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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Prints: Later English Etchers

( Original Published 1903 )



Though no very definite commercial values may yet have been established, in the auction-rooms, for their work, many living English etchers of a generation later than that of Whistler and of Seymour Haden have been for some time now appealing to the collector; and their prints-sold chiefly perhaps at the ` Painter-Etcher's," at Mr Dunthorne's, and at Mr R. Gutekunst's-are worthy to be carefully considered. The best of them, at least, will rank some day as only second to the classics of their art. Indeed, if the term ` the Revival of Etching" has any meaning, it is to the best men of the later generation that it must most apply; for "revival" signifies surely some tolerably wide diffusion of interest, and is a word that could scarcely be used if all we were concerned with were the efforts of two orthree isolated men of genius-in France, Meryon, Bracquemond, Jacquemart; in England, Haden and Whistler.

No, the collector who addresses himself to the gathering of modern etchings, must go-or may go, fairlybeyond the limits of the work of the men I have this instant named. But in going beyond them, very wary must be his steps. He who is already a serious student of the older masters-he who by happy instinct, or by that poor but necessary substitute for it, a steady application to the consideration of great models-knows something of the secrets of Style, and so will not fall a ready prey to the attractions of the meretricious and the cheap. But the beginner is in need of my warning; and among the work of the younger generation, the etching that is already popular and celebratedmore particularly the etching that is obviously elaborate and laboured-is as a rule the work he must eschew. The thing of course to aim at, is to acquire gradually such "eye" and knowledge as will enable him to pounce with safety here and there upon unknown work; but at first it is well perhaps that in his travels beyond the territory of the admittedly great, be shall not wander too far. I will give him the names of a few artists, whom the connoisseur begins to appreciate, men of whose methods it will be interesting, and need not be extravagant, to possess a few examples.

Of any such men, here with us in England-save indeed Legros, whose claims to highest place I hold to be yet more incontestable-William Strang is the one who has been known the longest, though the number of his years may still permit him, ere he pass from us, to double the already formidable volume of his work. Strang has etched in the right methods, and no one knows much better than he does, the technique of the craft; and, then, moreover, though he paints from time to time a little, it is Etching-and all of it original Etching-that is the occupation of his life. And within less than twenty years Mr Strang has wrought-well, say between two hundred and fifty and three hundred plates. It is no good giving the precise number, for before this book has lain for a month upon the reader's shelf the number will have ceased to be precise. Almost as many kinds of subjects as were treated by Rembrandt have been treated-and no one of them on one or two occasions only-by Mr William Strang. He has dealt with religious story-caring always, like Rembrandt, and like Von Uhde today, for dramatic intensity in the representation of it, rather than for local colour-he has dealt too with Landscape, with Portraiture, with grim and sordid aspects of contemporary life.

The presence of imagination, the absence, almost complete, of formal beauty, are the very "notes" of Mr Strang's work-that absence is so remarkable where it would have been least expected, that we are, it may be, a little too apt to forget that in certain of his masculine portraiture it does not make itself felt at all. He has made etchings of handsome men, and they have remained handsome. He has even made etchings of men not handsome, and handsome they have become. But he knows not the pretty woman. And his landscape is endowed but scantily with the beauty it cannot entirely miss. Another curious thing about Mr Strang's landscape is, that more even than that of Legros, his first great master, it seems derived from but a little personal observation and an immense study of the elder art. Indeed, I am not quite sure whether, save in the accessories of his figures-such as the potato-basket of one of his woebegone, limping, elderly wayfarers-Mr Strang has ever drawn and observed anything which had not already fallen within the observation of the great original engravers of the remoter Past. In his dramatic pieces he shows a sense of simple pathos, as well as of the uncanny and the weird. In Portraiture Mr Strang can be effectively austere and suitably restrained. Occasional failures, or comparative failures, such as the portraits of Mr Thomas Hardy and of the late Sir William Drake, do perhaps but bring into stronger relief the successes of the Mr Sichel and of Jan Strang, and many others besides. I must refrain from naming them. When Mr Strang has done so much, and nearly all of it on a high technical level, it is natural to feel that though out of them all the general collector of etchings might reasonably be satisfied with the possession of a dozenor, peradventure, six-he would like at least to choose them far himself.Indeed, there is no "best" to guide him to-no " worst " to guard him against.

Legros has been named as Strang's first master. He belongs to an older generation, and if I name him here, between his best-known pupil and some of the younger men, it is not to minimise his importance, but in part as a convenient thing, and in part because, with his long years of English practice, one hesitates to allow even French birth and a French first education to cause one to place Legros outside the English School that he has influenced. Born at Dijon nearly sixty years ago, Legros has been amongst us since 1863. But it is not English life-or indeed any life-that has made him what he is. He might have done his work-most of it at least but the portraiture-while scarcely wandering beyond the bounds of a Hammersmith garden. He has boon fed on the Renaissance, and fed on Rembrandt; but yet the originality of his mind pierces through the form it has pleased him to impose on its expression. He gives to masculine character nobility and dignity; or rather, he is impressed immensely by the presence of these things in his subjects. His etching of Mr G. F. Watts is perhaps-taking into account both theme and treatment-the finest etched portrait that has been wrought by any one since the very masterpieces of Rembrandt, nor, honestly speaking, do I know that it fails to stand comparison even with these.

Like his most prolific and perhaps also his most original pupil, who has been spoken of already, Legros has little sense of womanly beauty; but the lines of his landscape-often, as I judge, either an imagined work' or but a faded memory of our own-have refinement and charm. His art is restful-restful even when it is weird. A large proportion of his earlier work records the life of the Priesthood. In its visible dignity-as I have said elsewhere-its true but limited camaraderie, in its monotony and quietude, in its magnificence of service and symbol, the life of the priest, and of those who serve in a great church, has impressed Legros profoundly; and he has etched these men-one now reading a lesson, one waiting now with folded hands, one meditating, one observant, one offering up the Host, another, a musician, bending over the 'cello or the double-bass with slow movement of the hand that holds the bow. Dignity and ignorance, pomp and power, weariness, senility, decay-none of these things escape the observation of the first great etcher of the life of the Church. Communion dans l'Eqlise St Medard and Chantres Espagnols, when seen in fine "states," are amazing and admirable technical triumphs, as well as penetrating studies, the one of religious fervour, the other of impending death. In La Mort et le Bucheron -in either version of the plate, for there are twothe imagination of Legros is at its tenderest. Is not L'Incendie dramatic, in its large and abstract way? Is not La Mort du Vagabond-with the storm like the storm in "Lear"-the one very large etching that is not, in its scale, a mistake? I know I would not have it otherwise, though it wants almost a portfolio to itself, or, better, a frame upon the wall. One might go on indefinitely; but again it is preferable to send the reader to the study of the master's long and serious work-a hundred and sixty-eight pieces there were in 1877, when Thibaudeau & Malassis published their Catalogue; ten years later there were ninety additions to the list; and to this day Mr Legros has not ceased to etch. Only the very first of his prints show any evidence of technical incompleteness. The very latest-though no doubt, by this time, his own real message has been delivered-the very latest (they include exquisite landscapes) show no symptom of fatigue or decay.

Not more than once or twice, I think, in all his long career, has Legros published his works in sets, either naturally connected or artificially brought together. Charles Holroyd, a distinguished pupil of Legros's, has twice already published sets-there is. his "Icarus" set, and a little earlier in date, yet in no respect immature, his "Monte Oliveto" set. Holroyd-with individuality of his own, without a doubt-is yet Legros's true spiritual child. He has much of his refinement, of his dignity. Did he love the priesthood from Legros's etchings, before ever he lived with them in Italy? Rome itself, I suppose, gave him the love of what is visibly Classic-and that is a love which Legros does not appear to share. His composition is generally good; his sense of beautiful "line" most noteworthy. His trees -stone pine and olive, or the humbler trees of our North - are thus not only individual studies, true to Nature sometimes in detail, always in essentials - but likewise restful and impressive decorations of the space of paper it is his business to fill. Farm behind Scarborouyh shows him homely, simple, and direct. Was it a Roman garden, or Studley, that suggested The Round Temple? In the little plate of the Borqhese Gardens-my own private plate, which I bought from him when the first impression of it hung at the Painter-Etchers' - Holroyd consciously abandons much that is wont to attract (atmospheric effect, for example), but he retains the thing for which the plate existed - dignified and expressive rhythm of "line." That justifies it, and permits it to omit much, and to only admirably hint at the thing it would not actually convey.

We will turn for a few minutes to another contemporary who has etched in the right spirit-Mr Frank Short. Some people think that Mr Short has not quite fulfilled the promise which only a few years ago he gave, as an original etcher. For myself, I consider that the fulfilment is, at most, only delayed: not rendered unlikely. Mr Short has been for several years extremely busy in the translation, chiefly into mezzotint, of pictures and drawings by artists as various as Turner, Nasmyth, Constable, Dewint, and G. F. Watts. If engravings that are not original inventions are ever worth buying-and that, of course, cannot be doubted-these translations by Mr Short are worth buying, eminently. There is not one of them that fails. His flexibility is extraordinary. His productions are exquisite. In a parenthesis, let me advise their purchase, when things of the sort are required. But Short is before us just now only in the capacity of an original etcher, and, as an original etcher, with well-nigh perfeet command of technique, he registers the daintiest of individual impressions of the world. That his field as an observer at first hand is limited, is certainly true. Coast subjects please him best. We have no finer draughtsman of low-lying land, of a scene with a low horizon, of a great expanse of mud and harbour deserted by the tide-all their simplicity, even uncomeliness of theme, made almost poetic. Low Tide and the Evening Star; Evening, Bosham ; Sleeping till the Flood, are all, among subjects of this order, prints that should be secured where it is possible-and where the accumulation of modern etchings is not an inconvenience. In Stourbridge Canal and in Wrought Nails -both of them finely felt, finely drawn bits of the ragged, sordid "Black Country"-we have desirable instances of Mr Short's dealings with another class of theme. If you want him in a more playful mood, take Quarter Boys-a quite imaginative yet gamesome vision of urchins looking out to sea from the Belfry of the church of Rye.

C. J. Watson has for many years now been etching persistently, and been etching well. But he has not got, and could not perhaps quite easily get, beyond the learned simplicity of Mill Bridge, Bosham, done in 1888. It is a sketch with singular unity of impression -or rather with that unity of impression which is not so singular perhaps when the work remains a sketch. St Etien.,te-du-Mont-a theme from which one would have thought that Mr Watson would have been warned off, remembering how, once and for ever, it had been dealt with by the genius of Meryon is, doubtless, an accurate enough portrait, but the individuality-where ? And without individuality, such work is an architectural drawing. This St Etienne bears date 1890; but since 1890 Mr Watson has done finer things-his strong and capable hand stirred to expression by a nature not perhaps very sensitive to every effect of beauty, but feeling the interest of solid workmanship and something of the charm of the picturesque. Ponte del Cavallo has daintiness, and some yet more recent work in Central Italy and Sicily-with architecture generally as the basis of its interest-may fall reasonably enough within the province of collectors who can afford to accumulate-who can afford to add well to well and vineyard to vineyard.

Of the remaining English etchers of our time, Colonel Goff, Mr D. Y. Cameron, and Mr Oliver Hall are those whom it will be best to notice at a little length. Mr Macbeth, Mr Herkomer, Mr W. H. May, Mr Menpes, Mr Raven Hill-others besides-have brought out prints of which the possession is pleasant; but it is, I suppose, the three men whom I named earlier who by reason of combined quality and quantity of "out-put" most deserve the collector's serious consideration.

Of these three, Goff-a retired Guardsman, but no more really an amateur than Seymour Haden-is, I take it, the best known. Actual popularity he has been, for an etcher, wonderfully near to attaining. He may even now attain it. Much of the excellence of his work is easily intelligible; his point of view, though always artistic, is one that can be reached, often, by the ordinary spectator of his prints. Hence, his relatively large acceptance-an agreeable circumstance which I should be glad to consider was owing exclusively to the skill that is certainly likewise his. Colonel Goffs sympathies are broad; his subjects admirably varied; and the vivacity of his artistic temperament allows him to attack each new plate with new interest. He is almost without mannerism in treatment, and of that which presents itself to his gaze on his journey through the world, there is singularly little which he is not able artistically to tackle. Not quite the architectural draughtsman that C. J. Watson is, he yet can indicate tastefully the architecture of church or cottage or city house. His sympathies are with the new as much as with the old, and that is in part because to him a building is not only, or chiefly, a monument with historical associations; it is, above all, an excuse and a justification for an arrangement on the copper, of harmonious and intricate line. Very successfully he has dealt with landscape. Is it the seaboard or the town that he depicts, he can people the place with figures vivacious and rightly displayed. I suppose that he has executed by this time scarcely less than a hundred plates. Summer Storm in the Itchen Valley remains the most popular, and would therefore prove, in an auction-room, the least inexpensive. But, among the pure et-,hings, Pine Trees, Christ Church, and Norfolk Bridge, Shoreham, and the extremely delicate little print of the Chain Pier, Brighton, and Low Tide, Mouth of the Hampshire Avon-with its own dreary but impressive beauty-are to my mind distinctly more desirable, and should be possessed if possible; whilst among the dry-points (and a dry-point can never be common) I would place highest, perhaps, the peaceful little Itchen Abbas Bridge.

Intricate in arrangement of line, the work of Colonel Goff is in actual workmanship less elaborate than that of Mr D. Y. Cameron, who, though now and again, as in that masterpiece of Landscape work Border Towers-a pure sketcher in Etching, much oftener devotes himself to work solid, substantial, deliberate rather in fulness of realisation than in economy of means. He is a fine engraver on the copper; addicted to massive arrangements of shadow and light -giving to these, wherever there is any fair excuse for doing so, a little of the Celtic weirdness Mr Strang bestows upon the figure. Glamour, a touch of wizardry, is in the Palace, Stirling Castle; and it is not in that only. A master, already, of the arrangement of light and shade-a master, already, of techniqueMr Cameron (who has studied Rembrandt so much, and, I should presume, Meryon) is finding his own path. Indeed, the Border Towers shows that all that he has learnt from Rembrandt he has made his own by this time. How else could he have accomplished what is certainly one of the most complete and significant suggestions of Landscape wrought in our day? A Rembrandt Farm is earlier. It is extremely clever, but, as its very name might lead one to conjecture, it is more distinctly imitative. Mr Cameron was not a master at the moment when he wrought the Flower Market; because, if he did not make in that the irremediable mistake of choosing the wrong medium-printer's ink, where one's cry, first and last, is naturally for "colour"-he made at all events the mistake that Mr Whistler is incapable of making (as his etching of The Garden shows), the mistake of working with a heavy hand, when what was wanted was a treatment of " touch and go," as it were-the very lightest coquetry of line. Occasionally Mr Cameron has failed; occasionally his industry has resulted in the commonplace; but he is a young man still; the collector must take account of him; his will hereafter be a very distinguished name; and meanwhile-now even-the collector of good Modern Etching is bound to put into his folios not a few of Mr Cameron's sterling prints.

Mr Oliver Hall-a young man also, and one who paints in water-colour as well as etches-can hardly have done as many plates as Mr Cameron, yet; and in none of them, free sketches of landscape-breezy, immediate, well-disposed-has Mr Hall been so unwise as to emulate the almost Meryon-like elaboration not inappropriate at all to the architectural subjects of Cameron. Oliver Hall's is delightful and sufficiently masculine work. After a short period of immaturity, during which the influence of Seymour Haden was that which he most disclosed, his Trees on the Hillside and A Windy Day testified to great flexibility, and to some force. The lines of "foliage," as people call it-it is the tree, however, rather than the leaf-the lines of the tree-form, however intricate, did not elude his point. Afterwards, Angerton Moss: Windy Day, and the Edge of the Forest, with its gust-blown trees and threatening sky, and later still, Kings Lynn from a Distance, came to assure us that here was an artist getting at the heart of Nature -an artist who could bring before us a poetic vision of natural effects.

Mr Alfred East, Mr Jacomb Hood, Mr Roussel, Mr Percy Thomas, Mr J. P. Heseltine, Mr W. H. May, Sir Charles Robinson, Mr Axel Haig, Elizabeth Armstrong (Mrs Stanhope Forbes), and Minna Bolingbroke (Mrs C. J. Watson) ought not to go unmentioned even in a book which has a wider field than " Etching in England " -in which I have named some of them less baldly.

The inexpert purchaser may like to know what is the sort of price asked generally by its producer, or by the dealer, or the Painter-Etchers' Society-to which the print may be intrusted-for a new etching. I am here on ticklish ground ; but I must make bold to answer, speaking broadly, " Far too much." Later onbefore I have quite done with the subject of the Lithograph-I shall return to the charge, on this matter of solid cash. But each class of work stands, in the matter of price, on its own peculiar footing; and here we talk, not of lithographs, but of etchings and dry-points. The wholly exceptional genius, approved by Time, and happily yet with us to benefit by the result of his fame, may be pardoned for asking twelve guineas for one of his most recent etchings. If he gets it, his rewards are delightfully contrasted with those of Meryon-who was grateful when an old gentleman in the French War Office gave him a franc and a half for an impression of the Abside de NotreDame, which, because of its beauty and of its peculiar and rare " state," is worth to-day about a hundred and fifty pounds. But we are not all men of exceptional genius; and, in the case of etched work, which, without deterioration, may be issued to the number of fifty or a hundred or a couple of hundred impressions, is it wise to seek to anticipate what after all may prove not to be the verdict of the world ?-is it wise to limit the issue so very artificially by the simple, I will not say the greedy process of asking two, three, and four guineas for an impression of a good but ordinary etch ing ? A good etching, produced by a contemporary artist, could, quite to the benefit of the etcher, be sold for a guinea. If the etcher has not time to print it himself, or is not, at heart, artist enough to wish to do so, let him send it to a good printer, with definite instructions how to print it, and, on the average, each impression may cost him half -a-crown. Then, of course, if he sells it through a dealer, there will be something for the dealer-perhaps five shillings. Say about fourteen shillings will be left for the artist. The fee is insignificant-but, if you once interest the public, it may be almost indefinitely multiplied. The price that is prohibitive to the ordinary man of taste-the price that prevents him, not, of course, from buying an etching here and there, but from forming any considerable collection of etchings-that, if the artist only knew it, is the greatest possible disadvantage to himself. He is concerned for his dignity; his amour propre, he sometimes says. But an etching like a book-is a printed thing; and the author of a book conceives, and rightly, that his amour-propre is wounded rather by absence or narrow restriction of sale than by the moderation-the lowness, if you will-of the price at which his book is issued.

Now a dry-point and an ordinary etching stand on different ground in this respect. Loth are printed things, indeed; but whilst the etching will, according to its degree of force or delicacy, yield, without " steeling," from fifty to four hundred impressions-and generally quite as near the four hundred as the fiftya dry-point will inevitably deteriorate after a dozen or twenty impressions, and may even deteriorate after three or four. Each impression, then, of a dry-point that is desirable at all, has its own peculiar value-its rarity to begin with (unless you work it to death), and its unlikeness to its neighbour. I blame no good artist, when he has made a good dry-point, for asking two or three or four, or six or seven, guineas for it. I do not as work of art-as providing me with joy-esteem it any more highly than the etching. The etching, which I ought to acquire at a guinea, may give me the gratification of a Wordsworthian poem. It may be-happy chance for every one concerned if it is!-as directly inspired as the Ancient Mariner: it may be a thumb conceived and wrought in one of those "states of the atmosphere" which (it is Coleridge himself who says it) are "addressed to the soul." Do I underrate it? Not a jot. But I discern that, like the Ancient Mariner, it can be multiplied in large numbers. The dry-point cannot.

Even at the risk of being charged with a certain repetition of my argument, I shall return - as the reader has been warned already-it will be somewhere in the chapter on modern Lithography-to this question of the too extravagant price, and therefore of the necessarily too restricted sale, of the contemporary print.