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( Originally Published 1932 )
To say that the three greatest living etchers are Scotchmen is not the beginning of the usual preamble to a Scotch joke. It is a definitely established fact that Sir D. Y. Cameron, James McBey and Muirhead Bone are pre-eminently masters. If none of the three ever complete another successful plate hereafter, the ones already etched would be the basis for the most conclusive statement that these three gentlemen, from the land of bonnie lassies, compare with the masters of all times. Their theme of portrayal is not identical with any of the past. Only in one or two plates do we find a resemblance to Rembrandt or any of the earlier men. It is fortunate for them that the World War came when it did. When the odorous remembrances of that conflict die away, the historical evidences etched and drawn by these three alone will further create the impres sion that Great Britain still is far and above the rest of the world in producing master draughtsmen and technicians.
It was under the direct orders of the British Government that these three men were sent to the front lines to sketch the complete history of what was going on. Hence for some of the very fine plates we are to be most thankful to the political forces of John Bull.
It is necessary to bear in mind that to be known as a master, an artist must have completed a great number of plates, plates that can withstand the ravages of generations. To veer off into our own continent, a perfect example of the preceding statement is one which concerns our own George Bellows, whose works when first placed on the market, brought only a trifle when they could be sold. To-day, people realize that he completed a great many fine things. Hence he is known as a master of lithography. Above all, his prize fight pictures confirm this statement. Furthermore, it is to be admitted that no one artist can successfully keep up a standard which is his through popular opinion. The nearest approach to completing this miraculous accomplishment might be vested in the name of Albrecht Durer, all of whose prints are generally considered to be fine.
To return to our subject, contemporary foreign etchers, besides the three men already mentioned, Cameron, Bone and McBey, it is necessary to include the Frenchman, Jean Louis Forain (1852-1931), who was every bit a master.
Since my problem is to interest the novice, it will suffice to give a description of some of the finer plates executed by the first three mentioned. In any phase of life it is our duty, if we have the necessary ambition, to copy a pattern only of the best. Hence to appreciate the glorious masterpieces of etching we must continually look at the fine prints. McBey, at the time he completed his fifty-seventh etching, had never seen an original Rembrandt.
This young man, born in Newburgh, a little fishing village on the coast of Aberdeenshire, was apprenticed as a stationery clerk in a bank at the early age of fifteen years. For some ten or eleven years he existed in this atmosphere and it was not until his soul finally revolted, in favor of a career of art, that he left the bank. No other position could have suited this artist better than that of stationery clerk. The handling of all sorts of paper gave him a start in the field of etching which is a tremendous handicap to most other men. He was now bent on a career of professional etching; his hobby from now on was the collection of old paper. But sheets of old paper are so varied that each calls for a different kind of printing. That is why McBey has always done his own printing.
McBey himself, in his own words, hits the nail on the head in stating that the skin of old paper has become soft and velvety due to the action of time on the surface, while the strength of the actual paper is not impaired. In contrast to modern paper, it gives a more sympathetic surface and a more mellow tone. He has achieved success by methods of his own. Just as each of us inherits something of color, habit and character from his ancestors, so each of McBey's works owes something to his great forbears and yet has its own body, its own color and its own soul.
He represents the type who prefer to begin at a new beginning, and create afresh, and he is like Rembrandt and Whistler not so much in his work as in his resistance to the besetting temptation of every artist, i.e., the danger of being led by a past success into formula and repetition. It is a feature of his art that he has always been untiring in adventure, seeking always to find the new peak, the further view. To discover for yourself the inspirational qualities of McBey's prints, the "Lion Brewery", the "Night in Ely", "Pensants Gamerie", and the "Gale at Port Erroll" will serve as perfect examples of simple lessons in the art of appreciation.
David Young Cameron was born in 1865 in Glasgow. It was not until 1887 that Cameron began to etch. Unlike McBey, he was encouraged into the art by a very clever amateur collector. Cameron has probably done more than any other man to popularize etching and some of his architectural plates are very notable. There is only one slight drawback to most of this man's plates and that is that they lack a spark of humanity. One feels that the etcher was interested in etching, not in expressing life through the medium of etching. His chief appeal lies in his Black and White pattern which tells richly when hung in a quiet-toned drawing room. In his later work he has developed a more personal style in his drypoints of mountains and wood and scenery. The outstanding plates, which will give the ordinary person an insight to his art, are the "Doge's Palace", "Sainte Etienne", "Gaen", "Meuse", "Evening on Findhorn", and "Ben Lomond".
It just so happens that the third great English contemporary etcher, Muirhead Bone, was born less than 200 miles from the birthplace of Sir D. Y. Cameron, in a little town of Patrick, a log suburb of Glasgow. Bone was brought up to be an architect and from that apprenticeship he derived the expert knowledge of construction, the superb eye for minute detail.
His earliest etchings and drypoints date from 1898. Like several etchers who have distinguished themselves in after life, by style of marked originality, he found out the technique for himself or at least without any definite course of study under any teacher or in any school of engraving. If you were to ask which of all the Bones I would cling to, were all but one to be surrendered, I should answer "Ayer Prison". The highest quality of Bone's work, at its best in landscape and in architecture, are there, combined with an exquisite feeling for line and balance. At the same time, if I were given a bit more leeway, I would mention the "Spanish Good Friday", and "Tagore". It is an unquestionable fact that Bone is the supreme master of the drypoint. No one, not even Rembrandt, has handled the burr of the medium with its capability of yielding both extreme richness and delicacy with more power and certainty.
To complete the English circle, Gerald Brockhurst (1890) with his magnificent effect of tone and quality-especially predominant in "The Dancer"-has borne out the earliest predictions for him which were all favorable. "La Tresse" and his latest work, "Portrait of James McBey", are really fine prints. It merely proves that this comparatively young man, through his drawings, has completed a cycle of years in which he has definitely established himself.
Dame Laura Knight (1877), probably the greatest exponent of aquatint since Goya (1746-1828), has most certainly made a lasting impression; any number of her plates, which total altogether only fifty-seven, are worthy of collecting. Her draughtsmanship and design are faultless. Her subject matter is tremendously original, she is always the interested and sympathetic observer. Her work contains a spontaneity making for the combined attributes of pathos and humor within one. "The Fair", "Changing", "Zebras" are among the choicest.
Edmund Blampied (1886) a native of Jersey, revels in depicting scenes of country life; meadows, horses, old men. These portrayals are incomparable. Lately he has branched out into a group of Metropolitan subjects. There are a number of these which would entice the renowned Oscar of the Waldorf. "L'Aperitif" would be a very good contribution to this set.
Frederick Griggs (1876) works with a perfect technique in his almost singular methods. Not touching any tradition and yet decidedly opposite to Whistlerian principles, his prints are calm and sedate. He knows the value of each stroke.
Robert Austin (1895) is a magnificent designer. A man of varied imagination and the ability to tell a story clearly, by the aid of the simplest strokes. "Puppets" is typically and peculiarly an Austin plate. Its compelling fascination leads towards a desire to see other plates.
Francis Dodd (1874), in portraiture, combines a silky effect with a solid and comprehensive manner.
The greatest etcher of marine subjects who ever lived is Arthur Briscoe. For those who love the high seas it would be a royal treat to look at the entire collection of this artist. The fourth master of the present group is Forain. It is significant to notice that his late work is so different from his earlier plates that it is like looking at the work of another man. In his case it is only the later works which are significant. In his plates of the law courts Forain is deeply indebted to his great predecessor in France, Honore Daumier (1808-1879), whose lithographs contained even more dramatic force than the etchings of the living artist. Forain came entirely into his own however, with his series of Motifs taken from the life of Christ. In them, and his remarkable Lourdes set, he carried the art of elimination of unessential details to an extreme. These prints, done for the most part between 1908 and 1910, are unrivalled since the time of Rembrandt, for their sympathy with humanity, for utter tragedy, nothing has ever created such force.
I have reserved my discussion of contemporary etchers until the last. It is my purpose to create a definite path upon which the layman may wander, touching the various trees of interest on either side, but always with the intention of continuing on to a definite point: that of being able to control an interest and a well balanced opinion in a thoroughly entertaining art. The art of etching.