Etching as an artistic medium can be dated back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The earliest dated etching is Girl Bathing Her Feet by Urs Graf of 1513. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) were early masters of the new technique which flourished on the continent as the century progressed.
During the following century, Rembrandt (1606-1669) embraced the relative freedom of expression that the technique offered to produce over 300 original etchings. Thereafter, however, ‘for the century and a half that followed the death of Rembrandt the art of original etching was little practiced and less understood’ (Hind, p.312).
During the early nineteenth century etching held a minor position in the arts in Britain. Considered something of a ‘lost’ technique, it was little utilised until the formation of the Old Etching Club in London in 1838. Members of the Club, and the Junior Etching Club that developed from the original group, were principally concerned with producing etchings to illustrate works of literature in an effort to subsidise their primary pursuit of painting. For much of the nineteenth century etching was considered a minor element of the artistic canon; indeed, the Royal Academy gave greater prominence to engraved reproductions of paintings than it did to original prints.
This dismissive attitude was to change due primarily to the work of Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) and his brother in law James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). These two men, through a combination of example and promotion, provided the platform for a renewed interest in etching.
In the mid-1850s, Whistler spent three years in France where he had been introduced to the work of Charles Meryon (1821-1868), Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914) and Charles Jacque (1813-1894), the leading French etchers of the time. In 1858 Whistler moved to London where, influenced by the work he had seen in Paris, he began a series of etchings of scenes along the River Thames.
By the late 1870s, the Old Etching Club had largely ceased to function as anything other than a social group. Haden, a surgeon and talented etcher, proposed the formation of a new society dedicated to promoting etching as an important medium in its own right. The first meeting of the Society of Painter-Etchers was held in 1880 with Haden its President. He gave the group its original motto: Ne Desilies Imitator – ‘Do not stoop to be a copyist.’ In this phrase lay Haden’s central aim – that printmakers should produce original works and, by extension, the art of etching should come to be viewed as a valid and important artistic medium.
Eight years after its formation the Society was granted a Royal Charter and six years later, in 1894, Haden was knighted for his service to the arts. The influence Haden exerted over the Society was immense. He promoted the idea that an artist could convey as much with empty space as he or she could through the use of a multitude of unnecessary (as Haden saw it) bitten lines. He also believed that each artist should, where possible, draw onto pre-prepared plates, directly from nature. To ensure that all aspects of the process could be overseen by the artist, Haden further suggested that etchers should master the techniques of the press to enable them to print and proof their own work.
Demand for original etchings grew steadily through the later years of the nineteenth century. This growing interest was encouraged by the efforts of Phillip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894), ‘the chief publicist for the British [etching] revival’ (Lang and Lang, p.42). Hamerton, himself a keen etcher, believed that the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of etching as a valid art form was a largely ignorant public. He endeavoured to rectify this through the publication of Etching and Etchers (1868) in which he lauded the efforts of Whistler and Haden (‘Here is a book written to increase the public interest in an art we [Haden and Hamerton] both love’, was the rallying first line of the book’s dedication to Haden). Furthermore, Hamerton argued against the prevailing view that the technique was a purely illustrative medium. Published at a guinea and a half and much to Hamerton’s surprise, the book rapidly sold out.
The success of Etching and Etchers confirmed Hamerton’s belief that an educated public could lead to an informed and enthusiastic market. Hamerton’s subsequent publications (The Portfolio, The Etcher and English Etchings published between 1879 and 1891) continued to supply an ever more interested public with information about works by the growing spectrum of artists working in the medium.
Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century as the number of practitioners increased so the demand for original etchings also grew. In 1911 The Print Collector’s Quarterly was launched ‘as a response and a stimulant to the growing demand’ (Lang and Lang, p.51).
The market for original etchings increased rapidly, reaching its zenith in the decade immediately after the First World War. Print auctions at Sotheby’s increased from six to twenty four sales a year during the second half of the 1920s and the prices for individual works similarly escalated. Muirhead Bone’s Ayr Prison, originally published in 1905 for £2.2.6, sold for £365 in 1929; David Young Cameron’s Five Sisters, York Minster set the record price for a print by a living artist in 1928 when a collector paid £660 for a copy.
Soon after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 the market for original prints collapsed. The pioneering work of Whistler and Haden coupled with Hamerton’s promotional zeal produced a period of unmatched popularity and recognition for a previously overlooked and neglected technique. Due to the diminishing market, the production of original etchings slowed and has never returned to the levels of the 1920s.
The craze for original etchings may now be a century old but the medium endures as does the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. Today it is called the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers and it continues to hold exhibitions showcasing artists working in this most expressive and striking medium.
This essay is a modified and abridged version of the author’s introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition Whistler, Haden and the Rise of the Painter-Etcher, held at the Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle in 2001.
We discuss the etching technique in more detail in our short article about the work of Karl Salsbury Wood here.
More information about the work and history of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers can be found on their website.
Sources and further reading
Farr, D (1978), English Art 1870-1940, Oxford University Press
Furst, H (1931), Original Etching and Engraving, An Appreciation, T. Nelson and Sons
Garton, R (1992), British Printmakers 1855-1955, Garton and Co
Gray, B (1937), The English Print, Adam and Charles Black
Heard, A (2001), Whistler, Haden and the Rise of the Painter-Etcher, University of Newcastle
Hind, A M (1923), A History of Engraving and Etching from the 15th Century to the Year 1814, Constable and Company
Lang, G E and Lang K (1990), Etched in Memory, The University of North Carolina Press
Laver, J (1929), A History of British and American Etching, Ernest Benn Ltd
Rowland, S (1940), The Decline of Etching in Apollo, July 1940