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Antique Prints: Turner Prints

( Original Published 1903 )

Turner prints constitute a class apart. The prints which others made after Turner's drawings and pictures, the prints he executed to some extent or wholly himself, the engravings in line and the engravings in mezzotint, are all of them wont to be collected not so much as part of the representation of a particular method of work, but rather as the representation of an individual genius and of a whole school of the most highly skilled craftsmen.

The Turner prints range in period from a year at least as early as 1794 to a year at least as late as 1856for though Turner was then dead, one or two of the finest engravers whom he had employed were at that date still labouring in the popularisation of his pieces. They range in size from the dainty vignette a couple of inches high, to the extensive plate-a wonder of executive skill, yet often, too, a wonder of misplaced ingenuity which may be three feet long. Between them come the very masterpieces of the landscape engraving of last entury-line-engravings like the "Southern Coast"; mezzotint supported by etching, like the "Liber Studiorum." They range in value between a couple of shillings or so-the price, when you can get the print, of a specimen of the early publications in the " Copperplate Magazine"-to, say, well shall we say to L50? -the price of an exceptional proof of a fine, rare subject in "Liber." In point of number, those of which account may reasonably be taken by the student of our greatest Landscape artists through the charming medium of his prints-or if you will by the student of Engraving who finds in pieces after Turner alone a sufficient range of method in the illustration of Landscape-in point of number those which there need be no desire to ignore or forget, reach, roundly speaking, to four or five hundred. It is possible to make the study and acquisition of them the main business of the life of an intelligent collector.

Mr W. G. Rawlinson is perhaps amongst existing connoisseurs the one whose knowledge of the engravings by Turner, and after him, is the widest and most exact. Mr Rawlinson has greatly extended the sum of his own knowledge since he penned that catalogue raisonne of the "Liber Studiornm" which remains his only published contribution to the history of the prints of Turner. The book is of much value; but though, broadly considered, it remains an adequate and serviceable guide, there must by this time be a good many corrections in the matter of "States"rarely is it that the issue of a First Edition of a descriptive catalogue of engraved work does not elicit, from one source or another, some information, the existence of which the author had had no reason to surmise. And, moreover, it may be hoped that Mr Rawlinson's more extended studies in the field of his particular inquiry will bear fruit some day in the production of another volume, devoted this time to the tale of the great series of Line-Engravings and the less numerous productions in pure Mezzotint. " Liber," remember-the master-work, which is thus far the only one to have been elaborately discussed or chronicled by any critic-is the result of a combination of Mezzotint with Etching. But we will go back a little, and will take the prints-or such of them as there is cause to mention-in due order.

I recollect Mr Rawlinson saying to me, not many months ago-in speaking of the little publications of the "Copper-plate Magazine" and of such-like small and early work-that Turner was never properly engraved till he was engraved by James Basire ; and I think, upon the whole, that this is true. At a later period, Turner himself protested that he was never properly, at all events never quite perfectly, engraved, till he was engraved by John Pye-but then that was for a quite different order of work from that which occupied him in the first years of his skilled and accomplished practice. What Mr Rawlinson meant was, that whereas the engraver-tasteful and in a measure delicate, yet slight and wanting wholly m subtlety of realisation and treatment-who did the little prints in the "Copper-plate Magazine," such as the Carlisle and the Wakefield, failed to translate into his art all the really translatable qualities of the immature yet interesting work to which he addressed himself, Basire, in the brilliant and solid prints which served as head-pieces to the " Oxford Almanacks," from 1799 to 1811, did the most thorough justice to their mainly architectural themes. It was in the year in which Basire finished-and Turner's art, by this time, had, of course, greatly changed-that there was executed by John Pye the very work (Pope's Villa) which extorted from Turner what it may be was his first warm tribute of admiration to anybody who translated him. But four years before this, Turner, with Charles Turner, the engraver in mezzotint, had begun the publication of the immortal series of " Liber Studiorum."

The set of prints which Turner issued as his " Liber Studiorum "-with an allusion, tolerably evident, to the " Liber Veritatis " of Claude-is but one series of several with which the English master of Landscape occupied himself during the fifty years, or more, of his working life. But it is the first series that was conceived by him; and it is, in the best sense, the most ambitious; and it remains the noblest and the most representative. In its actual execution Turner had a greater hand-an incomparably greater hand-than in that of any of its successors; and its scheme permitted a variety, an effective suddenness of transition, denied to the artist when, in later years, he was depicting that portion of the county of Yorks which is known as Richmondshire, or the " Southern Coast," or the "Rivers of France," or the "Ports of England," or even all the places which it pleased him to choose for one of the most elaborate of his publications, "The Picturesque Views in England and Wales." A long tether was allowed him, unquestionably, in some of these sets; but in the " Liber "-as it is called, briefly and affectionately, by collector and student-there was no question of tether at all. In it, a subject from Classical Mythology might stand side by side with a subject drawn from English barton and hedgerow-I am, as it were, naming Procris and Cephalzcs, Aesacus and Hesperie, the exquisite though homely Straw Yard, the entirely prosaic Farm Yard with a Cock. The interior of a London church, with its Georgian altar and its pews cosily curtained for the most respectable of bourgeois, might be presented in near neighbourhood to some study which Turner had recorded of the eternal hills, or of a great storm that gathered, rolled over, and passed away from Solway Moss.

I have used the word "study," since it is Turner's own. But each plate in " Liber Studiorum " is much more than a study. It is a finished composition. Turner spared neither time nor pains though in this case, as in others, he was careful, where that was possible, to spare money in making his work all that the wisest lover of his genius might expect it to be. Whatever rivalry there was with the "Liber Veritatis" of Claude the later portions of which were issuing from the house of Boydell at the very moment that Turner was planning the "Liber"--the rivalry was conducted upon no equal terms. I say nothing in depreciation of Claude's "Liber Veritatis." In it, one of the greatest practitioners of mezzotint engraving-Richard Earlom -reproduced, with learned simplicity, Claude's masterly memoranda-the sometimes slender yet always stately drawings in the preparation of which Nature had counted for something, and Art had counted for more. Claude's bistre sketches, by their dignity and style-even the hurried visitor to Chatsworth may know that-are akin to the landscapes of Rembrandt, to the studies of Titian. But the artist of the " Liber Veritatis" worked in haste, worked purposely in slightness, and more than one generation separated him from the engraver who was to execute the plates. Turner worked with elaboration, and worked at leisure, and he etched upon the plates, himself, the leading lines of his composition, and he was in contact with the engravers, and his directions to these accomplished craftsmen were rightly fastidious and endlessly minute.

Claude too was an etcher, yet it is not in the "Liber Veritatis "-it is in the rare and early States of his Shepherd and Shepherdess Conversing, of his Cowherd (" Le Bouvier "), of his Cattle in Stormy Weatherthat (as a previous chapter has insisted) we are to find proof of his skilled familiarity with that means of expression which Turner employed as the basis of his work in the " Liber." Claude, when he etched, etched for Etching's sake, and used with pleasure and with ease the resources of the etcher's art. Turner restricted Etching within narrower limits. When one remembers the circumstance that, having etched the outlines, on the plate, he took a dozen or a score, perhaps, of impressions from it before he caused the work in mezzotint to be added, it is difficult to assert that he did not attach a certain value to the etched outlines. And indeed they are of extraordinary significance and strength: they show economy of labour, certainty of vision and of hand. It is very well that they, as well as the finished plates, should be collected. But, in his pleasure in possessing himself of these rare, noble things, the collector must not allow himself to forget that they were essentially a preparation and a sustenance for that which was to follow-for that admirable mezzotint on which the subtlest lights and shadows of the picture, its infinite and indescribably delicate gradations, were intended to depend.

Of this Mezzotint it is time to speak. Its employment, though it proved-as I think I have implied already-wonderfully conducive to the quality of the "Liber" plates, was not resolved upon at first. The process of aquatint, in which much work was done about that time-in which, only a very few years before " Liber " began, Turner's friend, Thomas Girtin, had produced some broadly-treated views of Parishad, at first, been thought of. Negotiations were opened with Lewis, and he executed in aquatint one of the plates, which Turner did indeed eventually use, but which he was careful not to use in the earliest numbers of the publication. The superiority of Mezzo tint he recognised quite clearly. He employed the best mezzotinters. He busied himself to instruct them as to the effects that he desired. He learnt the art himself, and himself mezzotinted, with great exquisiteness, ten out of the seventy-one plates. He worked, in later stages, upon all the rest of them; obtaining generally the most refined beauty, but working in such a fashion as to exhaust the plate with extravagant swiftness. Then he touched and retouched, almost as Mr Whistler has touched and retouched the plates of his Venetian etchings.So delicate, so evanescent, rarity is not an aim, but a need, with them.

The publication of the "Liber "-the great undertaking of the early middle period of Turner's artbegan in 1807, and its issue was arrested in the year 1819. It was never completed-seventy-one finished plates were given to the world out of the hundred that were meant to be. But Turner had by that time proceeded far with the remainder, of which twenty plates, more or leas finished, testified to a gathering rather than a lessening strength. By the non-publication of these later plates, the collector-if not necessarily the student-is deprived of several of the noblest illustrations of Turner's genius. Nothing in the whole series shows an elegance more dignified than that which the Stork and Aqueduct displays; the mystery of dawn is magnificent in the Stonehenge; and never was pastoral landscape-the England of field and wood and sloping hillside-more engaging or suggestive than in the Crowhurst.

The mention of these plates-the hint it gives us as to difference of subject and of aim-brings up the question of the various classes of composition into which Turner thought proper to divide his work. His advertisement of the publication affords a proof of how widely representative the work was intended to be; nor indeed, did the execution at all fall short of Turner's hope in this respect. The work was to be-and we know, now, how fully it became-an illustration of Landscape Composition, classed as follows: " Historical, Mountainous, Pastoral, Marine, and Architectural." And further, it is said in the advertisement, "Each number contains five engravings in mezzotint: one subject of each class." But Turner, in these matters, was extraordinarily unmethodical-I should like to say "muddled." Each number did contain five engravings, and they were "in mezzotint," with the preparation in etching; but it was by no means always that there was one subject of each class, for Turner divided the Pastoral into simple and what he described as " elegant " or " epic " Pastoral (Mr Roget thinks that the "E.P." means " epic "), and the very first number contained a Historical, a Marine, an Architectural subject, but it contained no Mountainous, for the Pastoral was represented in both of its forms (" P." and "E.P."). The actual publication was exceedingly irregular. Sometimes two numbers-or two parts, as we may better call them-were issued at once. Sometimes there would be an interval of several years between the issue of a couple of parts. There is no doubt that as the work progressed Turner felt increasingly the neglect under which it suffered. Gradually he lost interest in its actual issue-but, never for a moment in its excellence.

Charles Turner, the admirable mezzotint engraverwho, it should hardly be necessary to say, was no relation of the greater man-had charge of " Liber " in its early stages. The prints of the first parts bore an inscription to the effect that they were "Published by C. Turner, 50 Warren Street, Fitzroy Square." But in 1811-when three years had elapsed since the publication of the fourth part-the fifth came out as "Published by Mr Turner, Queen Anne Street, West" -and "Mr Turner" meant, of course, the author of the work. Charles Turner, who had engraved in mezzotint every plate contained in the four parts with whose publication he was concerned, engraved, likewise, several of the succeeding pieces. Thus his share in the production of "Liber" was greater than that of any of his brethren. William Say's came next to his in importance-importance measured by amount of labour -and Mr Rawlinson has pointed out that William Say approached his work with little previous preparation by the rendering of Landscape. The remark is, in some degree, applicable to most of Say's associates. The engraver in mezzotint, at that time, as in earlier times, flourished chiefly by reproducing Portraiture. Raphael Smith and William Ward-great artists who were still living when the "Liber" was executed, but who had no part in the performance-had been employed triumphantly, a very little earlier, in popularising that delightful art of Morland, in which landscape had so large a place. Dunkarton, Thomas Lupton, Clint, Easling, Annis, Dawe, S. W. Reynolds, and Hodgos complete the list of the engravers in mezzotint who worked upon the " Liber." Admirable artists many of them were, but the collector, if he is a student, cannot forget how much the master, the originator, dominated over all.

Mr Ruskin and several subsequent writers have written, with varying degrees of eloquence, of originality, and, I may add, of common sense, as to the moral, emotional, or intellectual message the "Liber" may be taken to convoy. This is scarcely the place in which to seek to decipher with exhaustive thoroughness a communication that is on the whole complicated and on the whole mysterious. The reader may be referred to the last pages of the final volume of " Modern Painters " for what is at all events the most impressive statement that a prose-poet can deliver as to the gloomy significance of Turner's work. Mr Stopford Brooke-rich in sensibility and in imaginative perceptiveness-follows a good deal in Mr Ruskin's track. I doubt if Mr Hamerton or Mr Cosmo Monkhouse-instructive critics of a cooler schoolendorse the verdict of unmitigated gloom, and I have myself (in a chapter in a now well-nigh forgotten essay of my youth) ventured to hold forth upon the intervals of peace and rest which "Liber Studiorum" shows in its scenes of solitude and withdrawal: the morning light, clear and serene, in the meadows below Oakhampton Castle; the graver silence of sunset as one looks wistfully from heights above the Wye, to where, under the endless skies, the stream deploys to the river. I am referring, of course, to the Oakhampton Castle subject, and to the Severn and Wye; but the argument might have been sustained by allusion to many another print.

More important to our present purpose than to settle accurately its moral mission or to agree upon the sentiment of this or that particular plate, is it to value properly the sterling and artistic virtues which "Liber" makes manifest. Of these, however, there is one thing only that I care to emphasise here. Let all beauties of detail be discovered; but let us even here, and in lines that are of necessity brief, lay stress upon the allimportant part played in the plates of " Liber" by one old-fashioned virtue, that will yet be fresh again when some of those that may seem to supplant it have indeed waxed old. It is the virtue of Composition. "Liber Studiorum" shows, in passage after passage of its draughtsmanship, close reference to Nature, deep knowledge of her secrets; but it shows I think yet more the unavoidable conviction, alike of true worker and true connoisseur, that Nature is, for the artist, not a Deity but a material: not a tyrant but a servant. In the near and faithful study of Nature-and nowhere more completely than in the prints of "liber" Turner did much that had been left undone by predecessors. But he was not opposed to them-he was allied to themin his recognition of the fact that his art must do much more than merely reproduce. "Nature," said Goethe, "Nature has excellent intentions." And by Composition, by choice, by economy of means, sometimes by very luxury of hidden labour, it is the business of the artist to convey these intentions to the beholders of his work. How much does he receive? How much of himself, of his creative mind, must we exact that he shall bestow?

Let us come down, immediately, to money matters, and other practical things for the collector's benefit.

It is still possible, here and there, in an auction room, to buy an original set of " Liber Studiorum "-a set, that is, as Turner issued it-but it is never desirable. For Turner, who was not only a great poet with brush and pencil, and scraper and etching needle, but an exceedingly keen hard bargainer and man of business, took horrible care (or just care, if we choose to call it so) that the original subscribers to his greatest serial should never get sets consisting altogether of the fine impressions. He mixed the good with the second-rate: the second-rate with the bad. It was not till collectors took to studying the pieces for themselves, and making up collections by purchase of odd pieces here and there -rejecting much, accepting something-that any sets were uniformly good. The first fine set, perhaps, was that, in various States, which was amassed by Mr Stokes, and passed on to his niece, Miss Mary Constance Clarke. To have the marks of these ownerships at the back of a print, is-in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred-to have evidence of excellence. Twenty years ago, one could buy such a print, now and then, at Halsted's, the ancient dealer's, in Rathbone Place; and have an instructive chat to boot, with an oldworld personage who had had speech with "Mr Turner." Even now, in an auction room, one may get such a print sometimes. Another of the very early collectors was Sir John Hippesley, who bought originally on Halsted's recommendation, and who-having been for years devoted to works of other mastersended by breakfasting, so to speak, on "Liber Studiorum " : on the chair opposite to him, as he sat at his meal, a fine print was wont to be placed. Amongst living connoisseurs, Mr Henry Vaughan and Mr J. E. Taylor, Mr Stopford Brooke and Mr W. G. Rawlinson, have notable collections of very varying size and importance. Mr Rawlinson believes much more than I doif I understand him aright-in the desirability of possessing engravers' trial proofs--in a certain late stage. Most engravers' proofs are, of course, mere preparations, curious and interesting, but in themselves far less desirable than the finished plates to whose effects of deliberate and attained beauty they can but vaguely approximate. Of course if you are so exceedingly lucky a man as to have been able to pounce upon the particular proof which was the last of the series, you possess a fine and incontestable thing; but generally an early impression of the First published State represents the subject more safely and assuredly; and, failing that, an early impression of the Second State; and so on. An indication of priority is no doubt well-but it is well chiefly for the feebler brethren. You must train your eye. Having trained it, you must learn to rely on it. Books and the knowledge of States are useful, but are not sufficient.

In the few years that elapsed between the establishment of " Liber " as avowedly fit material for the diligence and outlay of the collector, and the great sale of the ,,remainders " in Turner's own collection-which only left Queen Anne Street in 1873, some two-and-twenty years after his death-prices for fine impressions of the "Libor" plates, bought separately, were high. Then, in 1873, during that long sale at Christie's, a flood of prints, and many of them very fine ones, came upon the market. " Would they ever be absorbed?" it was asked. They were absorbed very quickly. But just until they were absorbed, it was, naturally, possible, not only to choose (at the dealer's, chiefly, who bought big lots; at the Colnaghi's and Mrs Noseda's, particularly)-it was possible to choose sagaciously, out of so great a number, and to choose cheaply too. Then "markets hardened." The various writings calling attention to the wisdom of collecting had probably their effect. Then things slackened again. And now, though rare proofs and very fine impressions-which are what should be most cared about-hold their own, there is a certain lull in the activity of buying. The undesirable impression goes for very little. Yet the fluctuations, such as they are, either way, are of no vast importance. Of any but the very rarest, or very finest subjects, six to twelve guineas gets a good First State. Three to six guineas may be the price of a good Second. A Third or Fourth or Fifth State fetches less, unless-as in an exceptional instance, like the Calm-it is preferable. Of all the different subjects, the rarest is Ben Arthur. In a fine impression -with the cloudland and the shadows not impenetrably massive-it is exceedingly impressive. But never as a thing of power should I rate it above Solway Moss or Hind Head Hill; or, as a thing of beauty, above Severn and Wye.

No great collection of the " Liber Studiorum " has been sold of late years, but if we go back to the year 1887, we can give a few prices culled from the catalogue of the Buccleuch Sale. An engraver's proof of the Woman with a Tambourine fetched 15, 15s. there; an engraver's proof of Basle, 27; a proof of the Mount St Golhard, which at least must have had the virtue of approaching finish, fell to Colnaghi's bid of 55 ; the First State of the Holy Island Cathedral, which sold for 3, 3s., must either have been poor or monstrously cheap, though the plate is one in which, even to the collector with the most trained eye, the possession of the First State is not strictly necessitated : the subject is among those-and they are not so very few-in which the Second State, well chosen, is altogether adequate. The First State of the Hind Head Hill reached 14, 14s.; the First of the London from Greenwich, with its noble panorama of the long stretched Town and winding river, reached 15, 15s. A proof of the Windmill and -Lock reached 31; a First State of the Severn and Wye, 21; a First State of the Procris and Cephalus, 11; a First State of the Watercress Gatherers, 11, 11s. The pure etchings, which I have written of in an earlier paragraph in this chapter, sell, generally speaking, for three or four guineas apiece; the etching of the Isis, which is extremely rare, fetched at the Buccleuch auction 13, 13s. By the Fine Art Society 74 was paid for a First State of the Ben Arthur. The plates least eagerly sought, or in inferior condition, went for all sorts of prices between a pound or two and four or five guineas. I think, as far as value may be judged without the presence of the particular impressions which were sold, the little list I have now given above may fairly indicate it, but no quite thorough indication can be got without an immense accumulation of detail, and, on the reader's part, an immense knowledge in inter preting it. It is not unintentionally that we have lingered long over the " Liber." But more than one other great series must engage at all events a brief attention.

In 1814 began the famous "Southern Coast" series, which was brought to an end in 1827. For these prints, engraved in admirable and masculine "line,"chiefly by the brothers George and William Cooke, Turner had made water colours, whilst as a preparation for the " Liber," he had made but slight though finely considered sepia drawings-mere guides and hints to himself and the engravers he employed upon the plates: things whose significance was to be enlarged: not things to be merely copied and scrupulously kept to. In quite tolerable condition the ordinary impressions of the "Southern Coast" plates are to be had in large book-form; but the collector, buying single piece by single piece, at one or two or three guineas each, seeks generally impressions before letters or with the scratched title. Of course the variations in condition are noticeable, but in the firm "line" of the "Southern Coast," they are at least much less noticeable than in the delicate and evanescent mezzotints of " Liber."

The year in which the publication of the " Southern Coast" was finished-when prints picturesque and vivid, and in some eases, as in the Clovelly of William Miller, perfectly exquisite, had been presented of the most interesting seaboard places between Minehead and Whitstable-that year was the period at which the publication of the third great series, the "England and Wales," was begun. It was to have extended to thirty parts or more: each part containing four subjects. But, like "Liber," it received, on its first issue, no full and satisfying measure of encouragement, and though it reached its twenty-fourth part, it did not go further. It was published at about two guineas and a half a part. "England and Wales " sets forth with great elaboration of line engraving the characteristics of the later middle period of Turner's art, so far as black and white can set it forth at all. That was the period in which subject was most complicated and most ampleeven unduly ample-and in which Turner dealt at once with the most intricate line and with all sorts of problems of colour, atmosphere, illumination. The work of all that period, from 1827, say, to ten years onwards -with many of its merits, its inevitable shortcomings, and its immense ambition-the "England and Wales" represents. The work of various engravers trained by Turner for the interpretation of all that was most complicated, it will ever be interesting and valuable. Such prints as Stamford, Llanthony Abbey, and the noble Yarmouth stand ever in the front line. The last, like the Clovelly of the "Southern Coast," is a work of William Miller, the old Quaker engraver, whose rendering of Turner's delicate skies no other line engraver has approached-not even William Cooke, who did so well that troop of light little wind clouds in the Margate of the " Southern Coast." Admirable then, indeed, many of these things must be allowed to be; and in this sense they are almost unique, that scarcely anything else has possessed their qualities. Yet on the whole one admires " England and Wales " with reservations. One's heart goes out more thoroughly to "Liber" and to " Southern Coast."

There are other series which must not be passed over altogether-the " Richmondshire Set," of which the first print was executed, I think, in 1820, though the whole volume was not issued till 1823. It too is in line: the finest print of all, perhaps the Ingleborough. Then there are six " Ports of England ": impressive,varied little mezzotints, unsupported by etching-prints in one of which Turner has set down, for all time, his clear, unequalled perception of the beauty of the Scarborough coast-line. Then there are the "Rivers of Enaland," with the noble Arundel, the restful Totness. Then there are, in line, the almost over-dainty yet miraculous little prints of "Rivers of France." Then there are the wonderful vignettes in illustration of Walter Scott. These, like the illustrations to the Rogers' "Poems" and the "Italy," with which they have the most affinity, are luminous and gem-like. The Rogers illustrations of course deteriorate in later editions; the "Italy" of 1830 and the "Poems" of 1834 are the ones that should be possessed; and were the present volume of a wider scope and addressed to the book-collector, I should allow myself to say here what it seems I do say here, without "allowing myself"-that the collector should get, if possible, a copy in the original boards, and may give 5 -for that as safely as a couple of sovereigns for a re-bound copy.

Turner is represented on many a side by the engraver's art, and in most cases with singular good fortune. For some, there are the vignettes which have the finish of Cellini work. For some, it may be, the large, more recent plates, the Modern Italy and Ancient Italy, that hang, I cannot help considering, rather ineffectively upon the wall: too big, not for their place, but for their method of execution-and yet, like so many, wonderful. He is represented best of all perhaps in works of middle scale-in the virile line of the "Southern Coast," and the unapproachable mezzotint and etching of the " Liber." If everything that he has wrought with brush or pencil were extinguished, these things, living, would make immortal his fame.