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Antique Prints: The Task Of The Collector
( Original Published 1903 )
A little Guide to Print Collecting such as the present one, even if written on very personal lines, not in the least concealing the writer's own prepossessions, and giving therefore, quite possibly, what may seem disproportionate notice of certain masters, cannot, of course, hope to entirely suffice for the special student of any particular man. The special student will not, if he is reasonable, find that the little book falls short of its aim, and fails to do its proper work, because it does not and cannot possibly supply within its limited volume all the information of which the accomplished student is himself possessed, and which he feels to be more or less indispensable even to the beginner who desires to be thorough. He will know-and will scarcely need that I should here remind him-that not one book, nor even a hundred books, can make an expert, can turn the tyro into a practical connoisseur. What the tyro wants is experience, all that is learnt by loss and gain, and by brushing shoulder to shoulder with dealers and brothercollectors and the auctioneer in the auction-room. He wants that, to become a practical collector at all, and to become a specialist he wants that and something more. He wants access to and acquaintance with a large and considerable branch of what is now unques tionably an immense literature. There are larger books than this of mine on the general theme of Print Collecting, and they have been written at different times, with different prepossessions, with different prejudices, from different points of view. But over and above these larger books there is a library of monographs on particular masters, works which are nearly always Catalogues raisonnes, and often treatises to boot; and while no one of these monographs can be altogether neglected by the would-be student of the artist with whom it is concerned, some of them must be among the most cherished of his companions, among the voiceless but instructive friends whose society is education. No little book then, like the present one, can take the place of experience and of the study of many books; and least of all perhaps can a book which does not affect to be the abstract and brief chronicle of what has been done before, but which prefers rather to approach its large subject from the point of view of an individual collector, who yet, it must be said, while cultivating specialties, has not been inaccessible to the charm of much that lies beyond the limits of any fields of his own.
So much by way of explanation-by way, too, of disarming the kind of criticism which would judge a general endeavour only by the success with which it seemed to meet the needs of a particular case. A Bibliography of the subject, which will be found on later pages, and which must itself be a selection, comparatively brief, from the mass of material that bears upon the theme, will suffice to set the student of the special school or master upon the desirable track; and meanwhile one thing may be done, nor, as I hope, that one thing only: the would-be tiller of the particular plot may be reminded of the vastness of the land. Even of print collecting it is true, sometimes, that the trees prevent you from seeing the forest.
I have said just now, in the print-collector's world, how vast is the land! Time, of course, tends to extend it-would extend it inevitably, by reason of new production, did not Fashion sometimes intervene, and, while opening to the explorer some new tract, taboo a district over which he had aforetime been accustomed to wander. The fashions of the wise are not wholly without reason, but the fashions of the foolish have also to be reckoned with. As an instance, the very generation that has seen the most just appraisement of original Etching has witnessed too the exaltation of Bartolozzi and of his nerveless School, a decline of interest in Marc Antonio, even to some extent in Albert Durer, and a silly rage for the coloured print which fifty years since was the appropriate ornament of scrapbook and nursery.
I have spoken harshly of two classes of things which within the last few years have found eager purchasers, and it is incumbent upon me that I justify my harshness and warn the beginner all the more effectually thereby. The Bartolozzis, then, which have been puffed so absurdly-what is their real place? To begin with, they are-and in this one respect they resemble Marc Antonios indeed, and the justly extolled mezzotints which translate Sir Joshua-they are the work of an engraver who interpreted the theme of another, and not of an engraver who invented his own. But this it is evident that they may be, and yet by no means be criminal. Wherein, it may be asked fairly, lies their greater offence? It lies in this. That the Humanity they depict is generally without character -that in no austere and in no captivating, overwhelming beauty, but in its feeble grace, lies its chief virtue. Bartolozzi was a good draughtsman. He was no doubt correct habitually, and he was habitually elegant. Academic he was, though competent. But again, how terribly monotonous was the order of his beauty, and how weakly sentimental the design of those-Cipriani and Angelica Kaufmann principal amongst them-to whose conceptions he lent at least a measure of support! Of Bartolozzi's works, the best for the collector are the "Tickets." They are on a small scale-dainty little engraved invitations or announcements to the public of their day, giving the opportunity to hear Giardini or Madame Banti, or some other singer of songs or maker of excellent music.
Delightful little compositions they undoubtedly are, with the nude drawn charmingly. Half-a-dozen of them I would possess with satisfaction. But all the rest!-all those Bartolozzis which, as they increase in size, get (just as photographs do) increasingly meaningless! The reasonable collector, if his instinct be fine or his taste educated, will not desire these, even at prices that may be comparatively insignificant, whilst Rembrandts, Durers, Claudes, Hogarths, Watteaus, DTeryons, Whistlers, exist to delight the world.
The coloured print-for it is time to make some brief allusion to it-is often very "taking." To the novice who does not think, it may even appear to be entirely desirable. But, like the average Bartolozzi, it is trivial at best. A pretty enough decoration for the wall of a room in which artistic taste is neither accomplished nor severe, it has at least to be recognised that its art is hybrid. The weight and value of the light and shade of the engraving are apt to be minimised or discounted by the application of colour; and the colour, though put on with ingenuity, has little of the gradation and the subtle blending, and nothing whatever of the "touch," in which the art of the painter in some measure consists. That is why a set of Wheatley's " Cries of London," printed in bistro, is far better than a set which has the superficial gaiety of many hues. A coloured Morland is a Morland murdered. More tolerant may we be of the coloured prints of France; the lighter art of a Taunay or of a Debucourt according not so ill with the application of a process which boasts no other charm than the charm of the a peu pres. But even where the coloured print is least offensive or least inadequate, no one can affect to discover in it the more serious qualities of Art. Often, experts inform us, the colour was only applied when the original work upon the plate was half worn out-when the plate could yield no longer an impression that was satisfactory. Then it was, at least in some cases, that the aid of colour-or some approximation to the colour that a painter might have sought to realise-was called in, and so the opportunity prepared for the foolish rich of our period to pay great prices for an engaging pis-aller.
Uninstructed acquaintances, ill judged dealers, and the habit of an indolent world to regard old prints as humble examples of decorative furniture-all these combine to make it possible for the beginner, and even for the man of many winters who is outside Art, to spend his time in accumulating objects no one of which is of the first order. Even certain print-sellers, who ought to do much better, but who possess, we must suppose, more of technical knowledge than of sure and wellestablished taste, lend themselves to the diffusion of the love of the second-rate. There are several highclass dealers now in London, people of probity and of accomplishment, some of them young men, too-a cir cumstance which bodes well for the future. But those were safer days when the world of the collector lay within narrower limits, and when the close contact that there was wont to be between a few learned salesmen and a few scarcely less learned purchasers, who bought, of course, gradually, who never bought things en blocwho studied and enjoyed, in fine, instead of merely possessed-made it an unlikely matter that any quarter would be shown to the unworthy productions of a vague and indifferent art. But the beginner of to-day must take things as he finds them. If the root of the matter be in him, his mistakes need not be serious. The opportunities for sagacious choice in collecting yet remain frequent. If he collects fine things, he will not, of course, succeed in acquiring so extensive a cabinet as that which rejoiced the heart of his forerunner when prices were much lower-when a Rembrandt, now worth a hundred guineas, was sold for a ten-pound note. He must recognise, too, that a very large number of the finest impressions-and it is upon fine impressions only that his mind should be set-have come to be cloistered in National, in University, even in some cases in Municipal institutions. But yet the field that is open to him is a wide one, and, as was said in the Introduction, it is possible for diligence and intelligence to accomplish much, even if unaccompanied by a purse that is big and deep.
It has been customary in books on Collecting to say something about the qualities that are desirable in a print-the qualities, I mean, that, in their combination constitute, not a fine subject-that is a different matter altogether-but a fine impression, an impression such as the collector should wish to possess. And though, no doubt, for certain readers, the treatise of Maberly, and the later and ampler treatise of Dr Willshire may be without difficulty accessible, the expert will hold me blameless for not forgetting here the interests of the beginner, and for therefore going, though it shall be rapidly, over ground that, to the connoisseur, must needs be familiar.
The first and most indispensable requisite, then, for a fine impression of a print, ancient or modern, is that the plate betray no signs of wear, so that the scheme of the artist in line and light and shade shall be presented still with virgin intactness. It may be a high ideal to aim at, but it is not unattainable; and practically it is as necessary in a Durer three hundred years old as in a Whistler which may have been wrought only twelve years ago. Very different qualities of surface are, of course, sought for in prints of different kinds, devoted to different effects. The perfection of one plate may be attained when it is "brilliant"; the perfection of another when it is "rich." But in all, the signs of wear, and, in nearly all, the signs of re-touching are to be avoided. Wear is indicated perhaps most easily by the absence of clearness in lines designed to be distinct, and by an acquired evenness and monotony in passages which obviously were never meant to be monotonous and even. Retouching is a more subtle matter. It is generally r esorted to to repair the wear; and sometimes the retouching is the work of the original artist, and sometimes it is the work of a later craftsman, concerned in the interests of publisher or dealer, or it may be in his own, if it is he who has become the possessor of the plate.
But an impression originally rich or brilliant, or brilliant and rich at once, may, by ill-usage, or even by the absence of a delicate care, have lost the qualities that commended it to its first possessor. The beginner in print collecting must assure himself not only that the work is still good, but that the surface is clean and fair. Then he must look at the back of the print, must assure, himself, by careful examination there, that it has not been "backed," or patched, or mended: at all events, that all the mending it has required has been sliglzt and neatly executed. Damp is a deadly enemy of prints. They pine for dry warm air as much as a soldier sent from out of Provence into the chilliness of French Flanders. "Il parait que Va grelottait la-bas," said a Provenqal once, to me, at Cannes. Many a print is as sensitive to dampish cold as is an American consumptive. The collector then must diagnose wellmust satisfy himself as far as possible that the seeds of disease are not in the print already-and if he buys the print, he must see to its health carefully.
Let me here hasten, though, to assure him nothing more than reasonable care is required, and I will tell him at once in what it consists. If he frames his print, he had better order that the thickness of some moderate mount-an eighth or twelfth of an inch is fully enough for the purpose-intervenes between the surface of the print and the glass. The glass may "sweat" from time to time, and obviously its moisture must not be deposited upon the very object it exists to guard. If a print has great moncy value, or if from any cause the collector sets much store by it, it should not remain in any frame for more than a few years without at least a careful re-examination. Fresh air will do it good; and, moreover, it is good for the collector's own eye (whose delicacy ought to be cultivated by all possible means) that account be taken of a print's appearance not only when it is under glass. If the collector, instead of framing his print, puts it in a portfolio, he must see at least that it is so handled and managed that its surface is not rubbed by the backs of other prints, or the backs of their mounts. Where one print follows another in a portfolio or solander-box, the mounts of all should be smooth. The portfolio must keep dust out as well as it can. The solander-box will keep dust out much better. And whether the print is in folio or box, or laid naked in the drawer or shelf of a cabinet, it should be from time to time looked at, given, so to put it, a "bath of air" on a sunny and dry day. A country-house, unless the walls are very thick and the rooms kept very carefully, is not the best place for a collection of prints, which (in England at least) flourish most in the atmosphere of cities. It is in cities that they require the least solicitude. I know very well, when I say this, that it will be news to some people that prints require any solicitude at all. I have pointed out that they do, but also that their possession does not involve any overwhelming responsibility.
There is one other point as to the condition of a print-as to that which it is desirable to find in it before we purchase it-that should be touched upon before this chapter ends. That is the question of margin. It may be that some worthy people are almost as sharply divided upon the question of margin as are New York gourmets upon the question of how many minutes it takes to roast to perfection a canvas-back duck. But the majority of collectors are advocates of margins: they " take curious pleasure " in them, Mr Whistler remarks. A margin undoubtedly has much to recommend it. While a print is mounted, and even after it is mounted-on those occasions, I mean, when, under examination, it passes from hand to hand-the margin helps to protect it. Yet it is evident that a margin has no artistic merit, and that therefore to establish a very great difference in money value between the print with a margin and the print with none, is to be rather absurd. Of course a print three hundred years old, which has conserved its margin to some extent, is a yet greater rarity than a print which has not; and as rarity-rarity of condition even-is paid for as well as beauty, there is some just marketvalue in margin, no doubt.
But, unlike that fine condition of surface on which I have so much insisted, the possession of margin is by no means strictly necessary. It is sometimes an added grace, but never, at least in the case of a print that is ancient, and that has been subjected probably to many vicissitudes-never in such a case is it an indispensible virtue. Rarely does the ample margin go back beyond the Eighteenth Century. In your etching by Meryon or Haden-done fifty or thirty years ago-you may expect some margin, fairly. In your noble line-engraving after Chardin or Watteau, you may be glad of some, and may be grateful and surprised if you find much. In your Rembrandt, a little enhances the value. In your Durer, an eighth of an inch, how precious and how rare!
In regard to the loss of a margin, while in the case of a very old print it is due probably to gradual ravages and various little accidents, in the case of engravings less old, and especially in the case of engravings which (mezzotints, for example) have always been held most decorative on a wall, it is due simply to the process of framing. When the mezzotint-or whatever it iswas prepared for the frame, the knife removed the margin at a stroke, and with it there perished, for the future collector, some chance of exultation and not inhuman boastin.