For Theo Mantalvanos, the memory is still as clear as day, when the grandson of famed Australian artist Sir Arthur Streeton walked into his Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop.
But it was a week later, when he returned with a blanket under his arm, containing etched plates that once belonged to his talented grandfather with the request they be printed and editioned for the family, that Theo and his partner Soula really couldn’t believe their luck.
Though it wasn’t destined to be an easy feat.
“We had a look at the plates that were in quite bad condition as they had been placed quite loosely under a family home and had begun to tarnish and oxidise,” Theo told Neos Kosmos.
“They wanted the family to own an edition of their grandad’s or their great uncle’s prints, but we weren’t really sure what kind of impression we would be able to get from them.”
Entrusted with 13 zinc and copper plates that had been produced in Streeton’s lifetime over a hundred years ago, together Theo and Soula set out to clean them and bring the prints to life.
“The plates were in our possession and we’d take them home and make sure they were safe, because you can get quite scared about having these precious things.
“We didn’t tell anyone, apart from one to two people. But we had this kind of spring in our step, this little secret, both Soula and I, that we couldn’t share but I think we felt it. We walked around and we knew something special.”
Described as a reverse stamp, while zinc and copper plates can last quite a while if stored correctly, bad storage and moisture had affected the family’s plates, leading to calcification and the formation of growths, which showed in the final product.
“We ran some proofs and they were quite romantic looking but they were quite murky. The family were still surprised that they could see some detail from those, and that was fine, they were happy with that,” recalls Theo.
“That’s when they decided, well, they’re not in very good condition so you might as well give it a go to try and clean them.”
It was then that the pair engaged another print maker by the name of Graeme Peebles to assist with the cleaning process.
“The fear was that they could be damaged in that process and that was quite a big responsibility, to have to think that you’re potentially going to destroy something that was produced over a hundred years ago.”
To their relief, however, they were not destroyed. And after what Theo recalls as “a labour of love”, they managed to hand-ink and print the etchings, unveiling significantly beautiful prints from 11 of the 13 plates.
“When they actually saw the result, they were more than surprised, they were ecstatic. We actually saw detail in the work that we couldn’t see in the plate.
“They were so pleased, the next thing they said is, what can we do for you? How can we help you as a gallery? And we said we’d love to have an exhibition to share with the public what we’ve done and how we’ve worked with the family to be part of this momentous time in art history.”
While the etchings were said to have once been printed by Streeton himself, some of which the family have in their possession, they have never before been on display, published, or even editioned.
The prints will be exhibited to the public from March 4 to April 30, along with the plates themselves to show the continuity of the printing process.
While this is a momentous occasion for the family, and for lovers of Streeton’s work, for Theo and Soula it is a true honour.
Just over 12 months into owning Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop, following a move from their beloved studio in Collingwood, they are ever thankful for the experience.
“Only recently did we print the last one, and it was very emotional to think that within our first year of operation, only having printed our own work for the last 10 years in our creative life, we have been bestowed this honour of printing an Australian icon’s prints. The experience was extremely humbling and rewarding,” Theo said.
Despite their good intentions, however, they have faced some opposition from certain members of the art world, one of whom questioned whether the etchings were even finished − a query which was laid to rest by an expert, and further cemented by Streeton’s own signature.
“At the end of the day, we were actually acting on the family’s request. So it wasn’t some layperson that found the plates and said ‘hey Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop how about we run these?’. A family member approached us with a very reasonable request and we thought that was very doable.”
A number of the prints will also be available for purchase, while Theo assures they are being completely transparent and are by no means claiming that the prints were produced in 1910 but posthumously, signed on the back by a Streeton family member.
Meanwhile, Theo and Soula are giving the exhibition another dimension by taking the opportunity to show the kind of legacy that an artist the likes of Streeton leaves behind, by hosting nine resident artists within the gallery during the exhibition, producing work somehow inspired by the artist.
The Streeton Prints exhibition will run at the Queenscliff Gallery & Workshop (81 Hesse St, Queenscliff, VIC) from March 4 – April 30. Opening hours: Daily from 10.00 am-5.00 pm (closed Tuesday). For more information, visit www.qgw.com.au/event/streeton-prints