A sediment is created, which I neutralise and filter so no solid waste goes down the sink.
“I’m thinking about how nature has reclaimed the site, but also making work about that in as nature-friendly a way as possible.
“This historic site is a little gem, a hidden pocket within walking distance of the fair and the studio and that makes it really special for me.”
Perhaps, like Ling’s work, that’s part of the appeal of the fair itself.
Something that each year leaves a deeper, more complex impression on south-east London.
- Thames-Side Print Studio offers a wide variety of courses in various methods of printmaking with specialist technicians and tutors available.
- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via firstname.lastname@example.org