The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Francis Carr

by Geraint Franklin

Francis Carr, who has died aged 93, was one of the last of the generation of émigrés who so enriched British cultural life from the 1930s onwards. He was one of the first artists in Britain to make it his business to acquire, and later pass on, the techniques of screen printing or serigraphy, in which a stencil is applied to a fine mesh screen, through which ink is squeezed onto paper or fabric. In a classic example of art appropriating from commerce, he learned screen printing at one of the London County Council’s technical schools. His fellow students were all apprentices or journeymen from printing firms, some of them barely literate.

He was born Géza Spitzer into a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest. Constantly drawing as a child, early artistic ambitions followed the example of Mór Adler, a painter and relative on his mother’s side, but his father wanted him to take up law. Family life and studies were increasingly overshadowed by anti-semitism and, after a terrifying attack by an Arrow Cross gang, Spitzer resolved to move to England to study art. Spitzer arrived in Britain in 1938, but not before enjoying the artistic treasures of Italy and France. He quickly settled in London, perfecting his English by attending lectures and listening to Laurence Olivier tread the boards.

Having decided against Chelsea School of Art, Spitzer enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under R R Tomlinson.  Carr’s teachers included Bernard Meninsky, William Roberts, John Farleigh and John Minton. In 1941 the School was evacuated to Northampton, and it was there that Spitzer met his future wife and fellow artist Dorothy Carr. In order to serve with the Pioneer Corps, the would-be recruit took his wife’s English surname. Francis was in honour of the saint whose love of animals he shared.

After the War, Carr learnt silk-screen printing at the LCC School of Photoengraving and Lithography at Bolt Court, off Fleet Street. His teacher was Fred Mackenzie, a master printer who later developed ‘Letraset’ rub-down lettering. Learning ‘the hard way, by making mistake after mistake’, Carr thus became one of the first artists in Britain to explore the expressive possibilities of screen printing, a medium hitherto restricted to commercial work. The result was a sequence of vivid prints from c.1949 (represented in the British Museum’s Prints & Drawings Collection) which reflect influences as broad as the British Neo-Romantic school, Japanese colour prints and the work of the American pioneers of the National Serigraphic Society. Carr also turned out posters (including one for the 1950 Lord Mayor’s Show still sold by the London Transport Museum), book jackets and inexpensive editions for sale to schools as part of the ‘School Prints’ scheme.

When Mackenzie moved on, Carr took his place at Bolt Court, where more artists started to filter through the doors. He introduced the technique to Eduardo Paolozzi, then teaching at the Textiles Department of the Central School. Carr’s battery of techniques was written up in a series of articles in printing journals and a 1961 Guide to Screen Process Printing was published by Studio Vista. By then, artists such as Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Joe Tilson and Richard Smith were exploring the medium, but Carr felt out of sympathy with their use of photographic stencils, which he felt led to reproduction rather than original printmaking.

His horizons were widened by a 1960 commission from the LCC, a major post-war patron of British art. That commission resulted in the work of which he was most proud, the ‘Magic Garden’ mural for the Holman Hunt Infant School (now the New Kings Road Primary School) in Fulham, SW London. The mixed-media work, which combined screen-printed tiles, stone, plaster, glass, mirrors, sea shells, pebbles and bark, reflects Carr’s wish for an art that stimulates all the senses. It was a source of immense pleasure to him that his work was used and enjoyed by the children, and he treasured their thank-you notes. The mural was restored by the artist in 2008 with the help of the Twentieth Century Society and the Heritage of London Trust. Carr was able to develop his interest in architectural settings during a short stint as Design Consultant to the GLC, where he designed brick reliefs and wall decoration for housing estates and nurseries. His commitment to collaboration across the arts bore fruit in Artists and Architecture ’67, an exhibition at the Building Centre which brought together the work of Edward Bawden, Humphrey Spender, Joe Tilson, Theo Crosby and Victor Pasmore among others.

Carr embraced every opportunity to turn his hand to new media and site-specific collaborations, whilst continuing to paint, draw and produce prints. Intrigued by the emerging field of land art, he created a boulder-strewn landscape with a sundial centrepiece for the new tidal harbour at Port Talbot, opened by the Queen in 1970. In 1990, in the last months of the Soviet Union, Carr was invited by the Union of Artists of the USSR to a conference in Kazakhstan. The foothills of the Alatau Mountains provided the setting for his last major work, a stone maze entitled the ‘Tree of Life’ which symbolises the stages of life. Carr founded the Landscape and Arts Network in 1993, with the aim of bringing together landscape architects, architects, artists, educationalists and ecologists in collaboration on environmental projects.

He is survived by Dorothy, a daughter, Andrea, and a son, Edward.

Francis Carr FRSA, born Géza Spitzer, 7 July 1919, died 18 May 2013.