Elisabeth Frink was by no means the first artist to look to The Canterbury Tales for inspiration. In 1972 alone, the same year Frink’s second extended series of prints illustrating Chaucer’s text was published, the infamous Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini released an award-winning motion picture also based on the poem, starring a young Tom Baker. An extraordinary literary work of mammoth scope – having intended to write up to one-hundred individual tales, Chaucer completed just twenty-four – Canterbury Tales remained unfinished on its author’s death in 1400, captivating a generation of later medieval writers who delighted in ‘filling in’ the gaps within its collection of stories.

Frink’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ portfolio, with title page and ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ shown above

From its very inception its popularity has endured. Yet of its many reinventions, Frink’s etched illustrations must rank among the most individual interpretations of Chaucer’s historic text. In their laconic style, giving prominence to rich texture and uncomplicated, almost classical form, they reveal a gifted sculptor inspired by her source material and engrossed in the endless technical potentials of printmaking.

‘The Prologue’

Frink was the preeminent British sculptor of her generation, an inordinately talented female artist who – like her forerunner, Barbara Hepworth – nonetheless managed to forge an exceptional career in what was then still very much the ‘man’s world’ of sculpture. A young pupil at the Chelsea School of Art in the early 1950s, she was taught by Bernard Meadows, one of Henry Moore’s assistants. In her early career she showed flair and ambition, achieving her first major exhibition in 1952 aged just twenty-two years old, followed a year later by her first acquisition at the Tate.

‘The Knight’s Tale’

She worked exclusively in a figurative style, favouring heroic, ancient male figures and mythic dogs and horses to the usual sculptural subject matter of the female nude. Moving to France in the 1960s and early ‘70s, she escaped the technicolour grip of Pop and Abstraction that held the British art world at the time, choosing instead to explore the comparatively unfashionable themes of epic fantasy and folk traditions. It was a prescient move that proved, in the long-term at least, extremely successful: few other contemporaries working in stone or bronze emerge with quite so distinct and recognisable an oeuvre as Frink’s.

‘The Manciple’s Tale’

Though she was first and foremost a sculptor, she experimented throughout her career with print media, often in collaboration with skilled atelier assistants. Under the renowned Stanley Jones of Curwen Press fame she made lithographs and, in her later years, screenprints with Kip Gresham, demonstrating both the consummate draughtsmanship that underpinned her understanding of sculptural form and a willingness to enter fully into unknown technical territory.

‘The Miller’s Tale I & II’

But it was in etching, under the direction of master printer Nigel Oxley, that Frink discovered a true affinity. Like marble or clay, the hard, waxy ground of the copper etching plate presented a surface to be carved and cut, the metal surface below weathered and bitten by acid until it became a three-dimensional plane of pits and scars used to pick up the ink. Here was a medium located exquisitely between sculpture and drawing; it is unsurprising Frink soon found she had a natural aptitude for its processes.

‘The Second Nun’s Tale’

Engaging the help of Oxley’s studio in the early 1970s, Frink began her second set of illustrations for The Canterbury Tales, producing nineteen images derived from Chaucer’s text. Her choice of source material was inspired: episodic in nature, it lent itself well to a print series, and to an interpretative, rather than strictly illustrative or descriptive approach. Frink’s style, in both sculpture and drawing, was always naturalistic rather than representational, concerned with conveying through form the spirit of her subject – wild horses and boars, or raw, primal man – rather than the literal form of the body itself.

‘Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topaz’

It found a natural parallel in Chaucer’s writing, where realism is abandoned in favour of the many relativist voices of each pilgrim character and their special tale. Chaucer offers not one, extended moral account but a conflicting, contrasting social milieu, a rich tapestry of voices highborn and lowbrow.

‘The Shipman’s Tale’

His broad tonal range, from the righteous to the ridiculous, the pious to the deliciously vulgar, is deftly wrought out in Frink’s series of images: the noble white form of one of The Knight’s Tale’s protagonists emerges gleaming from the dark aquatint around him, his face chiselled to classical, masculine proportions; by contrast, The Summoner’s Prologue, a farcical anecdote about a man who has strange visions of hell in which friars are found living inside the devil’s anus, features a giant, bull-like Satan, his face squeezed to a smirk as he shits out his clerical effluent. Like Chaucer, Frink is unafraid of lending equal heft to both the sublime and the satirical.

‘The Summoner’s Prologue’

Initially, Frink had planned to use preliminary sketches which would then be transferred to the plates using tracing paper. In a small number of prints, like The Pardoner’s Tale, the occasional missing leg reveals the difficulty in accurately copying over the original drawing. In those instances where the resulting image was still successful, the mistake was often kept rather than reworked – little details hidden in plain sight that speak of the unpretentious environment in which Frink and her colleagues worked.

detail from ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, showing the missing leg

Elsewhere, natural inconsistencies in the etching process were actively encouraged and exploited for effect. Oxley explains: ‘…the traditional way of biting a plate in iron perchloride is to immerse the plate into the bath upside down, allowing constant etching convection to take place. The hazard with this process is that it is possible to trap air bubbles under the surface, and these will hold back the etching. These bubbles are visible on the second aquatinting in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Being spherical they echo the moon and add to the celestial effect – an accident – but Lis insisted they remain.’

‘The Merchant’s Tale’, the only soft-ground etching of the suite, with impressed muslin detail

Other notable techniques involved pressing muslin fabric into soft-ground wax for texture – used only once, in the hitched-up dress of The Merchant’s Tale – and crushing, brushing, and sponging the finely dusted aquatint particles with rags to produce uneven, organic grain and tone across the plate. Frink combines a large range of textures in the plate, from aquatint to scraping and burnishing, with a bold use of open, empty space in many of her compositions. Details of landscape and setting are minimal, leaving it to the natural textures of the etched surface and her intuitive use of shape and space to indicate a sense of depth and perspective.

‘The Physician’s Tale’

The resulting prints possess that same simple, direct strength that had characterised Hockney’s Brothers Grimm suite, published just three years earlier. Like Hockney, Frink’s images reflect a natural quick-wittedness, and an understanding of etching’s adaptability: that there is so much textural pleasure to enjoy in what are quite minimal, economical scenes here evidences Frink’s obvious enjoyment of printing’s irregularities, and an ability to channel the great strengths of her sculpture – tactile surface and monumental form – into a whole new medium. They remain among the most innovative images of her impressive graphic output.

View the full set of Elisabeth Frink’s Canterbury Tales etchings here >