Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Historic Prints
Telling the Story of American Heroes & Events

In the eighteenth century, and even into the early nineteenth century, most Virginia gentry houses were decorated with prints. Paintings were rare, and if found in gentry houses, were usually family portraits. One did not see, too often, paintings that were genre works of art, or paintings of scenes, historical, Biblical, or mythological.

What one did see were prints. These prints were of all varieties, including engraved versions of landscapes and genre art works by the most noted European artists both living and dead. Portrait prints were also very popular in the colonial period, and in the early American republic. As works of art in their own right, today many such prints are highly prized, and are very collectible. I collect them myself.

Later, in the nineteenth century, when prints became much more mass produced by mechanical means, noted American artists, such as James MacNeill Whistler, or Mary Cassatt, to name just two, produced limited numbers of prints, usually called “etchings” these days, that filled the place that a century earlier had been occupied by engravings of landscapes, famous persons, or historical scenes.

Today, these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prints are often more appropriate in period houses, or houses built in the style of the eighteenth century, than are paintings. Certainly they provide a more sober elegance to a period house than do paintings, and this style would have been more in keeping with the attitude and reserved elegance of the late colonial and federal era.

A word about “prints” is in order at this point.
Usually, the term as used here refers to “engravings.” Indeed, the print, considered collectively, is one of the oldest art forms in Western art. In the Middle Ages, prints were often reproduced from wood blocks. Old Bibles from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, for instance, are often decorated with illustrations that have been printed from wood block engravings. These have an immediacy and a kind of untutored message later lacking in more sophisticated reproductions.

In the eighteenth century, images were reproduced by means of literally “engraving,” or cutting them on copper plates of various sizes. Various tools were used to cut the lines in pliable copper, from wide to miniscule, in all forms of styles, including dotted lines, called “stipple” engraving. Many of these images could be quite large, and could replicate the size of a painting from which they were taken. Others were art works in their own right, such as the very popular scenes of Rome by such artists as Giovanni Piranesi. Still, other engravings from the period were small, and often were found as illustrations in books. By the end of the eighteenth century, color, or large swatches of black ink in various shades, was being added to give engravings a further likeness to painting. This technique, which became quite accomplished, is often referred to as “mezzotint.” In other cases, especially with prints of plants, flowers, birds, animals, each print was “hand colored” using a watercolor technique after the image was made. Needless to say, in these cases each print was different from the next.

In addition, it must be remembered that until the 1830s, or thereabouts, all maps and all music was engraved in copper plate. Examples of American maps from France and England are today highly prized. The most famous map of Virginia, for example, was by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry, and was re-engraved in smaller sizes by French engravers. Peter Jefferson was the father or Thomas.

Engraved music is also highly collectible today, especially those rare examples of American compositions by Moravian composers of Pennsylvania, or the works by the New Englander, William Billings. As an aside, Beethoven was constantly correcting the engraver’s mistakes of his own compositions, usually with fairly insulting remarks about the parentage of the engraver in question written in the margins.

As these images became popular, print sellers sprang up in the principal cities of Europe and England, as well as America. Such Americans as George Washington, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, to name just three eminent Virginians, were enthusiastic and manic collectors of engravings from print sellers in London and Paris. Washington’s account books show that he bought hundreds of engravings of scenes, portraits, and genre works from London dealers. These hung in great profusion at Mount Vernon, as opposed to the stark decoration of the house, by contrast, today.

Artists themselves usually found that they could make much more money by having paintings and landscapes engraved and sold through dealers. The making of an engraving meant that the original painting had to be cut into the copper plate in reverse. Thus, when it was literally printed, the image then bore the same orientation as the original work.

As you can imagine, this was a very difficult task, and most often was left up to professional engravers, who were artists in their own right. On some occasions, however, artists themselves attempted to learn the art of engraving, thus cutting out the middleman in the process. One of the prized prints in my collection is by the American artist Benjamin West of William Penn’s treaty with the Indians. West engraved the image from the same perspective as his painting, thus the print is the reverse of the painting. And, quite frankly, I think it works better with the scene reversed than it does in the original painting.

Most engravings are easy “to read.” That is below the image you will have on one side the name of the artist, and on the other the name of the engraver. For example, you may see an engraving that says “John Trumbull, pinxit” (John Trumbull, artist, or painter) and on the other side “Thomas Cheesman, fecit” (Thomas Cheesman, maker, or engraver). Additional information will often tell you something about the image, such as where it was printed, sold, the name of the seller, etc. For instance, John Boydell was a popular seller, and engraver himself, and was also Lord Mayor of London.

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century prints were “glazed.” That meant that they were framed with glass. Most of the time they were backed with wood. Washington ordered most of his prints “glazed,” and was specific about the frames he wanted for each print. Mind you, these orders were sent to London, so the process was slow.

Earlier, however, engravings were either tacked, or pasted, directly on to walls, forming what were popularly called “print rooms.” To my knowledge, there are no such print rooms surviving in America, though there are a couple of examples still in Ireland and Britain, the most famous being the one completely intact created by Lady Louisa Connolly in the 1760s at her house Castletown in Kilkenny, Ireland. Another is the one created in the early 1960s by the Hon. Desmond Guinness at Leixlip Castle, also in Ireland.

I have been collecting American historical prints for about the last twenty years.
In that time my eye has become sharper and more educated. I have learned what to look for, and what to avoid. I have been fooled on some occasions. Who hasn’t? I also have a collection of prints that I find hard to part with, but which are no longer hanging in the house. These have been consigned to the basement, stacked against the walls, waiting perhaps for another place to hang. Just recently, for instance, I took down four of my prized McKenney and Hall early American Indian prints, dating from the 1830s. I was concerned that the light may have been fading their vibrant colors. These prints are invaluable anthropological resources of the way American Indians looked before the mass migration and genocide forced upon them by Andrew Jackson’s policy of removal to reservations.

If you are about to buy an historical print, I recommend first that you read up on the subject. There are many examples of photographic reproductions that look good from a distance, but which lack the definition and depth of real engravings. Photographic repros, before digital reproductions, will betray themselves with a dot matrix pattern making up the image. Get a magnifying glass, and look at the print. If you see dots, it is a photo of a print, not a real engraving, or the later mechanical lithograph. Sometimes, however, digital reprints are extremely difficult to detect, especially in maps. If the paper looks too new for an historical print, generally it is a reprint, or to be
less delicate, a fake.

In short, don’t waste your money. Try to get the real thing.
There are three expensive, but reputable dealers that sell quality prints of all kinds. These are, the Philadelphia Print Shop, the Old Print Shop in New York City, and the Old Print Gallery in Washington, D.C. All three have web sites, and Donald Cresswell of the Philadelphia Print Shop is always helpful if you have a question about a print, whether it is in his shop or elsewhere.

Do not be too concerned about condition when dealing with a print that is two hundred years old. Do not buy one that is in tatters, but normally speaking, there will usually be some paper missing from the margins. Many vintage prints have been restored. And much restoration can be so good that the value of the print itself has been recovered. In addition, water and mildew usually are found to some degree in old prints. This is called “foxing,” and can be cleaned by a professional, or simply left alone if not too invasive or damaging.

One thing that you should do is get a vintage print rebacked with acid-free paper, so that further damage is not done. As I mentioned, wood was often used as a backing on old prints. Wood is highly acidic and should be replaced as soon as possible. Moreover, it is my habit to only completely reframe an old print unless the frame is hopelessly damaged or ugly. Vintage prints generally look best in their original frames, and their original wavy old glass. Never, ever, succumb to using nonglare glass when reframing a print. This is to collecting prints what wearing flip-flops is to a dinner party.

Every print I own has a story. I have two period mezzotints of King George III and Queen Charlotte, circa 1770, in their original frames and glass that I hand carried back from England. I also have a small but good collection of period prints of George Washington, two of which I found quite by accident that were sold by the Philadelphia Museum of the Fine Arts. One is the only engraving of Washington from the right side of his face, the so-called “Vaughan portrait,” taken from the painting by Gilbert Stuart for Samuel Vaughan in London. I have a copy of the John Trumbull engraving “The Death of General Montgomery,” which has a small chunk missing from the right margin. My framer fixed it so well you can’t see it unless you really look for it. And I have the companion engraving, “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,” which is missing about a quarter inch of image on the right side. No bother, the print is rare and still wonderful.

All the engravings that I selected as illustrations for this article come from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Two of these engravings I have in my collection: Noel Le Mire’s engraving of Major General the Marquis de Lafayette, at the Battle of Yorktown, and the George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, by John Trumbull, engraved by John Cheesman. I would love to own the Thomas Jefferson stipple engraving of 1801. It is as rare as stardust.

I also have a small collection of Confederate prints, most of which are lithographs, and the vast majority were printed in the North during the Civil War. Recently, I found a first edition of a print that has been reproduced widely: “Our Heroes and Our Flags.” It was in great condition with its original frame and glass, and the ca. 1897 paper has a lovely light green tint. It was printed by “The Southern Lithography Company, Brooklyn, New York.” I am still on the lookout for an original engraving of the famous “Last Meeting” of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A friend has a signed proof by the artist D. Julio of this engraving, another one as rare as stardust. Unfortunately, there are many cheap photographic repros of both these famous engravings.

To own any historical engraving is to own a piece of history. To own one of an American historical event, or famous American, is itself an act of patriotism in an age that increasingly denies history as important, and in a country which increasingly denies the greatness of its founding fathers and the events that defined the destiny of the American republic. Serious collectors preserve our history for future generations, for our principal museums no longer are interested.

—by Richard Carter, contributing writer

Richard Carter is a resident of Essex County. He serves as a trustee of Preservation Virginia, Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula Branch, and is a member of the Governor’s Council for the Art and Furnishings of the Executive Mansion in Richmond. He was senior editor for books and exhibitions at two Smithsonian museums, the Museum of American Art, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries. He also was editor and writer at The National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. He writes a weekly column for The Rappahannock Times to annoy the powers that be, and spends time with his wife debating where prints should hang in the house.