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( Originally Published 1932 )
One of the purposes that I am endeavoring to realize is a feeling for the ordinary print in the minds of the layman. The greatest evil, in the little world that really cares for the etching, is a too considerable percentage of people who are rather connoisseurs than amateurs. The distinction between the two is worth commenting upon, because true amateurs can do nothing but good to any art, while connoisseurs, though useful in their way and even necessary in small numbers, mix their usefulness with much that is positively harmful.
A genuine amateur is a person who values art because it is good as art and not because it is dear or rare. He looks for artistic merits alone, and is so entirely free from the passion of curiosityhunting that he guards himself against curiositymadness as a man with a great moral ideal guards himself against dipsomania. This particular subject brings us to one of the technicalities of etching,-that of steel-facing a plate. In former times an etching on copper yielded a few hundred impressions and a drypoint about one-tenth of the number, simply because, as I said before, the constant work of the press bearing down on the burr wears it to such a point that instead of being left with a tint it is gray and muggy. The finest impressions were the earliest, and when the plate became old it yielded impressions so wretched that copies of the finest Rembrandts in the last stages of their existence are not worth, in the market, more than one one hundredth of the value of the earlier proofs. Along came an ingenious Frenchman who, by means of electricity, remedied this evil.
He covered a copper plate, after its engraving, with a coating of steel so infinitesimally deep that it does not fill up the lightest scratch of the drypoint. During the printing it is this coating of steel and not the copper plate which has to bear the friction and when the steel is worn through in any place it is easily removed by a solvent which does not hurt the copper,-after which the plate may be re-steeled. This repetition over and over again will, of course, bring about immense editions. It follows that everybody is able to get good proofs of the work of etchers, just as everybody is able to get correct editions of Scott or Byron. Needless to say that this discovery is rather distasteful to lovers of etching as a curiosity; hateful, chiefly, because worn impressions are necessarily common and may be had of every and any print seller at less than a dollar. The question here seems to be "Would it be a bad thing if there were a million bad copies of Rembrandt's finest works?" Are there not a million copies of Hamlet and do we value Shakespeare the less for his boundless publicity and illimitable possibility of production?
I will venture to offer a solution by saying that I would take sides with the connoisseur by offering always to accept a print of a limited edition before all other prints. However, in one instance, and that to be taken for what it is worth, I might say that I am entirely against the connoisseur when he looks for minute facts which would tend to divert his attention from acknowledging the mighty powers of the great men of the past and the present.
It would be better if he became a philatelist. This is a hobby which may fulfill every mania for an inversion, an omission of a letter, a specially water-marked paper and various shadings and other defects. I beg to presume that people, reading this book, will accept my opinions as being individual and allow me a freedom which I have adopted after a study of only a few years. Next to the impression, the condition of the prints is to be considered. The generality of old prints are to be found wholly or in great measure denuded of their margin. This is so common that the circumstance of having any margin left, be it one-eighth of an inch, enhances the value of the print. A genuine collector would as soon think of cutting a print in half as of depriving it of a hair's breadth of a margin. So important is this possession of a margin that it is not unusual to find a false margin substituted where a print has been close shaved.
Still another matter is to be careful that the print is free from grease spots, drippings of wax, finger marks, oil, or varnish, and other smaller blemishes. It appears perhaps a little superfluous to notice such things as these because they may be supposed sufficiently obvious to every purchaser, but this is not quite so. Unless one actually looks for them, they often escape notice. A print is always considered depreciated by being what is called "laid down",-that is by having a piece of paper pasted at the back as if by way of strengthening it. Although a print may be perfect, there is always that suspicion that it harbors a slight error and thus has been prepared with a backing so that the spot may be covered up unless placed beneath a very strong light.
The same suspicion can be spread to the common method of cleaning or repairing the ordinary print, a trick which is too often practiced especially on those copies supposedly of old masters. Last, but not least, in this chapter, might be mentioned a young lady amateur who created interest and well-merited admiration by an unpublished etching which turned out to be none other than a very excellent copy of Rembrandt's "Mill". Here is a case where none but the skillful judges were able to distinguish it from the original. In other words, it was a counter-proof. This term applies to an impression taken not from the copper plate but from a print already taken from it. It is effected by laying on a sheet of wet paper a fine, strong impression, immediately when it comes from the press. The first, original impression now acts the part of the copper in a degree, throwing off on the plain paper its superfluous ink, giving an impression of itself which is consequently shown in the reverse.
The next matter requiring attention is the value of the print. As long as I have discussed the relation of the connoisseur to the amateur, I will proceed without direct relation to one or the other. Putting perhaps the last first, it was only lately that an instance of popularity set the price on a small group of prints. The very fact of having publication prices kept the market for this man's work at a level easily reached by both connoisseur and amateur. It won't be long, however, before the former will perhaps put into circulation the best of the small group, at a higher price. This is perfectly fair when it is considered that I am referring to an artist of great repute who still lives. To illustrate further; should some of the proofs enter the market again, in this case as nearly always, in a rising market, all are buyers. The demand for all the works of this one artist increases possibly without any respect to any intrinsic value in himself or any comparative excellence in his definite works, or to any governing principal other than the more or less frequent appearance of such and such a print in the market.
If we but know the circumstances, we may readily understand perhaps why certain men create a disturbing feeling in the Black and White world. An etcher resolved to turn out nothing but the finest that his hand can portray will take, and he cannot do it in less time, an entire year to bring about nine or ten well appointed plates. If he works faster he becomes prolific and it is time to become watchful. I don't mean to convey that a sudden inspiration is a calamity; on the contrary, it would probably bring about the finest print of the group. But this happens rarely indeed.
There is an amusing story concerning Sir Seymour Haden, how he went down to Greenwich one day to a White Bay dinner. Suddenly he saw a subject and just went and sat on a box, pulled a plate out of his dress coat-tail jacket, etched the ship and forgot the dinner and then came back the next day at sunset and put in the background.
It is obvious that a plate of 16 x 7 1/2 can hardly fit into a coat-tail pocket. But what does it matter whether the man went about with an extra plate or two, ready for sudden inspirations, stored in his coat-tail pocket, or wrapped in paper and hugged tightly under his arm, or had them in a portfolio? Haden may have forgotten the exact details, as he forgot the dinner, or they may have become slightly misquoted through repetition. To set the story going again, the ship was the Agamemnon. In his etching of the hull, Haden achieved what is probably the finest thing in line that has ever been done in etching.