Today I would like to share some images taken from two large books that belonged to my great-aunt. To say she was an eccentric lady is an understatement. Life-long spinster, smoking like a chimney, a voice like a drill-sergeant, she travelled the world in cargo-ships, found these books who-knows-where and shipped them to her gloomy apartment in The Hague. When I was still a child I tried to escape from the intense and smokey family gatherings in her boudoir by sitting in a corner of the room and slowly turning the large pages, pretending to be completely absorbed by the content.
The room was filled to the brim with ominous cabinets, large and extremely dangerous furniture, and frightening paintings of big nude women that seemed to want to jump off the wall. The experience was suffocating, to say the least. As these gatherings were traditionally held on January 1st, the weather was invariably gloomy and the world was shrouded in the deepest darkness. As I sat in that distant corner my rib-cage hurt, and I thought I would not live to the end of the dreadful evening. It was probably just a mixture of growing pains and melancholy. It was the sixties and all adults continuously drank and smoked cigarettes.
My great-aunt noticed my interest in the engravings (I did not know what they were then), and declared with a loud booming hoarse voice: “Aha! The lad likes the books. He likes art. So when I’m dead, he will have them.” Well … she eventually died. But the bequest seemed to be forgotten by everyone, except my cousin, who kept the books safe for years, and then decided it was time to hand them over, also because he needed the living space they claimed, living in a large city. Battered and damaged from the outside, the engravings are still in very good condition. I have stored them away from my house in a safe place and sometimes take them home to take a few pictures. Engravings like these are not en vogue so selling them is not an option. The volumes are so heavy that handling the books is almost impossible. It’s the story behind them that gives them value, to me. If I snif these pages I still notice a whiff of stale smoke, wine and gin.
Reproducing images and art in the era before photography, digital photography, scanners, Facebook and Flickr was a painfully slow affair, if you wanted to do it right. When I was an art history student I became fascinated by the concept of ‘reproduction graphic’. A phenomenon that flourished in the 19th century. Suppose you had a swiftly brushed painting of a vase with flowers, and you wanted to reproduce it, for a book, or as a separate print. You would bring it to a graphic artist who would painstakingly copy the work in steel. These steel engravings look superficially similar to engravings on copper, or etches, but they are quite different. It reminded me of something, but the books were deeply buried in my subconscious.
The lines are incredibly regular, and thin. Every nuance is being rendered by the artist. A bohemian swirly flower vase would take the painter less time to produce than this graphical craftsman to reproduce. If you look at these engravings, at first you might be put off by a certain ‘mechanical stiffness’, but upon closer inspection you cannot but marvel at the incredible skill. These people were human scanners. This portrait of a painting in the Royal Collection Osbourne proves that the freshness of the original can be transferred in a work of great clarity.
It’s not comparable to artist’s engravings, like Rembrandt’s drypoint engravings, or his etchings, or other free artistic creations. Their job was not to be original, but to be faithful and translate a work of art into an entirely different medium. In this respect these people deserve our respect.
These are some images from the two enormous ornate volumes of steel engravings, commissioned by the firm P. & D. Colnaghi Co. between 1854 and 1860, which I used to escape from the dreadful New Years parties at my great-aunts place. The descriptions accompanying the engravings are written by Samuel Carter Hall (1800 – 1889). The full title of the work is:
The book-block (i.e. the paper part inside) measures 66,5 x 49 cm, the cover of course is somewhat taller and wider (68 x 50 cm). So they are quite big … and very heavy.
The engravings were made, and sold in a series, by subscription. The original size (“quarto grand eagle”) was used to create these big volumes. After approximately 400 impressions the steel plates were cut down, and another run was produced, to be published in the Art-Journal.
The author of the descriptions S. C. Hall, was, according to the online sources I found, rather a contentious figure. Trained as a lawyer, he somehow ended up as a publisher / art journalist. Creating series like this was the only way to show the private collection of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to a wider audience. A number of engravers has been admitted to the palaces where the royal art collection has been kept for a number of years. Photography already existed of course, but was still in the stages of its development where extended series of copies were not possible. Steel engravings were the visual medium that accompanied the printing press in the 19th century, and beyond.
Due to the subjects, and the way they are rendered, these engravings now have a distinct old-fashionedness about them. They don’t fetch high prices at online auctions, and they linger in the display windows of antiquarian bookshops.
But look at the details. And be cautious, because you might develop an appetite for these neglected works of graphic art.
Looking at the details you also recognise the presence of mechanical tools used to cover larger areas with tonal values. If you compare the engraving with the original, you see that it isn’t a mechanical reproduction but an interpretation.
We are blessed now with an unprecedented access to the royal collections thanks to the website of the Royal Collection Trust. The description of the painting on this website learns us that the engraving was executed by Joseph Alfred Annedouche. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal on May 17th 1844: “Albert has bought 3 beautiful pictures from Mrs Nicholls’s collection (…) and I have bought a lovely child’s head by Greuze.” Somehow the child in the engraving is more childlike and innocent than the original. And there is another striking difference. The girl in the engraving is looking straight at the spectator while the girl in the painting seems to look just past you, as if someone was standing behind the artist. The engraver did not pick up on this characteristic feature of the painting. It’s remarkable that the title of the reproduction does not match the title of the original. Where the original is catalogued as “Head of a girl”, which is quite matter-of-fact, and places it in genre-painting, the title of the reproduction “Childhood” suggests that it’s allegoric.
The engraver of this elegant portrait of Lady Constance Leveson-Gower (1834-1880), later Duchess of Westminster by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805 – 1873), had a similar approach. The eyes are vivid and clear. And the reflection of the light is more prominent than in the original portrait. He did a splendid job in rendering the details like the flowers in the hair. It’s delightful to study the lines, building up the portrait, in detail. You can find more about the original on the website of the Royal Collection Trust
Queen Victoria wrote about this portrait: “‘Constance’s Picture has enchanted us; it is exquisite & I am delighted to possess this Portrait of your beautiful Child. (…)”. Franz Xaver Winterhalter was a well-know portrait painter who made his living by painting portraits of the haute bourgeoisie and royalty. If you enter his name in the search box of the Royal Collection Trust’s website you will discover many works by him. I must admit that I never heard of him before.
We see everything in retrospect, but this painting was relatively new when the crew hired by Hall started copying the paintings. The selection of reproduced paintings included both Old Masters and contemporary art.
These engravings, although not original works of art, just have a charm, and a life of their own.
That’s it, for now. I will come back here and post some follow-up information and new images soon.