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( Originally Published 1932 )
"Why should I collect prints and what are the advantages of collecting them over that of other hobbies?" Each and every hobby, if discussed in detail, would appear to have its own history and many points in its favor. In the facts to be studied I believe that the hobby of prints has a bit more to support it than any of the others which will be considered.
To delve further into the field of etchings, it is necessary to mention that the art of etching has no mechanical attractiveness, because if it did we might just as well have photographs. If an etching has no meaning it can interest no one. Etchings and the art have attractiveness in themselves only when done with a spontaneous feeling, a real feeling, and not a commercial one. If its significant lines are accompanied by many of lesser importance, their value is thereby neu tralized. An individually great etching is the product of a grandly constituted mind. Every stroke of it has value exactly proportionate to the mental capacity of the artist, so that a treatise on etching is necessarily a treatise on the mental powers of great men.
This can be readily proved by examining the biographies of the great etchers in the past. Whistler was not only an etcher but a writer whose pen flowed with a steady stream of wellwritten treatises. Seymour Haden, the greatest English landscape etcher, and a brother-in-law of Whistler, was a physician of great note. There are others, equally great, who could lay claim to other activities that would balance their careers in etching. A matter of considerable interest pertaining to this point was reported on March 13, 1931, in The New York Sun. An Etcher's Club, composed of New York physicians and dentists, was organized by Dr. B. F. Morrow, physician and etcher. The group is known as the Haden Etching Club, named after the late Sir Francis Seymour Haden, the founder of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. An interest in etching in a practical way is the main requisite for admission. Each member must have the intention of etching. This move is to be commended, -it is another step ahead.
I have not as yet endeavored to allude to the fact that, having decided upon making a collection, a person faces the following considerations. First, the amount of expense that such a collection must necessarily involve. Second, the space necessary to contain the collection. Third, the ease or difficulty with which the articles are preserved when acquired. Fourth, the facility of removal from place to place. Fifth, the susceptibility of the articles to a just appreciation with respect to quality and price. Sixth, the pleasure or utility derivable from the collection, in individual enjoyment or in imparting this pleasure or utility to others. And this last must partly depend upon the popularity of the subject matter in the collection and the facility of displaying it.
In reference to these several heads, when compared with the various works of art which form subjects of collections, prints will have the advantage in almost every item. As to the articles of great cost, and bulk, such as pictures, bronzes, statues, comparison with any of the first four heads enumerated is unnecessary. One first class picture of great merit would buy every purchasable print that it is desirable to possess. A suite of rooms or an apartment is necessary in the first instance for a hundredth part of the number that could be contained in one small case in the second. Pictures, marbles, and other riches, must stand exposed to the sweepings and the dustings of the rooms and furniture and they must remain as fixtures, immovable except with assistance and with much trouble and arrangement.
Coins and medals, engravings, gems and antiquities may each compete with prints, some in one way and some in another; but none have all the advantages claimed for the latter.
With respect to the fifth distinction, every picture or marble or gem is unique and therefore has no companion wherewith to make direct comparison and thus estimate its value; whereas, with prints there are, generally speaking, many of the same and there will always be this factor with which to fix very distinctly what the proper price should be,-an advantage which cannot be had when the article is unique.
The sixth head is the essential point on which every other subject of collections remains-in comparison to prints-at a prodigious disadvantage. This is the comparative certainty, in the case of prints, of ascertaining the genuineness of the impression, and contrasts with the impossibility in every one of the other stated collections of having that entire and gratifying satisfaction which comes from the assurance that every article is undoubtedly what it professes to be. Where is there a collection of pictures, or gems, or marbles, or coins, or curiosities that has not received, from a visiting connoisseur, an insinuated suspicion that persists like a nettle to disturb the gratification which the collector is entitled to enjoy from the exhibition of his stores? Furthermore, where is the picture regarding which the artists and connoisseurs will be unanimous in their opinion that it is a genuine work of the master and, if so, that it is as pure as it came from the master's easel and has not been damaged or painted over, or injured by injudicious cleaning or varnishing?
It is true, of course, that, even in the case of prints, ignorance is ever liable to be deceived, especially when accompanied by conceit and extreme self-confidence.
An amusing example of this is the story of Hudson, the painter, who was fortunate in obtaining a very rare impression of Rembrandt's "Coach Landscape". On this occasion he gave a supper to which he invited all his amateur friends in order to display his purchase. Benjamin Wilson, a brother painter, 'who had good judgment in this field of art and knew that Hudson had very little, though he affected great interest and enthusiasm, amused himself at his expense. Wilson etched a plate after Rembrandt and sent the impression to Paris and circulated the report at home that there had been discovered, in France, a very rare print by Rembrandt, apparently a companion piece to the "Coach Landscape".
Money had been offered for it for the king's collection, but the owner meant to bring it to England for sale. Hudson, upon hearing this, anticipated his English friends, went to Paris and bought this print. Upon his return to London, he collected all his amateur friends for the purpose of receiving their congratulations. A short time after, the entire party and Hudson with them, were invited to a supper at Wilson's. Introductions were properly arranged and, upon being seated, every plate was found turned face downward. When the guests lifted them it was seen that under every one was an impression of the unhappy companion of the "Coach Landscape", and under Hudson's plate lay the money that he had paid Wilson's confederate in Paris.
A collector, no matter whether it be of prints or anything else, must prepare himself for certain unpleasant inconveniences which will arise out of this very quality of the popularity of his collection. He will soon discover that though all may be amused there are few who judiciously admire. Needless to say there will never be a unanimous opinion regarding any collection by a group of people having varied interests. Remarks will now and then be made which will test the temper of an exhibitor. It was not so long ago that a friend of mine was showing the large "Descent from the Cross" by Rembrandt. It would have been most natural to have expected expressions of admiration at the wonderful flood of light streaming from the blaze on the wooden cross, and on the frayed cap, back and arms of the man who is leaning over it. Can you imagine how my friend felt when instead of any such exclamations he heard in an audible whisper, "Do look at that man on the ladder-what a great patch he has on his trousers!"
Every print admitted into a collection ought to have three qualifications. It should be first, an early impression,-second, a good impression; and third, in good condition. The importance of an early impression will be perceived when the effect is considered from the result of printing too many prints from a plate. The continual rubbing of the workman's hands and the wiping of the plate on every occasion of taking an impression rounds the sharp edges of the engraving and by degrees wears down the surface. The more delicate parts become fainter and fainter and at length broken and almost obliterated; the stronger lines become confused, the intersecting lines broken into one another and the impressions now taken from the plate are messy and clouded.
It has been the custom of artists from time to time, as they proceed with their work, to take an impression that they might better see their progress. The impressions thus taken for proving the perfection of the work are called, from the object in taking them, "trial proofs", and such a print bears on the face of it evidence of the earliness of impression.
Today we find less and less pirating of plates. It is customary to run a specified edition and then to destroy the plate. This process naturally relieves the public of any undue fear of speculative mercenary gains on the part of the dealer. An artist who has a zealous desire for perfection and who considers his chief need to be that of a substantial reputation rather than hire takes a few impressions before dismissing the copper from his hand. These are termed "proofs" but more generally "first states", and where the artist may have taken an impression of his work at different times as he proceeded to the finish, there appears not only a first state but second and third states and perhaps more. Thus a first state may be that in which the subject is only sketched in, a little more than an outline. The second state may be that in which all shadows are in and the print apparently complete. The third state may be where the engraver has deepened the shadows by additional work. Other states may bear still more alterations.
Those artists who wish to convene with themselves write in pencil or, perhaps with a needle, the symbol, "imp,"-which is the abbreviation of the Latin word, "impressit", meaning to press upon or imprint.
There is one class of engraving wherein the great characteristic of early impression is the greater or less appearance of what is called "burr". This term applies principally, if not solely, to plates in which the drypoint needle has been much used. This instrument is a point without any clean-cutting edge. The effect of it is to raise in its operations of ploughing through the copper, a rough, wiry edge on either side of the line which it describes. A soft, velvety effect is given which is especially remarkable in the lines terminating or crossing the broad lights. After taking a few impressions from the plate, the rough edge soon wears down and the "burr" grows less and less and finally disappears altogether, and the print taken in this state will be found to have lost much of its richness in effect. The very earliest impressions may be so filled with the burt as to form patches of black and often obscure the design. Nevertheless, most collectors would probably like it better the more the print is suffocated with burr.