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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Nautical Etchers

( Originally Published 1932 )



The redundant psychology of the human mind is borne out by the very fact that most of us lay claim to the same cherishable ideals. The majority who will or have begun to collect prints is usually on the alert for a lovely, well-executed sea picture. With this fact in mind and wishing to promote an ever-existing love for "black and white", in the mind of those readers who have perused the preceding pages, I will close these chapters by adding an additional one discussing the qualities and works of those men who are judged to be the best in this single sporting field. Not long ago a print dealer told me he could continue his business indefinitely if he had the rights to publish the really great etchers of the sea and boats. How easy it is to understand this. Of course, it would be impossible to sell only one specialized item in a public gallery, since that particular place is generally to be placed in the category of a museum.

Just what is it that makes this subject so alluring? Centuries ago in the stories written and illustrated, voyages by the sea were usually the most sought. One of the greatest subjects left undone by the master etchers is Ulysses' travels. Are they not as well known as some parts of the Bible so exquisitely rendered by Durer and Rembrandt? Do they not make for a far more pleasing appetite than Meryon's Parisian buildings,-or even Benson's enduring series of game life?

In the seventeenth century certain craftsmen of note etched sea subjects; and each century since then there have been a number of men taking this subject as part of their routine. The last part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth have brought forth more capable seascape etchers than ever existed in the world before. Probably the two most distinguished are Arthur Briscoe and James McBey, both English contemporaries. We must not lose sight of the fact that Seymour Haden with his etching, "Breaking Up of the Agamemnon" probably executed the finest etching of a boat ever made and in tranquillity and sombreness this genius reached his pinnacle. Felix Buhot in "Environs de Gravesande" shows us a peculiarly effective style of placing his subject so that we are impressed with a feeling of bigness. Another Frenchman whose line was so perfect, so actual in reality that one almost wearied of it, was Eugene Bejot. His subjects were tranquil seascapes. A few sailing vessels, dories, tugs in the foreground, with hills and the town in the background,-everything was subjective to smallness. The water seemed so even that hardly a ripple appeared.

Of interest to sportsmen and readers are the prints of sailing boats, schooners, yachts, by Soderberg, and Burnell Poole. These two men, together with Briscoe, practically control the field with which the sportsman is concerned. Soderberg specialized in the Star Class racing boats. With the medium of drypoint he obtains good results. Burnell Poole has definitely established himself as being the foremost exponent of general shipping subjects. He is at ease with the hardest marine problem. His aquatints are perfectly controlled and their effect is amazing, considering that there is no such thing as the straight line in them. The medium is so difficult in itself that we find in the entire history of "black and white" only two or three great artists who adopted this medium as one of their specialties. Goya was one, Dame Laura Knight another. In a boat with all its minute detail, its relation to the water, the rigging to the floor, the sails to the balance, and other sea expressions, we begin to appreciate the work contained in one of Mr. Poole's prints. Poole has drawn in etching or aquatint some thirty yachts, schooners, and sailing vessels belonging to well-known people in this country. It would be hard to duplicate the effect that this particular portfolio contains.

Kerr Eby is a man who knows his marine subjects. In trips to the Maine Coast, to Cape Cod and Gloucester, he brought out such effective plates as "Spruce Head, Maine", "Schooner Sintram", "Sand and Sea". After these came the most fruitful of Eby's career,-some plates which were made in Cornwall, Brittany. That this land of rugged coasts, rolling hills, the home of "Jack the Giant Killer" and his brothers has found its way straight to the artist cannot be doubted. Its fascination has found expression in such plates as "Mevagissy", "Polperro No. 1" and "Polperro No. 2", portraying those beautiful, ancient fishing villages along the coast. "Spring in Cornwall" with its tender new foliage on the steep interweaving hills and "Porthleven", the long sweep ing line of coast and lifting surf expressed with a brevity of means unattained before. Of particular note are three of his most recent plates, "Early Morning, Brittany",-two old seamen with a little girl going out for the morning "catch"; the delicacy and charm is so vivid, so real. And the two nocturnes, "Harbor Lights" and "Night Loading",-both pictures of schooners. In these two plates we realize Eby has a genius for contrast.

James McBey, the young Scotchman who had come to London with no credentials other than his copper plates and his prints, won London favor with his sincerity and the probity of his native genius. One of his very early signed pictures is the dramatic "1588", in which McBey invested the pictorial with history with the fine study of "Collieston Rocks",

"Where the wind howled to the waves' dashing roar", an escaping ship of the Spanish Armada, "Santa Catarina" which has invaded the destroying English fleet is being driven to destruction by the forces of Nature on that wild distant shore. In the published state the ship is shown drifting broadside on but McBey was dissatisfied with this and, after the edition was issued, he greatly improved the design by altering the aspect of the gale and depicting the "Santa Catarina" headed direct towards the rocks.

To the collectors who had purchased the first state, he offered an exchange of the second for the first; but none accepted so that the few proofs of the fine state became exceedingly rare. Then "The Pool", what a lovely composition of the river's bustling activity! "Waterloo Bridge", with the moving barges and tugs out in the swirl of the stream and along the line of wharves and warehouses all significantly alive and functioning. That Whistler had etched the same subject fiftyfive years before did not daunt McBey, for he brought the fresh eye of a master-etcher to the scene, the aspect of which had changed somewhat with the vanishing of the sailing ship, though the Thames barges remained with the essental spirit of the river life and activity.

From the Aberdeenshire coast he made two or three plates in which the principal subjects were fishing smacks sailing towards the quiet harbor, yawls lying with their shadows beside the quays. After the war when he was at liberty to make what etchings he chose, we find that he took unto himself a desire to portray the sea more than ever.

Never has there been so simple and yet so comprehensive an etching as the "Gale at Port Erroll". All the boisterous energy and ferocity of the elements are suggested by those few lines, so essentially selective and which so inevitably places the one watching-as anxiously as those folk on the gale-swept jetty, wind and spume in their faces-the hazards of the incoming fishing-boats. What a contrast in outlook is the "Ebb-Tide" with the calm summer sunrise over the oyster smacks, drifting seaward on the Essex coast! The boats peacefully take the glare of what promises to be a hot day. Here again is etcher's magic producing beauty. One of the Holland series, "Zaanstreek" is quite notable. In the haze of early morning the solitary botter, with sails hanging close to the mast, is slowly drifting on the still waters, her shadows reflected, while at some distance the windmills of Zaandam shine through the golden mist.

England's second greatest master of water subjects is also a contemporary, Arthur Briscoe. No other etcher I think, excepting McBey, has accomplished so much in conveying the weight of water; its surge and backwash, the heavy oily roll of it, or, when it breaks, both the force and the transparency of its falling spray. Mr. Briscoe welcomes the sea in all its moods. He never fails to look upon the subject with a fresh and seeing eye. His especial affection, which will be shared by many, is for some of his "peaceful" plates. Of these, "Brightlingsea Hard" is one of the most successful in suggesting the stillness of an estuary and the utter absence of wind. The immobility of the men and the faint mistiness of the marshes in the distance are ably used to reinforce the desired impression.

Mr. Briscoe's ability to cope with all the problems of seascape etching is the more surprising when we consider how recently it is that he has taken up the etching needle. In 1924 he brought out his first plates, three in number. A year later so admirable a plate as "Typhoon, The Burst Topsail" appeared, a beautiful design of solid spars and torn, flapping canvas, and the clinging figures of sailors trying to stow the sail. What a marvelous opportunity is still offered to the amateur and collector wherein a complete collection of this man's work may be had. It would take time and money, but what a memorable classic it would make. If you can afford only a select few it would be most fitting to admit "Outward Bound" and "Casting Her Off " into the group. In the latter, the smoke from the tug almost is the design. It rises into the air straight as an arrow from the funnel, indicating that the tug is now stationary, that its work is done. The water at its bows is still, but behind is the churning of the screws with engines in reverse. By contrast, the sailing vessel has begun to move and the way in which it is indicated is an example of the artist's close observation and his power of rendering effects in line. We are conscious of the new independent movement of the sailing vessel not only by the wrinkled lines at the bows but also by its slightly altered position. The bowsprit is no longer parallel with the tug, but points to the open sea.

The English, despite their historical, nautical background, have no superfluity of artists able to interpret for them their own delight in ports and harbors, in the open waters that lie beyond and in the men and ships passing from one to the other.

The United States has a greater number of men etching subjects of the sea than any other nation. Still we have been unable to approach the greatness of the British school. For dexterity, Burnell Poole ranks high. He is Briscoe-like in theory and perhaps even more vigorous in variety of subject. A position of war-correspondent in the late conflict brought him into the war zone while on numerous destroyers. He has portrayed this part of his life well. What a risk he was assuming and how well do we know by the subjects given to us from this period! Transports, destroyers, submarines, ominous to all! Some day will be published a series of prints showing the development of the United States Navy from the old barks used by Captain Perry on Lake Erie to our own modern airplane carriers and super-submarines. There is no one qualified to do this better than Burnell Poole.

You yachtsmen who have been restrained from buying prints should be reminded of Hugh Walpole's story, "The Etching". It leaves one with a feeling of sureness, a spirit all-conquerable,-the feeling of satisfaction in one's own actions.



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