If you can get along to London’s Tate Britain before the 25th September, I recommend Painting with Light, an exhibition celebrating the links between early photography and art in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

It cannot be described as a glamorous blockbuster, and the images are generally small and intricate.  Not for the faint hearted, it nevertheless repays close attention (and, just, the entry price). The subject is overdue closer scrutiny, as very often painting and photography-as-art are treated in isolation.

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Jane Morris (wife of William) posing for artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Doyens of the Pre-Raphaelite, aesthetic and impressionist movements used photographic images as inspiration, as an alternative to the preparatory sketch, or as aid to composition. Photography presented a new, revelatory way of seeing the world, and therefore seeing art. From the 1850s books and journals were illustrated with photographs instead of engravings and lithographs, and the publications of learned Victorian societies were the forums for this conversation.

Many who had trained as artists became photographers, especially portraitists. From the introduction in 1851 of the wet plate process, which produced sepia-tinted positive prints, the number of professional photographers increased from 51 to 2,534 by 1861.

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The Lady of Shallot by Henry Peach Robinson, 1861

As technologies for the taking and developing of photographs improved, many artists saw landscape in new ways.  The beauty and ‘truth’ of wonderous mother nature – which Romantic artists like Constable and Turner sought to capture – was traditionally deemed to lie in the accurate rendering of detail, based on close observation. Now artists became more concerned with immersing the viewer in atmospheric effects of light, shade and colour.

Many photographers were, in turn, inspired by artists to push technical boundaries and experiment with lenses, exposures, chemical treatments etc.

I see photography in this period as essentially another form of printmaking. A couple of engravings from steel plates feature in the exhibition, demonstrating that traditional printmakers still had an important part to play in the creation, reproduction and dissemination of art.

Ultimately, this show goes to prove that whatever the chosen means of expression, art advances through the imagination and talent of the artist, and their impact on the viewer.

 

The Cult of Byron

July 12, 2016

I spied this lithograph of George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) and his mistress Marianna Segati at a general antiques fair recently.

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Lord Byron and Marianna. Lithograph with original colour by hand, by an unidentified printmaker. Possibly after William Drummond (fl. 1800-1850). [London: n.d., c.1840.]

The legendary Romantic poet is interrupted by his devoted lover as he writes to fellow poet Thomas Moore from Venice around 1817.  The letterpress caption is a quote from that very same letter, as reported by Moore in his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (London: John Murray, 1830). Segati was Byron’s first mistress in Venice, the wife of his landlord, a draper near the Piazza San Marco. He wrote to his half-sister Augusta that “we are one of the happiest—unlawful couples this side of the Alps”, but was soon to become infatuated with Margarita Cogni, the wife of a baker.

Of course, as much as his words, the iconography of Byron shaped both perceptions in his lifetime and his legacy after his premature death of fever in Missolonghi in 1824. Famous in his lifetime after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), and increasingly notorious when the scathing satire Don Juan (1819-24) appeared, he became an instant legend when he gave his life in the cause of liberation (of Greece).

Printed images of Byron circulated widely during his lifetime, and increasingly throughout the European Continent after his death – portraits of Byron were probably more numerous in the middle of the 19th century than of any other individual, except perhaps Napoleon.

Thomas Phillips‘ two portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814 and caused a sensation. His Byron in exotic Albanian dress in 1814 was of particular appeal to popular Romantic sentiment and spawned a glut of engravings after the original passed to Byron’s daughter, Ada, in 1835.

NPG 142; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips

Byron by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1813 [NPG 142]

My trimmed sheet credits no artist nor printmaker, and is undated. A mezzotint of c. 1840 by Georg Zobel after painter, draughtsman and lithographer William Drummond (fl. 1800-1850) depicts the same scene, with minor compositional differences and differences of detail.

I find the portrayal of the sitters in my print rather revealing, and helpful when it comes to putting a date on it.  Not intended for fine art lovers, this is barely a portrait at all, in the truest sense of the word. The black hair, curly and slightly wild, the big collar, are really mere signifiers: these were the characteristics the contemporary viewer expected to see in a Romantic poet, especially in Byron. Segati is allowed almost zero personality. The full, round faces are imbued with an early expression of the sentimentality that would come to characterize much Victorian popular art. Both protagonists are almost infantilized. Tenderness and affection are emphasized, and any hint of sexual desire relegated. This is a watered-down, family-friendly Byron.

This lithograph, published I would guess in the first few years of Victoria’s reign, seems to me to reflect the ambivalence towards the legacy of this reckless libertine in the face of a new morality.  Heroes of the Victorian age were Christian and of upright character, and ultimately they were team players.  For many years Byron’s individuality and uncompromising commitment to personal liberty sat rather uncomfortably with the official culture. That in part explains why it took until 1969 for the Byron memorial to be dedicated in Westminster Abbey.

My print is for sale as part of my Stock Showcase here:  Byron and Marianna

The Wonder of Wisdens

May 25, 2016

It is rather remarkable when you think about it that the 153rd edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack was published last month by Bloomsbury.

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The ‘cricketer’s bible’ started life as an 116-page pamphlet produced by retired bowler John Wisden (known as ‘The Little Wonder’ due to his short stature), to promote his sporting goods and tobacco business. (The link between sports, advertising and the wicked weed goes back a long time.)  If he knew that the little yellow book bearing his name was still being published – in basically the same format, though rather chunkier –  a century and a half later he’d be bowled over.

And what would he make of an auction price of £8,400 achieved in recent years for one of those first 1864 Wisdens (cover price: one shilling)?

Most ventures into sporting annuals last a few editions and die – the periodical published by Wisden’s principal commercial rivals, the Lillywhite family, did not make it beyond 1900.

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An 1864 First Edition,  from Wisdens.org

Wisden has overseen the boom times and the lean years for the summer game with an independent eye. The fluctuating number of pages reflect the fluctuating appetites of the sporting public, the national mood and economic fortunes.

The suspension of First Class cricket during the years of World War I meant that the Almanack for 1916 could report only on school cricket – but crucially Wisden stayed alive.  At 229 pages it is the slimmest edition since 1882 (the 2016 Wisden comes in at 1,552 pages).

Many of them are given over to reporting death.  Greats of the game W.G. Grace, A.E. Stoddart and the Australian batsman Victor Trumper were not killed in the service of their King and Country. But a long alphabetical list of young men that follows, schoolboy and university cricketers, bears tragic witness to the first full year of conflict in 1915.

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A 1916 Wisden (53rd Edition)

One name that leaps from the page is Sub-Lieutenant Rupert C. Brooke (Royal Naval Division).  His six-line notice records a leading bowling average of 14.05 for the Rugby School XI and concludes with the famously pithy sentence: “He had gained considerable reputation as a poet”.

The precise intentions of the Editor, Sydney H. Pardon, are debated by Wisden historians.

My listing of Cricketana – including a very rare 1916 Wisden – can be viewed here:  Cricket 2016

Between 15th April and 9th October The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace hosts what I believe to be the first major UK exhibition devoted to the German artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717).

Inspired by the natural history specimens in the cabinets of curiosities owned by her neighbours in Amsterdam, Maria and her daughter Dorothea set sail for Suriname, South America, in June 1699. From her base in the capital, Paramaribo, Merian set out with local guides into the surrounding forests to find caterpillars to rear and observe.  Her primary interest was insect metamorphosis, but she was also interested in the tropical plants and animals. She stayed until ill-heath forced her return to Amsterdam in June 1701.

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Maria Merian’s Butterflies tells Merian’s story through her works in the Royal Collection, acquired by George III in c.1810.  Many are luxury versions of the plates of the magnum opus that resulted from her Suriname expedition, the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname). Usually known simply as the Metamorphosis, it was finally published in 1705.

Merian took partial impressions from the Metamorphosis plates and worked up and coloured the faint etched outlines herself (with the help of her daughters) to create unique works of art.  The only other known set with this special treatment is in the British Museum. They were probably created to raise money for publication of the standard editions.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly , 1702-03

The exhibition also includes exquisite watercolour and bodycolour drawings on vellum by Maria and her daughters.

As the daughter herself of a prominent Frankfurt printer and publisher (Matthäus Merian), and the step-daughter of a professional artist who taught her flower painting, Merian was uniquely suited to the formidable task.  With insider knowledge of the brush, the pen and the tools of the printmaker, she achieved perhaps the most harmonious marriage of art and science in the whole story of natural history illustration.

Integrity was important to Merian: her art was always rooted firmly in scientific observation. When some element of naturalism was sacrificed in the interests of aesthetics – such as introducing the juvenile Golden Tegu lizard onto the cassava plant below – she owns up to it in her text.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

Cassava with White Peacock Butterfly and young Golden Tegu, 1702-03

This pioneering female biologist made some genuine scientific breakthroughs:  she categorically demonstrated that the caterpillar, pupa and butterfly states were phases in the lifecycle of the same insect. The scientific consensus of the time was that one insect gave birth to another then died.

You too dear reader can own the work of this remarkable and indefatigable woman. Be aware that plates from the Metamorphosis are often found with modern colour (editions were originally sold both in black and white and hand-coloured).  The giveaway is often inaccuracy – Merian described in great detail the colours and patterns of the creatures she examined.

Merian was also fascinated by the reptiles that she encountered in Suriname and planned a lavishly illustrated follow-up on the subject, although she was unable to achieve this before her death in 1717.  Science and art are the poorer for it.

Since last month’s post inspired by my caricature of Mary Anne Clarke (see Mrs Clarke in the House) several readers have asked me about collecting satirical prints.

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions

James Gillray’s The Plumb-pudding in danger, Pitt and Napoleon carving up the globe. Sold for £15,000 at Bloomsbury in June 2015.

Well it so happens I have penned an article on just that subject for a special supplement to the Antiques Trade Gazette (cover date 26th March 2016)

The early 1780s witnessed a new phenomenon, the professional caricaturist.  And it was a uniquely British phenomenon. Only in Britain were the three conditions – freedom of expression, party politics, and a receptive market – combined.

Read my article on the Georgian heyday of the single-sheet satire here:  Georgian satire: the shock of the old

There is plenty to interest the bibliophile in the newly-published supplement.  It can be read online in full here:  Books, Maps & Prints

Mrs Clarke in the House

March 18, 2016

Introducing Mary Anne Clarke (c.1776-1852), society hostess and royal mistress.

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Mrs, M.A. Clarke. Hand-coloured etching by Charles Williams. London: S.W. Fores, February 1809

She pauses in front of the doors to the House of Commons, lifting her veil from her face and turning directly to the viewer, the hint of a knowing smile playing across her lips. By her side she holds a huge fur muff, the hand-warmer of choice of the fashion-conscious lady.

The elegant, alluring, and assured woman betrays no lack of confidence as she prepares to be cross-examined inside the Chamber for her role in a royal scandal surrounding the second son of King George III.

Clarke was the mistress of Frederick, Duke of York between 1803 and 1806. The Duke was forced to resign as Commander-in-Chief of the army in March 1809 after claims in Parliament that Clarke had received money in return for obtaining promotions. It seems she added names to lists which the Duke signed off, apparently not reading them very closely. Renounced by HRH, Clarke threatened to publish revealing memoirs and was able to extract huge pensions from the government to keep them suppressed. She proved herself an astute political operator.

The proceedings were, naturally, lapped up by caricaturists like Charles Williams (fl. 1796-1830), who swiftly etched this plate for sale on the 25th February 1809. Williams was a professional etcher of satires for London publishers about whom almost nothing is known. Like most satirical printmakers of his time, he favoured the etching technique as a fast medium capable of responding to the latest events within days. His more illustrious contemporary Thomas Rowlandson issued more than thirty satires on the Clarke affair, predominantly using etching.

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Stipple portrait of Mary Anne Clarke from the ‘Lady’s Monthly Museum’ (1809)

Though a very simple composition – one of only a handful of caricatures in which Clarke is the sole or central figure – I find the image intriguing. Why did Williams present Clarke in this ‘attitude’ (in the artistic sense of the word)?

Some women who broke the mould and entered the public or political realm attracted the antipathy of the (overwhelmingly male) journalists, pamphleteers and cartoonists. And it is difficult, I think, to conclude that the characterisation of Clarke here is sympathetic. Rather is male chauvinism at play – Clarke as a symbol of the brazen woman of questionable virtue, enjoying her time in the limelight a little too much?

I’m certain Williams is pandering to the sense of novelty and mild titillation engendered by a self-confident, attractive young woman strolling into the heart of the political Establishment, effectively to give evidence against a senior royal. There is an undeniably journalistic feel to the image: Clarke poses like a latter-day red carpet celebrity for the paparazzi.

To no one’s surprise, the Duke was cleared of any personal wrongdoing and was reinstated to his command in 1811. As for Clarke – after conviction for libel over one indiscreet publication too many and jail time in 1813 – she moved first to Brussels, then to Paris. She died at Boulogne in 1852. Her life inspired a novel, Mary Anne, by her descendant Daphne Du Maurier.

The caricature by Charles Williams is available for sale:  http://jenningsprints.tumblr.com/post/135311403528/the-scandalous-woman-who-took-on-the-british

It’s often said that we humans see what we want to see, and particularly it seems when directed by an artwork’s title or caption.

The subliminal power of text to influence the way we look at an image always amazes me – it’s something I’m very aware of when I’m buying prints. It is all too easy to uncritically accept the identification of a sitter or location, or the attribution to an artist.

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L’Arrive du Prince Ouillaume Henry a Nouvelle York. Etching with contemporary hand colouring by Balthasar Friedrich Leizel or Leizelt. Augsburg, Germany, c.1782.

I must confess when I first set eyes on this print I was guilty of reading the legend a little unquestioningly. The engraved lettering above and below the marine composition (in both French and German) proclaims the arrival of the ship carrying a young Prince William Henry, the future King William IV, into New York on the 16th October 1781.

Read the rest of Jasper’s article on the interplay of original art and print across international borders here:    ARTICLE for the January 2016 ABA Newsletter (PDF)

House Hunting

January 29, 2016

I get lots of requests from clients looking for old prints of their houses. We’re talking old houses natch, with considerable local history, connections to a good family name, and perhaps of some architectural significance. These are usually not houses of national, or international, renown. The lodge or gatehouse, but not the big house up the drive. You know what I mean.

These seekers often have to be very patient, sometimes not hearing from me for years, and I can empathize. For 15 years I have been on a personal quest for historical images of my parents’ house in Lincolnshire.

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1820s hand-coloured engraving of Aslackby, Lincolnshire

My search has been frustrating at times – located in a part of the country not overly blessed with lavishly-illustrated county histories, the house has a somewhat obscure provenance and is not associated with any famous past residents, or great historical occasions.

I have heard tantalising tales of an engraved illustration in this or that book, maybe by one of the Buck brothers (Samuel and Nathaniel, prolific topographical draughtsmen in the eighteenth century), maybe by someone else. The closest geographically I have come so far in terms of old prints is a small c.1820s engraving of a neighbouring village, and two more substantial views of the nearest market town.

A fellow Ephemera Society member was kind enough to let me scan this postcard of my parents’ village – featuring the very house in the upper right corner. (He doesn’t want to sell.) He tells me he’s seen with his own eyes a postcard that is a full-size photo of the house alone. Wow.  Privately published, presumably in a very small print run, at the height of the postcard boom of the early 1900s. I could flick through the ‘Lincolnshire’ section of every stand at every postcard fair for the rest of my life and not come across it. Doesn’t quite seem worth it.

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c.1910 photographic postcard of Dowsby, Lincolnshire

He did sell me a c.1910 handwritten bill from a local printer to a prominent former owner of the house, which is a nice little connection.

I was once very excited to see sale particulars of an early 20th century auction of the house offered very cheaply online – complete with interesting photographs and estate map – but was told the item had been sold a few days earlier and not removed from the website. Frustrated again.

I enjoy browsing old family scrap albums, all the rage in Victorian times, which can reveal very personal insights into the lives and times of their compilers, and the places in which they lived. What are the chances…?  Amateur watercolours from the 18th and 19th centuries vividly record not only architecture and topography, but can contain incidental details that have acquired considerable interest in their own right – for example fashions in dress or interior decoration. These drawings are often found in a diary or sketch book, often the work of a young lady of the house, and often very finely executed – wealthy families could afford to employ quality drawing masters.

I live in hope, dear reader.

2015 in review

December 30, 2015

May I wish all my readers a very Happy, Healthy and Prosperous 2016.  I’ll see you on the other side – with more select snippets from the wide world of antique prints!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,800 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 30 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Spirited Mr Rowlandson

November 20, 2015

A bloggers’ preview last week of not one but two new exhibitions at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  A bijou selection of high-quality genre paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art more than competed for attention with one of the most brilliant draughtsmen and printmakers England has ever produced: Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827).

The display of around 100 prints and drawings explores the life and art of one of this country’s most popular caricaturists. Social satires were his staple, but often the political intrigues of Parliament and the Court attracted the scrutiny of his quick-fire wit and flashing, free-spirited pen.

Rowlandson was a roving gun for hire, happy to direct his ridicule in whatever direction his patron or publisher of the time required – always with that arresting combination of invention and artistic flair. The exhibition includes satires against William Pitt and the Tories as well as against Pitt’s great rival Charles James Fox and his Whig acolytes.

It is perhaps surprising thIMG_2064at Rowlandson’s output was so popular with both George III and George IV, father and particularly son so often the butt of the joke. Queen Victoria apparently acquired more of his prints than either of her Hanoverian predecessors.

And pictorial satires of the Georgian and Victorian periods remain highly collectable to this day.  The market has been rejuvenated by a recent upsurge in scholarly research into this intriguingly fluid, hybrid medium that seems to straddle simultaneously the worlds of art, journalism, literature and politics.

Commanding the centre of the largest gallery is this c. 1806 four leaf screen (left), pasted with carefully arranged figures and scenes cut from satirical prints (the work of various artists, French and British).

This is a rare survival, the sort of thing I would love on my stand at a fair – think of the visitors it would attract.  These screens were popular adornments to the fashionable parlours of the Georgian and Regency periods, the ultimate statement of a trend for pasting prints onto everything from tea caddies to tables to the walls of billiard rooms (see my earlier post on this theme: Furniture Prints).

Printsellers’ catalogues and trade cards of the time offered selections of their wares intended for this very purpose.  Publishers too got in on the act – Isaac Cruikshank’s set of ‘Caricature Ornaments for screens’ was advertised in 1800.
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Such screens could also be purchased ready-made.
Either way, they make for wonderful after-dinner conversation.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson showing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer13th November 2015 – 14th February 2016.