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ETCHING: IT’S RELATION TO THE ARTIST, THE AMATEUR, AND THE COLLECTOR

I Propose to speak in brief of the claims of etching to general regard. Each art has some special strength or charm peculiarly to its own in which the sister arts do share and as soon as it is ascertained wherein lies the appointed sphere of any one of Fine Arts it then for the most part becomes wise to concentrate all available power in that direction. The art of painting for example claims as its own if not exclusively at least peculiarly the domain of colour and therefore other attribute it may be able to assume should not be to prejudice the harmony of the pigments And a like argument places limitations on sculpture an art wherein form light and shade dominate; consequently it has usually been considered best to use colour if at all in subordination to in sculpture may be deemed higher or more intellectual properties. Now the question I would ask is whether etching does not possess certain capabilities which give to the art an exceptional value shared if at all only in less degree by many competitors. To institute a close comparison of with the other major arts of painting and sculpture would be to fly from the mark; but between it and line engraving mezzotint lithography and wood engraving there subsist avowed accords and rivalries Allowing each then its separate merits the may fitly arise, What are the specific and supreme claims of etching and how does the process stand in relation to the artist amateur and the collector ? And when the peculiar capacities of etching shall be ascertained, the inference would seem to hold good, that the method best fulfils its mission when it remains true to itself and does not attempt to trespass on lies beyond its sphere. The process of etching has been so often described and so well-understood that it is necessary to know how to do it in order to understand what a few fundamental points are. Firstly a plate of copper. Secondly over this plate is spread to film of wax; thirdly the etcher uses his instrument a needle with the point of which he incises in the wax the lines he draws leaving the underlying copper bare; fourthly the etcher pours acid upon the plate which is thereby bitten In the lines made by the needle, fifthly the wax is cleared and the plate is then found to have been received on its surface the composition indented by the needle on the wax; sixthly the plate is finally charged with ink placed in a printing press and an impression taken on paper. This proof or impression, is the “etching.” There are a number of processes , methods, or dodges to which experts have recourse but for the most part they lie beyond the scope of the present remarks. However a word must be given to “the dry point” so called because wet acid is dispensed with the lines being incised by a pointed needle on the bare copper plate after the wax coating has been removed. The purpose of this after touching or final finish may be said to be to carry out and perfect the picture which the etching needle and acid may have left somewhat incomplete. It may be further mentioned that this dry point leaves on the surface of the copper plate what is termed a bur or rough slightly raised edge turned up by the etcher’s needle just as a plough makes a ridge above the level of the ground. This bur may be scraped off making the line smooth and unserrated like any other engraved line. But often the bur is sought for and cherished for its own sake because its rough contour catches the ink kindly and yields an impression valued for its softness gradations and texture. The bur needs great delicacy in the printing as it is necessarily frail and the first to suffer under wear and tear. It however can be protected by steeling the surface of the copper a process of which mention will be made in the sequel. Also just a word of explanation may be given as to states Mr Seymour Haden describes a state to be the condition in which a plate happens to be at each printing. The first state is the condition of the plate as it first comes from the etcher ready for printing The second or subsequent states are the results of additions rectifications or reparations which the etcher from time to time finds occasion to make. The first state is usually most prized from its freshness but sometimes the later states are valued for the improvements made under experience. The printing of etchings is in itself an art demanding intelligence and skill to comprehend and bring out the intention of the artist. It may be premised that etching has both its history and its nationality. The art commenced with its old masters about three centuries ago It may not always be easy to distinguish between etching and engraving but among etchers proper in past times are numbered Rembrandt Dürer Vandyck Ostade Paul Potter Karl du Jardin Hollar Canaletti Claude Callot and others I need scarcely say that Rembrandt is accepted as the great master. Very diverse are the styles since affected but the manner of the Dutchman has always been looked up to as the standard of excellence the art has never since his time fallen into extinction and recent revivals are often but emanations from his magic light shade and manipulation. As to the nationalities at present existing there are some three, 1st the French, 2nd the English 3rd the German To each a few words may be given. The French Etching Club called the Société des Water was formed at a meeting of artists in 1862. Among names which have Since become famous are Flameng Méryon Jacquemart Jacque Appian Lalanne Daubigny Rajon and Legros. The last painter etcher is now master of the etching class at South Kensington. Mr Hamerton writing fifteen years ago raised the delicate question whether French publishers and artists find that etchings pay No fortunes. As yet they have been made by the art in France but seven or eight artists live entirely by etching many others sell their plates the publishers are contented and the printer abundantly employed Since this was written the neglected art of etching has grown amazingly in favor and French etchers have reaped In England additional reward. Etching in England until comparatively recent years deserved to be neglected because it was low in motive and unmasterly in manipulation It descended to the level of uncultured people instead of rising to the greatness and nobility which command the intelligent few who usually in the end bring over the many to the side of the true and the good And the injured and slighted art had all the more difficulty in making its way because English amateurism loved smoothness softness and sweetness and abhorred what was rugged abrupt or judged by common standards unfinished The soft style it has been shrewdly said possesses the charm of a sort of foolish amenity which may be defined as a combination of tenderness with ignorance Drawing masters whose success in life depended on the pleasing of young lady pupils set a fashion for prettiness neatness and surface showiness And Royal Academicians when they indulged in etching erred on the side of care and caution they eluded difficulties and remained content with pleasing and popular effects which could be got readily Yet a goodly company of English etchers deserve to be treated with something more than respect Among the number are Turner Creswick Samuel Palmer Seymour Haden Whistler Millais Cope Hook Tayler Ansdell and Heseltine An English Etching Club now comprising sixteen members has been in working trim for many years and as long since as 1841 was published The Deserted Village Illustrated by the Etching Club But it has been objected that English etchers abandon the true aims of the great artists for the sake of a drawing room success that their manner is to a fault superfine that they affect delicious India paper luxurious margins gilt edges with nicely printed poetry The contrast between the work turned out by the English Club and the Société des Aquaforff sses is just what might be expected The English try to make their plates pretty the French are content to be powerful But on the other hand it is admitted that while the English failed at least formerly in a girlish feebleness the French were guilty of pretence not to say effrontery. Of late divers causes have conspired to bring into approach the wide divergence of the French and English schools and what is now to be feared is that the English may away their birthright of modesty care conscience and gain in lieu but impertinence rashness and devil may care There errors which can be pardoned for the sake of genius but be tolerated under mediocrity Defiant dash when the outburst of impetuous feeling may be excused but bad drawing and flagrant errors in the grammar of cannot be allowed to every tyro intent on rushing into notoriety There are etchers who court an eccentricity which is but counterfeit of originality who seek for strangeness and surprise forgetful that the truest Art is simple and unpretending Contrasts and even discords are forced up to the highest in order to arrest attention the dread apparently being quiet harmony will pass for commonplace And thus I known etchings in which the night is made hideous and the unlovely in which silvery light is turned into lead and shadows are black as Erebus Etching has become of late much the rage that a license is taken not permitted elsewhere and the wildest and most wilful play of line or light or vaguest suggestion of substance or shadow is allowed to the place of sober studies Etchers nowadays seem so sure their public that they venture to set at nought the laws of and Art provided only they can manage to transfix the eye some phantasmagoria or arrangement of light and shade as flights of rockets in the sky It is as well that would connoisseurs should be on their guard against such impositions It will be wise for them to remember that a really good is about the rarest of all products that for one success there six or even a dozen failures that etching is comparable the writing of poetry hundreds scribble but only one here there catches inspiration Etching too has been likened to playing on the violin everybody is tempted to try his hand there is only one Paganini just as there is but one Rembrandt Three nations as already said each with distinctive styles have taken prominent parts in the revival of etching The French and the English came first and then followed tardily with a manner somewhat heavy dry and mechanical the Germans Latterly however these lethargic people have given signs of unaccustomed vitality In Munich the salutary practice prevails of using etching for the purposes of study or for sketching a figure painter for example will take a prepared plate and etch a portrait from the life and in the same way a landscape painter will go into the country and etch a scene direct from nature I know too of satisfactory results where the same artist has first designed the subject on paper and then etched it on copper thus the accord becomes complete between the conceiving thought and the executive hand But in Germany the most noteworthy manifestation is the translation of paintings into etchings giving on copper the equivalents of the light shade and colour upon the canvas Several French etchers have won applause in this direction but the German Wilhelm Unger surpasses all competitors in his persistent perseverance and in the multitude and the magnitude of the plates that issue from his hands He has set himself the task of reproducing certain galleries in Europe He commenced with that of Brunswick he then went through the collection at Cassel afterwards he etched the portraits by Hals in Holland and now he is busily working in the Belvedere Vienna His habit is to enter the gallery with a prepared plate in hand he sits down before a picture and etches it right off upon copper direct the master speaks to him his art is vivá zoce his touch is vital he enters into the spirit of each painter in succession he is ready to merge his own individuality and to assume for the occasion the character of Holbein Raphael Titian Rembrandt or Velasquez Thus as a mocking bird imitates alien notes so does Unger simulate the touch of masters most varied Sometimes his etching is a transcript or perhaps rather a translation on other occasions it slips into a paraphrase without however incurring the fatality of falling into a parody Certain of these plates might be the labour not only of love but of a life so complex and highly wrought are they and yet the process is so expeditious that the etchings already thrown off would fill a gallery or illustrate the entire history of painting In Europe no attempt of greater import has been made since Toschi undertook to engrave in line the Correggios in Parma. An antagonism has sometimes been set up between etching and line engraving The work of the graver is designated as mechanical as wanting in originality impulse and vitality Such strictures strike on the weak side of the graver’s art But one merit cannot be denied undoubtedly engraving has done good service in translating and reproducing more or less faithfully the masterpieces of painting I happen to have hung in my house line engravings by Raphael Morghen Toschi Raimondi Perfitti Schiavoni Garavaglia Steinla Keller Folo Cousin Holi and Pye and I feel grateful to these skilled artists for keeping me in daily remembrance of the master works of Fra Bartolommeo Raphael Leonardo da Vinci Daniele da Volterra Titian Correggio Turner and others In style these engravers are almost as diverse as the painters they reproduce occasionally no doubt they become formal hard cold and colourless but there exist others of an opposite school who surrender the rigour of the ruled or geometric line and strive to make their touch pulsate with life and emotion The comparison of works in my possession leads to the following conclusions line engravings have most of form modelling relief tone and completeness on the other hand etched translations from the old masters such as those by Unger attain greater brilliance texture and variety in manipulation they are closer in fidelity to the painter’s touch and they are more suggestive of colour Thus each art has at once its strength and its weakness As to fidelity to the painter’s style and touch Flameng among the French etchers throws himself with almost illusive verisimilitude into manners the most diversified And among the Germans Unger is something more than faithful he enters heart and soul into the spirit and the fechniyue of the great painters and he is so little of an egotist that in thinking of them he is willing to forget himself So completely does he surrender his personal identity that it becomes hard to say whether he has greater affection for Holbein or for Titian In his etching from the head of Jane style and fechnique have been scrupulously features are mapped out with a few firmly the contours as might be expected are and the etcher’s needle indicates that the master sparingly leaving the surface thin Yet this dryness the hands are modelled with a of tenderness in the flesh tissues With loving care is also reproduced the richly brocaded dress precious stones and pearls Such realistic etching transcribes illusively Jacquemart’s Porcelaine is a triumph of imitative skill It may seem a solecism to speak of colour in limited to light and shade Yet there cannot be line engravers especially when they approach school give suggestions of colours for now before me of Titian’s Assumption the glow with molten red and golden yellow Still I be admitted that colour is best conveyed by etchings by Samuel Palmer for example with the purple and gold which shine within his drawings It is very interesting to observe and means whereby the etcher illumines his lines example of the mode of operation cannot be treatment to which Unger subjects the Here in an etching before me it is felt that the all the resources of a richly laden palette the how Titian played with his pigments how he laid lavishly here thickly loaded and there thinly or thick always transparent lustrous and gem like by which the etcher here manages in a chiaroscuro fire in its shadow to convey the idea of colour observation Lines rapid in movement dexterous in cross hatchings throwing off light from the touch sensitive and vital which renders the surface so that life throbs beneath the form such are the etching manages to convey Titianesque colour In England hitherto etching has not been much translation of pictures or for the reproduction of WB Scott however in 1851 illustrated the brother David Scott with etchings from his and in 1869 he published the Life of Albert etchings by his own hand including the master’s in Munich and the autographic drawing of the a youth of thirteen preserved in the Albertine advantages are manifold when an author thus own pages when the etching needle brings criticisms of his pen It is unfortunate that the for such joint literary and artistic work are not combined in one and the same person. If I may be allowed to speak for myself, I would say that the spell of etching is in its volition and vitality in its immediate response to the artist’s will in the intimate reciprocity between the outward form and the inward conception or to use more pretentious language in The complete correspondence between the Objective and the Subjective the outer object being of course the etching and the inner subject being the artist in other processes something intermediate in the line engraving for example there is the painter who executed the picture second the draftsman who makes a But in etching the work is delegated to no lesser agent the mind that creates and the instrument that The thought of the pictorial idea of the volition originating within the brain is carried a The life is not dead but it is alive and well. It is not dead but it is alive. Is not traditional vicarial or done by proxy but vital as individual and authoritative inspiration as a command issued and executed at head quarters Whatever happens at the moment to be present within the artist’s mind is read in unmistakable characters The etched plate indeed may be compared to a musical instrument under the touch of a skilled composer The speed and the pauses the precipitancy or the hesitation in lines single or combined tell whether the feelings are hot and molten or cold and frozen The etched line in its accent velocity and volition is as speech a vehicle of expression Sometimes the lines lie so calm as to be comparable to the smooth surface of a windless lake at others they become troubled and tumultuous as a storm driven sea such are the stories which etched lines may have to perpetuate of the transient states of body and mind If the artist’s mood be one of passion his touch becomes impulsive and impetuous if his thoughts flow tenderly his plate is toned into gentle harmonies if his intellect be coldly calculating then the composition will come out evenly balanced and true in the relations of the parts to the whole or if unhappily the artist be under par or stricken then disguise it as he may the lines will lack the elastic spring of youth and the manly vigour of health The precision with which mental states can be deciphered in the handiwork might astonish a casual observer The etcher presents himself as in open court you can speak to him put him in the witness box cross question him and you could not see more clearly into his mental workings were he to make a speech or to sing a song The etched plate is an autograph it might almost serve as an autobiography Etching indeed it has been aptly said is an autobiographic sketch on copper bitten in with aquafortis and again this sterling art has been likened to a lump of pure native gold dug out of the artist’s brain and not yet alloyed for general circulation.” Etching in its theory and practice is severed into two schools as to the value and treatment of the etched line One party merges the individuality of the line into muxy masses of shade the other preserves the integrity of every line as the index of thought and the instrument of expression Mr Hamerton to whom is greatly due the right appreciation of his favourite art enforces with his accustomed clearness and earnestness the view I have here taken He agrees with his friend Mr Haden when he writes Mr Haden’s doctrine is that the etched line being on account of its extreme and even unrivalled obedience to the slightest variations in the will or sentiment of the artist precious in the highest degree as a means of artistic expression ought to be frankly shown and not dissimulated except under circumstances where its vital accents are unnecessary For my own part continues Mr Hamerton though fully recognising the fine tone and clever drawing of the best members of the English Etching Club I believe Haden’s doctrine to be the right one namely that the line ought to be preserved as much as possible and made the most of I think that as painting depends upon tones and it would be a barbarism to introduce lines in that art so since etching begins with the line which the etching needle draws in the ground it would be barbarous to affect to ignore it and imitate other arts such as mezzotint in which there are no lines Every art does best when it is most itself. Etching differs from other arts in that mediocrity is intolerable The imbecility of a poor line engraving may be atoned for by high finish a rotten woodcut may at any rate serve as a diagram but an etching if it do not turn out the best of its kind should be thrown behind the fire If the plate do not develop the distinguishing traits of the art it were generally wise to adopt some other process The number of abortions being on the increase it may not be out of place to indicate from the contents of a portfolio before me a few of the errors more commonly committed Etching relying for effect on light and shade the most obvious expedient is strong contrast gained sometimes by the immediate juxtaposition of the highest light with the deepest dark This commonplace resource is I find pushed to excess in a multitude of plates and any one may realise the effect who will take the trouble to hold up a black saucepan or a black hat against a luminous sky the contrast is of course appalling In one etching are buildings and boats blotched with blackest ink destructive of repose and such tender passages and half tones as Turner even in his riot was always careful to preserve intact are simply ignored and left out In etching as in painting the most precious qualities often reside in the middle tints which as interludes connect the extremes of light and dark Another analogous defect in second rate etchings is the want of an intelligent scheme of light shade and composition Here again Turner serves as the consummate master for however complex his arrangements fundamental principles and often strict geometric forms reduce the whole to intelligent order and lucid simplicity Hence Turner’s pictures often a puzzle to the public are usually a pleasure to the engraver they almost always translate well into light and shade Inferior artists are scattered and incoherent I have on a table easel the etching of a coast scene the clouds wander incontinently across the sky as if without affinities with earth or sea they had lost their way the foreground is a disconnected fragment the lines do not lead the eye towards the distance but run hither and thither distractedly An etcher is seldom able to recover himself when he makes a false start if he fail to keep in his mind the general arrangement and the relation of the parts to the whole every touch he adds but leads his plate further astray It were almost an endless task to point out the many directions in which an etcher can go wrong indeed when I think of the rare and varied qualifications needed for good work it would seem next to impossible to keep right Mr Hamerton devotes no less than nine chapters to the faculties manual or mental that the etcher must press into his service From these disquisitions we learn that any plate will fall short of perfection which does not answer to the following desiderata Comprehensiveness Abstraction Selection Sensitiveness Emphasis Passion Frankness Speed Mr Seymour Haden who rightly holds himself in some measure responsible for the impulsion which has of late years been given to the subject of etching in this country writes with an eloquence which his pen shares with his pencil of the accomplishments required of the etcher as follows – What then is the amount and kind of previous knowledge and skill required by the etcher 2 It is an innate artistic spirit without which all the study in the world is useless It is the cultivation of This spirit is arduously but lovingly It is the knowledge that is acquired by a life of devotion to what is true and beautiful by the daily and hourly habit of weighing and comparing what we see in nature and thinking of how it should be represented in Art It Is the habit of constant observation of great things and the experience that springs from it. The skill that grows out of these habits is the skill required by the etcher It is the skill of the analyst and of the synthesist the skill to combine and the skill to separate to compound and to simplify to detach plane from plane to fuse detail into mass to subordinate definition to space distance light and air Finally it is the acumen to perceive the near relationship that expression bears to form and the skill to draw them not separately but together The words just quoted substantiate the claim which etching has on men of thought and culture An etching can be scrutinised as something which may be spelt read and construed it partakes of the nature of a literary effusion it may be said to conform to the rules of syntax and prosody The etching of a plate like the writing of an essay needs at the outset that the subject should be comprehensively grasped the thorough understanding of the theme can alone insure mastery in the treatment The composition must be as skilfully constructed as a drama and by plays and episodes so managed as to assist not detract from the main action And specially has the etcher occasion to exercise the faculty of selection for his method being circumscribed he must leave out all that is irrelevant and insert emphasize and magnify the truth and beauty dominant in nature making his transcript not so much an extract or abridgment as an essence and concentration a microcosm so to say or a little world reflecting the larger world of nature And inasmuch as something will have to be passed by without record it is as well that all the needle touches shall be perfect of its kind the right thing in the right place And as for execution or what the poet might call diction and the literary man style the word sensitiveness most nearly expresses the quality to be prayed for Certain writers especially the more weighty Dr Johnson for example have lacked sensitiveness and many artists such for instance as Giulio Romano have been equally wanting in aesthetic intuitions But painters like Fra Angelico Raphael and William Blake and poets like Shelley and Tennyson are highly strung and sensitive it may be to excess trembling with emotion quivering as a leaf or vibrating as a lyre Even so responsive must the etcher be who beholds in nature the poem and reflects the vision in his picture I think there are few conditions more enviable than that of the etcher when thus warmed up to his subject An orator has supreme moments of exaltation a poet a musician or singer experiences transports more meditative yet no less blissful are the etcher’s moods when in close communion with nature While he sketches amid the stillness of the mountains or by the side of shadowy streams the etcher shares companionship with Izaak Walton the contemplative angler and with Wordsworth the philosophic poet. 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