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Antique Color Prints



In an old house, in a low room, and especially in one looking on to an old-fashioned garden, there is hardly anything that can form a more pleasing decoration than a collection of old prints. I remember being particularly attracted by such a collection in a house in Scotland, and remarking with some satisfaction that the walls of the room were covered with a rather prettily patterned Old English chintz, and that on it the colour prints, in black and gold frames, produced a delightfully gay effect. I have heard it said that the prices given for colour prints are altogether ridiculous when compared with those given for drawings or paintings, because the print is a purely mechanical affair; but I am afraid that the persons who make that remark are not always aware of the enormous amount of trouble and pains necessary to produce a colour print, and of the fact that all the detail concerning its production has to be repeated afresh for every impression that is taken. The printer of a colour print has to be somewhat of an artist. He has to know exactly how to wipe his coloured ink, not into the lines or dots as if he were preparing for monochrome, but out of them, and he has to experiment with brush or stump when, very neatly and very accurately, he inks in many of the smaller details, keeping the outline quite clear and, at the same time, rubbing the colour into the engraving, so as to fill up the line or stipple completely. Flesh tints he has to build up, painting them into the plate, adjusting, blending, toning, and all this needs that gift of care and precision which comes of constant exercise. It is almost equivalent to painting up the copper-plate, and the greatest attention is needed in keeping the colours moist and warm, moving the plate backwards and forwards, dusting on dry colour, heightening complexion, and then in printing his beautiful impression, and, as I have just said, doing every part of this detail each time for every impression. Hence comes the value of really fine, brilliant impressions of colour prints.

In 1898, some foreign ladies pressed into my hands a series of colour prints as an acknowledgment for an act of courtesy they thought I had done for them. I endeavoured to explain to them that the prints were very precious and, as they included an absolutely brilliant impression of Conde's portrait of Mrs. Fitzherbert after Cosway, with margins all complete and in pristine condition-a print worth now at least four hundred pounds-I had justification for my statement. I accepted one small print and returned all the large ones, but I had failed to make the donors aware of their value, and the fate of the Fitzherbert was very melancholy for, cut, trimmed and framed, it passed into the possession of a person who had no appreciation of it, and the others, I fear, shared a similar fate.

To a great extent we owe the art of colour printing to the skill of a man whose story is a sad one-W.W. Ryland, who brought the method of colour printing from France. He was exceedingly skilful and ambitious and, in conjunction with Angelica Kauffmann, made the colour print a very popular thing in the eighteenth century, creating a great impression in favour of Angelica by reason of the exquisite prints he made from her drawings. He came, however, of a strangely unlucky family; his brother was a dissolute spendthrift who, for highway robbery, was sentenced to death, and Ryland himself was first successful and then extravagant, after a while in serious difficulties, while later on he attempted suicide, and eventually, for forgery, was sentenced to death.

His pupil, Bartolozzi, carried on, with ever-increasing success, the fashion of the colour print. Certainly many of Bartolozzi's best works were produced in those beautiful browns and reds for which his period was notable, but others of his works were depicted in more colours than one, and he was surrounded by a group of men such as Burke, Collyer, Conde, Knight, Jones, Hogg, Gaugain, Nutter, Schiavonetti, J. R. Smith, Tompkins; Turner and Ward, who were all masters of this beautiful art, and whose works now, if in fine condition, fetch very high prices.

Mark, please, the words "fine condition." Everything depends, in a colour print, upon its condition, its colour, its margin. Note also that, strictly speaking, there are no such things as "proofs" in colour prints. It seems to be almost certain that the earliest impressions taken from a plate (and these may be called proofs) were in monochrome, and some were on India paper, but this was in order to get the plate into condition, and to get the artist accustomed to it, as it is said that the plate itself was distinctly improved for colour purposes by taking off the early proofs; the sharpness and hardness were toned down, but the delicacy remained, and then came the colour, delicate, soft and charming; but the plate-as men knew nothing in those days of facing it-soon became worn, and it is only the fine early impressions that are things of such extraordinary beauty. After a while the plate shows clear signs of wear, and the later impressions are by no means satisfactory, and then very often the plate was re-bitten, or re-engraved, and constantly the later prints are crude, quickly printed and unsatisfactory. Therefore let the collector use discretion in buying, and let not every person who owns colour prints jump to the conclusion that theirs are the specially fine ones for which connoisseurs seek.

Some of Conde's impressions, a few months ago, fetched between thirty and forty pounds apiece. Mrs. Fitzherbert after Cosway realised L38. Horace Beckford and Mrs. Jackson very nearly the same. Ward's " Sallad Girl " after Hoppner, a fine impression of which is a rare thing, fetched L130 Smith's "Feeding the Pigs" after Morland, &0 ; a pair of prints by Paye (another able painter), L30, and so on. These prices were, however, considerably exceeded when a wonderful collection of colour prints, got together by the late Sir Edward Coates, came into the market. It included one or two of the very rare ones, such as Northcote's "Young Lady and Comedian," Ward's "Selling Rabbits," "Rustic Felicity" and others, with works by Angelica, and engravings after paintings by Bunbury, Paye, Wheatley and Morland.

Occasionally Bartolozzi's engravings are found not printed on paper at all, but on satin, and Sir Edward Coates had a few of these. They are very rare and precious, but unluckily the plates from which many of them are printed are still in existence, as are also, I am sorry to say, Conde's plate for Mrs. Fitzherbert and several more, with the result that newly produced impressions from these plates are on the market arid, of the little Bartolozzi's, even some modern ones are printed on satin, with intent to deceive the unwary. If one could but touch the satin prints detection is certain, because the old satin was all of silk and far richer and softer in quality than the modern, which has an admixture of wool or cotton. The surface of old satin is, moreover, much more creamy than is the hard white of the modern satin.

Occasionally it is very difficult to detect some of these modern impressions. I nearly purchased in Florence an exceedingly good forgery. It seemed to me impossible that it could be modern, but when I found a strange reluctance on the part of the dealer to take it out of its frame for me to examine the paper it was printed upon, I began to hesitate, and when at last, yielding to persuasion, he did take it out, the watermark revealed a modern paper, and even without the sight of the watermark, one's own finger, testing the feel of the paper, made one convinced that it was a reproduction.

I have, however, seen two modern prints printed on fine old paper. Where the forger gets such paper I cannot tell, possibly from some scrap-book, but the paper was quite genuine, and it was only by the aid of a glass that one saw the signs of re-touching on the plate, and of restippling in one particular part of it, and so gathered that the plate was the old one that had been touched up after wear, and that the print was comparatively worthless.

Stipple engraving was carried out on an etching ground on a copperplate, the outline was all laid in by means of small dots, made with a dry point, and then the darker parts etched in dots, larger and closer together. After the work had been bitten in, the lighter parts are laid in with a stipple graver, an ordinary engraving tool, held in a different fashion. By stipple work, the strokes of chalk or crayon can be imitated when the irregular dots are carefully and cleverly arranged.

A great charm about colour printing consists in the fact that, mechanical though one is bound to call the process, the necessity of which I have already spoken for painting in for each plate, gives a variety between different impressions. Sometimes also the paper takes a different hue under the colour, it sometimes absorbs more colour than at other times; occasionally the flesh work is not even, by reason of certain absorbent patches in the paper: or the print may have been taken off when the paint was hard and settled; or there may be a chemical change, and the red may have become browner and not as fresh and vivid as in other impressions; and so the connoisseur likes to select his choice impressions, to weed out his collection from time to time, when he finds a finer impression of one he already has, and eventually, as in the case of the late Sir Edward Coates, to have a collection of which almost every print has been carefully selected by a competent judge, and is as good as time and money can produce. The delightfully bright, cheerful look of Sir Edward's rooms in Queen Anne's Lodge is not likely to be forgotten by those who had seen them, and all collectors of colour prints regret that, through the death of this collector and the dispersal of his fine collection, a series of almost unequalled beauty will be scattered far and wide.

Colour prints are of various sizes; there are some exceedingly choice ones, very precious and valuable, no larger than miniatures-in fact, some of them represent miniatures-and there are others that are foolscap size, and even larger than that. They are often to be found with print-sellers, and in other shops, but the advice of a discreet judge is desirable in purchasing them, as the market is flooded with imitations, for the fine, choice impressions fetch hundreds of pounds, although most of them, when first produced, were sold at prices varying from ten shillings up to two guineas apiece.