A renowned artist best-known for her printmaking, Agathe Sorel, who died suddenly, aged 85, was also an inspirational teacher. Born in Hungary in 1935, she and her family survived the war due to the intervention of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.
She studied art in her native Budapest before fleeing the country after the failure of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and settled in London. She taught at several art schools, forging close and lasting relationships with students. She was a founder member of the Printmakers Council, serving as Chair and was involved with the Royal Societies of Watercolour and Painter-Printmakers.
Sorel was the only daughter of Dr Gyula Szüts and his wife Magda Biro. She grew up in a cultured, assimilated household, and her English and French conversation lessons stood her in good stead later in Paris and London.
In her memoirs, which I have been editing, and which will be published shortly, she recalled chamber music concerts held in her home by her father, an accomplished musician. Sorel’s paternal grandfather was an artist and Sorel was encouraged in her interest by her parents. A key early inspiration was the modernist furniture in her home, the work of Bauhaus designer Herbert Mayer, her father’s cousin.
The first time she remembers being told she was Jewish was in 1943, when influential friends of her father arranged for him to be posted out of Budapest to keep the family safe. Her father explained that – “we would have to wear a yellow star as our family was of Jewish origin.”
“ I remember he said this was something to be proud of, that Jews were a very cultured people… that they were the mainstay of society, a nonviolent peace-loving people”. Just months later, they were forced into cattle trucks and deportation began. SoreL felt sure that she would have gone to the death camps but Allied bombings resulted in the train being redirected to Budapest where she saw Raoul Wallenberg directing operations and she and her parents spent the rest of the war moving from one protected house to another.
After the war Sorel attended first the Academy of Applied Arts and then the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, experimenting with different art forms including puppetry, stained glass, mosaic, technical drawing and mural painting. In 1956, when the Soviets put down the Hungarian Uprising with violence, killing one of her fellow-students in the process, she fled to London.
There she studied at Camberwell School of Arts and came into contact with a number of leading artists, many, like her, of Jewish heritage, including Michael Rothenstein, RB Kitaj and Frank Auberbach. When she was awarded a Gulbenkian Scholarship to study in Paris, it was Rothenstein who recommended she work at Atelier 17 with S.W Hayter. She found Hayter’s unconventional techniques in printmaking an inspiration and used his teaching methods in her own classes at Camberwell, Canterbury, Maidstone and Goldsmith’s College.
On her return to London she made an artist’s book based on Jean Genet’s banned play Le Balcon, where for some of the prints she used an electric drill to make holes in the metal plates used for the prints. This incredibly innovative work was bought by public collections, including the British Museum and the Arts Council. Her work is also represented in the Tate and V&A as well as numerous other European and US public collections. She and her husband, the textile designer Gabor Sitkey, whom she met while translating for him at his interview at the Royal College of Art, built up their own collection of prints.
Sorel continued to innovate, fascinated by the possibilities of working in Perspex and other plastics. She first engraved these and printed from them but then began to construct sculptures from plastics into which she had engraved and then applied etching ink. She called these her Space Engravings which toured to several European destinations. She was fascinated by the possibilities of photocopying and digital printing and experimented with both.
In 1966-67, she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship which allowed her to travel around the US and Mexico, meeting fellow printmakers and learning their methods. In 1971, she went to Israel where her close friend and former pupil Ya’akov Boussidan included her work in an exhibition of British printmakers. A year later they showed together at the Ben Uri Gallery. More recently, she travelled to India with the Royal Watercolour Society. In 1973, she and Gabor bought a house in Lanzarote, inspired by its volcanic landscape, and she made two series of prints based on photographs taken on the island.
She was, herself a work of art, never seen without her trademark colourful eye shadow, lipstick and exotic jewellery. She is survived by Gabor, son Sylvan, daughter-in-law Alleyna and grandchildren Anoushka and Dylan.
Agathe Sorel born May 13, 1935. Died July 30, 2020