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Here are few things more attractive to the collector than mezzotints. In fact, I am disposed to think that, amongst all the art productions which may be termed illustrations, there is nothing so beautiful in itself as a really fine impression of a good English mezzotint.
The rich, delicate, velvety background is of course its main feature, and to be in good condition this velvet must have a bloom upon it, almost like the bloom upon a piece of fruit.
Moreover, the mezzotint must have its margin, and this should, if possible, be complete and deckle-edged; but the main thing is that the brilliant black bloom of the mezzotint be perfect.
There never was a finer selection of these treasures than that which I saw in the Emperor of Russia's own private cabinet. It comprised examples of the finest of the English eighteenth century mezzotints as well as of those that preceded that period.
With every print was preserved the original bluish-grey tissue with which it had been sent to Russia, and on which, in delicate outline, was
printed the set-off of the mezzotint, just so much of the original bloom as had necessarily fallen upon the first piece of tissue paper laid upon it.
There had been a man appointed in the Russian Court, ever since the time of the Empress, to look after the collection, to air the various pieces day by day, and to replace each of them with the original tissue in its box.
Moreover-and this was the outstanding feature in the whole collection-there were preserved with the mezzotints the bills made out to the Empress Catherine, in which the great dealers of the day charged her sums from ten shillings up to two or three pounds for proof impressions that, till the Bolsheviks destroyed them, were worth perhaps five hundred or a thousand pounds apiece.
A mezzotint is not like an ordinary engraving. The plate on which it is engraved is first of all roughened, instead of being smoothly polished as is done with other kinds of engravings.
It has lines drawn upon it backwards and forwards and a cradle or rocker passed over it, which tears up the copper in various directions, and then, if a print was taken of the plate before the artist began his work the result would simply be a beautiful, intense black, perfectly plain, rich and soft.
The artist then sets to work to what is called "scrape"-the technical word for making the mezzotint-scraping away the burr, burnishing the high lights, scraping a little less for lights that are not quite so high, and leaving the parts of the plate where the deep shadows occur almost untouched.
The art was not an English one in its beginning, the first example being done by Ludwig van Siegen, a soldier in the service of the Landgrave of Cassel, William VI. It has been said that he discovered the method when he was cleaning the steel of his gun, but there is not much evidence for the truth of the story. Suffice it that the earliest mezzotint of which we know anything is the portrait of the Prince's mother, who was reigning as Regent, and a letter written in August, 1642 proves the case.
Van Siegen taught Prince Rupert. Why, we do not know, but in some way or other Prince Rupert persuaded van Siegen to give him the knowledge he so desired, and Prince Rupert produced in 1658 his masterpiece of mezzotint, "The Great Executioner."
The first English mezzotint portrait was Sherwin's portrait of Charles II, dated 1669. Whether Rupert taught Sherwin how to do it, or whether Evelyn's book, which describes it and which reproduces one of Prince Rupert's plates, came into the hands of Sherwin, we are not quite certain, but what we do know is, that Sherwin acknowledged Prince Rupert as his teacher and dedicated the print to him.
He was followed by a man named Place, and a little later by a far greater man, Abraham Blooteling, whose portrait of the Duke of Monmouth is perhaps the best he ever did and is as splendid an example of mezzotint as anyone can want to see. It was a very large picture, 25 inches by 20 inches, and the brilliance of the hair in the wig, its soft lustre and the quality of the lace make it a masterpiece. There is so little of Blooteling's own drawing in existence that I am disposed to claim for my own signed example that it is almost the only piece in England. It simply shows him as a clever draughtsman, the mezzotint reveals him as a superb artist.
Conspicuous amongst the great mezzotinters, there stands out that wonderful man James MacArdell, whose illustrations of Sir Joshua Reynolds's pictures are unequalled in merit. Others are Watts, Dixon, Pether, Purcell, Marchi, and Dawe, amongst the later men; and Faber, White, Williams and Beckett amongst the earlier; but all collectors of mezzotints know in whose work they place their particular regard, and whose prints they specially covet.
There have occasionally been wonderful bargains found in mezzotints. I believe that one of the finest examples in the Cheylesmore collection in the British Museum was discovered framed in a small country inn in Devonshire, and very often quite striking impressions fall into the hands of collectors away in distant villages.
Generally, however, these have had their margins cut, and so lost a good deal of their value, but sometimes this is not the case. Occasionally a picture has drifted from a big house into a smaller one, and still preserves its margin untouched, but if the collector is unable to get museum examples (and undoubtedly it is a very difficult thing to obtain such first-rate impressions), he can often find in small shops really beautiful mezzotints, marvelous in charm and glorious in effect.
Mezzotint gives a method of illustrating draperies which is almost unequalled, the very surface and appearance of velvet, as in the "Master Lambton," by Lawrence, or in the "Calmady Children," is wonderfully expressed; the long, sweeping drapery of Sir Joshua Reynolds's figures, silk or satin, can be set forth by no process with such perfection and beauty. Every line and gleam in the satin of Reynolds's, Romney's and Hudson's figures, comes out with amazing effect.
In another branch of the same subject, one finds groups of flowers and insects, treated with equal dexterity. Fortunately, the art is not extinct, as there are still important mezzotinters living, and their number does not grow less, while their work is as rich as that of their predecessors. There is no doubt that the costume and the coiffure of the eighteenth century lent itself to the beauty of engraving, and that in the early mezzotints the magnificence and dignity of the great wigs that were worn produced a wonderful effect. The portrait by Blooteling, after Lely, of "The Duke of Monmouth," would lose a good deal of its dignity if the Duke had been represented without his full-bottomed gleaming curly wig.
There are good mezzotinters in France, and some of their productions are even more precious than English ones, but for charm and sheer beauty there is hardly anything that can be compared with an English mezzotint, and it has been generally recognised that in MacArdell, Valentine, Green and Dickenson, amongst the late men, and in White and Blooteling amongst the earlier ones, we have men whose work stands absolutely apart, and has never been surpassed.
To come right down to the present day, there was Lucas, and there is Sir Frank Short, and there are Hurst and Robinson, all of whose works are worth collecting, with a view to the times that are coming after, but there are few collectors who have the enterprise to buy and collect modern mezzotints on their own judgment, and it is to the publications of Sayer, Bowles and Humphrey, of the eighteenth century, that the collector mainly goes.
In one of the bills in the Empress Catherine's collection, there was a note in Sayers' hand- writing, saying that but six impressions of a particular portrait had been printed, that they all varied slightly, and that therefore he had taken the liberty of sending to the Empress all six of them, and had charged three guineas apiece. Any one of these precious proofs, if it has escaped the hands of the Bolsheviks, would easily to-day fetch a thousand pounds, and very probably more.