Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) is often called the ‘father of modern cartography,’ particularly because in 1570, he issued the first edition of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which is considered the ‘first modern atlas.’ The publication of this atlas marked an epoch in the history of cartography, for it is the first uniform and systematic collection of maps of the whole world based only on contemporary knowledge since the days of Ptolemy.


Ortelius began his career as an engraver and “peintre des cartes,” (map colorist), eventually becoming a dealer in maps and books. As such he met and befriended the great Gerard Mercator and began to produce as well as sell maps in Antwerp in 1561, starting with an eight sheet world map. In the sixteenth century there was a great increase in interest in maps and charts, and Ortelius, as a businessman with a passion for history and cartography, was at the forefront in meeting this demand. Through his collecting and his antiques business, Ortelius became acquainted with a large network of the preeminent cartographers in Europe and thus was able to research the best contemporary maps, becoming the greatest expert of his day in the bibliography of maps.


He decided to produce an atlas of the entire world, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or 'Theater of the World,' done on a systematic basis in a uniform style, beginning with a map of the world, then maps of the continents, followed by regional maps. Ortelius based his work on the best maps available, drawing all the maps himself with the celebrated Frans Hogenberg cutting most of the plates. Unlike other atlas-makers, Ortelius cited the authors of the original maps from which he compiled his work. The result was that his maps were some of the most attractive and accurate of the late sixteenth century.


The Theatrum was hugely popular and influential, and Ortelius was made the royal geographer to Phillip II, expanding his atlas with new maps, and in 1579 to include the Parergon, a historic atlas intended to supplement the Theatrum. When he died in 1598, the Theatrum had been published in 25 editions in five editions, with two other languages added after his death. Thus it is not only for his unprecedented achievement in issuing the first modern atlas, but also for his thoughtful and rigorous methodology, that Ortelius belongs amongst the first rank of cartographers.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Winslow Homer's illustrations

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was one of the foremost American artists of the middle of the nineteenth century and we are fortunate that many of his images were produced as prints even a century and a half later are still accessible and affordable.


Homer came from an old New England Family where his mother, an amateur watercolorist, encouraged his artistic inclinations. At age 19, Homer apprenticed in the John Bufford firm in Boston, where he mostly copied the designs of other artists onto sheet music covers and other commercial lithographs.


Soon, however, he began to submit his own work to various illustrated newspapers, in 1859 moving to New York where he established himself as a freelance illustrator working for such illustrated newspapers as Ballou’s Pictorial, Harper’s Weekly, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News.
Homer produced a wonderful series of illustrations for Harper’s during the Civil War, though he focused more on the daily life of the soldiers, rather than battle scenes.


After the war, Homer continued to produce images for various publications, with his eye turning to genre subjects which illustrated daily life in America of the middle classes who were the primary readers of those newspapers and magazines. By the 1870s, Homer had built a successful career as a painter and watercolorist, but he continued working as an illustrator to 1875. His images capture America at the time as few others, with a kindness and honesty that provide a privileged look at our past. Click here to see a selection of his prints.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Selling plate books by subscription

From the early days of printed book production, in the 17th century, expensive and/or long publications were often initially sold in parts or fascicles. The fascicles were simply a part of the larger work, where the cost to purchase was less so that the buyer could eventually buy the entire book in installments and the publisher would get money as the book was produced, not having to pay for the entire production cost at the beginning.


This method of production also had the advantage to the publisher that if the book proved to not be of interest to the public, with subscriptions not be obtained in sufficient number, only a minimum amount was spent before the project was abandoned. Some of these plate books never got off the ground and others lost subscribers over time, so that the books were never completed. An example of this is James Otto Lewis’ Aboriginal Portfolio. Lewis originally intended to issue ten parts with eight prints in each, but he was unable to obtain enough subscribers so that only a very few sample prints from the tenth part were ever made.


This method of producing books was particularly important for plate books, where the cost of creating the matrixes, printing the plates, and then often coloring them was substantial. The publisher would start by producing a first part on speculation, using the completed fascicle as a sample to help obtain subscribers for the work. Once he had enough subscribers signing up and paying for the first part, that money was then used to produce the next fascicle, and so on until the publication was completed. The importance of the subscribers is shown by the fact that Thomas McKenney included a facsimile of his subscriber list in his bound History, an image of which is above.


These fascicles were usually produced with paper covers which included information on the book, often including a sales pitch to keep the subscriber interested and to help gain new subscribers.


Once finished, the subscriber would usually have the parts bound together and the publisher could also sell completed copies of the book, using the plates and text that had been printed beyond those needed just for the subscribers.


One of the pioneers of this sort of plate book sold by subscription was Mark Catesby. He produced his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands between 1731 and 1743, issued in parts for over a decade. The spread of dates for this book are a result of the subscription process, and this was typical of plates books produced in this manner.


Most elaborate plate books of the nineteenth century were sold by subscription, including Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, Thomas McKenney’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America, and even the mammoth Birds of America by John James Audubon.


Occasionally one will come across the original fascicles of these books which were never bound together. In these instances either the subscriber dropped out before the work was finished, or he/she simply didn’t bother bind them even when complete. Other times subscribers would keep the paper covers and bind them together with the text and plates.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

The earliest art of the American West tended to focus on the Indians and their culture. After mid-century, this theme slowly gave way to more of a concern with landscape and genre subjects, often portrayed in a “romantic” style. Perhaps the most influential artist associated with this change was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). He was born in Germany, near Düsseldorf, grew up in the United States, and in his twenties studied at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany.

In Germany, Bierstadt came to be deeply impressed by the tradition of heroic painting for which the Düsseldorf Academy was famous. Upon his return to the United States he became part of the informal group of artists known as the Hudson River School. Their art work depicted a pastoral American landscape, with detailed and realistic images, but portrayed with a romantic lyricism. In later years, Bierstadt would transfer that aesthetic to the American West.



In 1858, soon after returning to America, Bierstadt paid his own way in order to accompany General F.W. Lander on an expedition to improve the wagon route from Fort Laramie to California. In June, 1859, on his way back east, the expedition arrived at the South Platte River where they found a large number of prospectors on their way to the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. Bierstadt made a number of sketches, three of which appeared in Harper’s Weekly on August 13, 1859.


These ephemeral images were followed by a much more polished and sumptuous print of a oil painting, “Sunlight and Shadow,” which Bierstadt painted in 1862 based on sketches he had made while in Germany. The print was produced in Berlin in rich chromolithography, an elaborate process which was thought to be convey the subtlety of Bierstadt’s rendering of the dappling of light and shadow on the church door, statues and cobblestones. This print was quite a success, being touted as “the finest specimen of art yet seen in the country,” and it well demonstrates Bierstadt’s masterful use of light in his paintings.
However, it was the American West which would provide Bierstadt with his greatest subjects. From his travels in 1858 and 1859, Bierstadt was tremendously impressed with the Rocky Mountains, which would provide him with the subject matter for his most famous paintings. Bierstadt passed through the Rockies in the nascent days of the great American expansion west; the transcontinental railroad, the pony express, and most of the Indian wars lay in the future. Thus Bierstadt saw and absorbed an almost pristine frontier, for which the rocky peaks provided an emphatic exclamation.

In 1863, Bierstadt again traveled west, passing through the Rocky Mountains on the way to California. On this trip, Bierstadt made many sketches which he would mine over the years to create a series of superb, large-scale paintings which established him as the preeminent artist of the West. He was not the first professional artist to depict the west, “But Bierstadt became the most successful of them all and created a vision of the West that still endures..... Bierstadt was the first important artists to satisfy the renewed interest in landscape painting with original scenes from the West.” (Tyler, Prints of the West, p. 133)



Bierstadt responded to the American West with a series of large, luminous canvases, the first being exhibited at the National Academy in 1860, where it was well received. His sensational 1863 painting, “The Rocky Mountain, Lander's Peak,” which showed the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, received immediate popular acclaim, establishing Bierstadt, in the minds of some of the public and critics, as the greatest American landscape artist of his day. This painting traveled widely and was purchased by James McHenry for the then fantastic sum of $25,000. Bierstadt described the painting as is it were an actual scene, though it was a fictional construct based on his sketches and photographs.


The success of “The Rocky Mountains” led Bierstadt to ask James Smillie, one of the best American engravers of the day, to produce a large engraving of the painting. It took Smillie three years to finish the print, which is considered one of the best American landscape engravings of the nineteenth century.
Following this, Bierstadt received many commissions for new works, was acclaimed at home and abroad, and hobnobbed with the rich and royal. His canvases continued to dramatically portray the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Rockies. His were “the first paintings to capture successfully the wonder and excitement that the artist and other early trail blazers felt when they confronted the spectacular western scenery.” (Trenton & Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains, Oklahoma, 1983)



In 1866, Bierstadt produced another large, sensational painting, “Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie,” showing Mount Evans in Colorado. [Bierstadt named the mountain after Rosalie Ludlow, who would soon become his wife. It was renamed Mount Evans in 1895, after John Evans, the second governor of the Colorado Territory.] Like with the earlier painting, Bierstadt used artistic license to rearrange his sketches to achieve what he thought was the most artistic result. In the canvas, Mount Evans is shown from Chicago Lakes, arising out of the midst of storm clouds. An Indian town lies in the middle ground on the shores of a lake while a small hunting party tries to corral some horses that appear frightened by the approaching storm.


Bierstadt’s painting toured the country on exhibition and was another huge hit. A top London printmaker, Thomas McLean, purchased both this painting and his “The Rocky Mountains” in order to produce two elaborate chromolithographs. McLean used between twenty and thirty stones to make these chromolithographs, which were hailed as “unquestionably the finest examples of the chromolithographic art.” They were sold in London, New York and Philadelphia and today remain among the best specimens of chromolithography ever produced, not to mention as examples of the greatest nineteenth century art of the American West.










Monday, January 28, 2019

Giovanni Belzoni's images of Egypt

Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823) was a nearly six foot, seven inch, red-headed Italian whose fascinating life led him to become known as “The Great Belzoni.” As a young man in Rome, studying hydraulics and intending to join a monastic order, Belzoni was driven from the city when it was captured by Napoleon in 1798, moving to the Netherlands where he worked as a barber.


In 1803 he moved to England (supposedly to avoid being thrown into prison), where he became a circus strongman called the “Patagonian Samson.” Part of his act was to carry a dozen men around the stage on a metal frame.


In 1816, Belzoni traveled to Cairo in order to interest Mohammed Ali Pasha in a hydraulic lifting device that he had invented. This venture proved unsuccessful, but Belzoni became fascinated by Egypt. He turned to the British Consul, Henry Salt —-who had known him during his time as a strongman—- for possible employment. Salt, who was facing the problem of getting the head and shoulders of the colossal statue of Ramses II (called the “Younger Memmon”) from Thebes to England, hired Belzoni for this job.


Belzoni was able to complete this task with ingenuity and perseverance. The head weighs over 7 tons and it took Belzoni 17 days and over 100 men to tow it on a wooden sled to the Nile. (The statue is now in the British Museum).


Belzoni continued his “collecting” of Egyptian artifacts and explored many of the important sites in the country. In 1817, he became the first to perform large scale excavations in the Valley of the Kings, discovering a number of tombs, including those of Amenhotep III, Ramses I, and Seti I, the latter often called “Belzoni’s tomb” in honor of his discovery.


He was the first person since ancient times to enter the innermost part of the great pyramid of Khafre at Giza, though at one point he became wedged in a narrow passage, having to be extricated by his helpers.


Belzoni also was the first to excavate the great temples at Abu Simbel, which were buried under 30 feet of sand.


Belzoni made many enemies and stole many artifacts from Egypt (though he was only one of many Europeans doing the same thing). He also did some cringe-worthy things, such as smashing through a wall with sledge hammers, sitting on mummies so they were crushed underneath his weight, and carving his name on ancient monuments. Still, Belzoni’s enthusiasm and energy allowed him to “achieve” much. He approached his explorations with enthusiasm, mounting excavations on a massive scale, and he was highly systematic in his approach. He destroyed much, but was instrumental in awakening Europe to the glories of ancient Egypt.


After returning to England in 1820, Belzoni published his famous Narrative, a work that excited huge interest. In 1822, the atlas of prints to accompany this work was issued, containing many detailed scenes of sites in Egypt


and brilliant renderings of the tomb paintings that Belzoni discovered. Such was the impact of Belzoni’s publicizing of his discoveries that this can be seen as the beginning of the popular fascination with Egypt.


After Egypt, Belzoni continued his explorations in Africa, heading an expedition to Timbuktu in 1823. He caught dysentery there and died at the end of that year.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Drop in prices of antiques since 2000

A number of months ago, Antiques Roadshow broadcast one of their "vintage" shows, this one showing appraisals from Birmingham in 1999. That was from only the third year of the show, the second year in which I appeared as a print and map appraiser. Watching it, the first thing that I noticed was how young everyone looked. A fair number of the appraisers who appeared in this episode are still appraising for ARS and everyone looked so much younger (of course, I haven't aged a bit...)


The second thing I noticed was how about 3/4's of items had current values below (and often well below) the original appraised values. The show initially puts up the original appraised value, and then after a pause (to let you guess which way the value has gone), they post the current appraised value. In the vintage Birmingham show, from almost twenty years ago, only a couple current values were higher than the original values and just a few were the same. By far most of the new values were below the original appraisals. So what does that mean?


This reflects the fact that, as a general rule, antiques have gone down in value since the turn of the millennium. Part of that is because in the last decade of the twentieth century, prices for antiques were quite strong. Antique shows were going strong, decorators were keen on using antiques in homes and even offices, and there were lots of established and new collectors seeking out the best antiques of all sorts.


In general, it was for the "top end" antiques that prices were steadily going up, the "low end" rising a bit, but really not that much. The advent of Antiques Roadshow reflected the popularity of antiques at the time and also helped to sustain the rise in interest and prices. Of course, in general the appraisals which were shown on ARS were for "top end" items, so combining that with high prices of the time means that the appraisals reflected the booming antiques market.


Then, of course, along came 2008 and the great economic crash. Many parts of the American economy were hurt by this, including antiques. In most cases, the purchase of an antique is a luxury or discretionary purchase, and this was the type of purchase that was most hurt after 2008. Auction and retail sales in antiques slowed dramatically. Auction prices dropped quickly, but this did not lead to an immediate drop in retail prices. Many dealers tried to hang on to the "old" pricing structure, though they were certainly much more amenable to giving a discount. Over time, however, it did definitely lead to a lowering of many prices in the antiques world. I would say that by about 2010-12, a pricing structure for antiques had become pretty standard.


In the last few years, in some areas of the antiques market, there has been some rise in prices, though we certainly have not reached the hey-day of 1999. People are much more likely to spend their discretionary dollars on things like antiques, so we have come out of the really dark days of 2008-2010. The market, though, is quite different. Few prices are reaching new heights, and some areas of antiques which used to be "hot" are no longer so.


I think probably the biggest reason for that is the lack of serious collectors. Back when the Birmingham appraisals were filmed, there were lots of collectors--some long-term, some new collectors--seeking out the best items in many areas of antiques. In my field, collectors of the best natural history prints, prints of Native Americans, Currier & Ives lithographs, and maps were steadily driving prices to new heights. The economic disaster of 2008 knocked most of these collectors out of the market, and frankly, few have come back in even a decade later.


Why is that? I suspect that some of it was that the most of the long-term collectors were not that young, and after they stopped collecting in 2008, they just never had the enthusiasm to restart. It is one thing to gear up for collecting when one is 30 or 40, but another thing when one is 60-70. Adding to the problem is the fact that there just are not that many young collectors entering the market. Whether that is a product of changing interior design styles, a lack of appreciation of "things," or just lack of education about antiques, everyone in the antiques world will tell you that there are not many millennials or other young people purchasing antiques.


Do I think prices will come back? I think eventually for the best of all types of antiques. Antiques are wonderful artifacts of our past which still can play a relevant role in our lives, even if just as furniture, decoration or whatever. If one looks at the prices for a really well-made antique compared to a mass produced modern equivalent, the antiques are often better value just as objects. When one factors in their history and scarcity, they have a huge appeal. Markets do tend to go up and down and I think the antiques market will go back up. How soon, I wish I knew. The continued popularity of Antiques Roadshow, however, is a hopeful sign.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The format is the message

One thing that map dealers and map collectors learn early on is that the format in which a map was published has a great deal to do with its historic significance and its monetary value. A very rare example of a hugely important map of the American West is a nice example of this truism.


In 1843, in response to the great American migration to Oregon and the American West, the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers sent out John C. Frémont to survey and map what would soon come to be known as the Oregon Trail up to the South Pass. Two years later, Frémont was sent out again, at the instigation of Senator Thomas Hart Benton (Frémont’s father-in-law) to further explore the western part of the country, following the Oregon Trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean. On his return, Frémont passed to the south of the Great Basin, establishing for the first time the basic outline of the vast region which would become, in just a few years, the western part of the United States.


In 1845, Frémont was sent out again, in part because of the tensions between the U.S. and Mexico which would lead to armed conflict the following year. Frémont arrived in California just when local ferment led to an American rebellion which soon became part of the wider Mexican War. Frémont was appointed the first Governor of California, but soon became embroiled in a conflict with the military commander of California, General Stephen W. Kearny. This led to Frémont being sent back east under arrest and to his eventual court-martial and dismissal from the army.


Despite the personal failure of this 1845-46 expedition, the 1848 publication of a journal of Frémont’s explorations, entitled Geographical Memoir upon Upper California, was well received, and the map it included, “Map of Oregon and Upper California,” which Charles Preuss produced based on Frémont’s surveys, is a cartographic landmark, one of the most important maps of the American West. It depicts the entire west from the Colorado foothills to the California coast, and from the new Mexican border to the northern border of Oregon. Drawing on an earlier Frémont/Preuss map of the region from 1845, as well as other authorities, this map is corrected and filled in considerably, making it by far the best map of the region to date.


As Frémont himself wrote in his Geographical Memoir, “The map has been constructed expressly to exhibit the two countries of Oregon and the Alta California together. [These territories officially became part of the United States between 1846 and 1848.] It is believed to be the most correct that has appear of either of them...” The importance of this map is indicated by the fact that Carl Wheat gave more space to the description of this map than to any other in his seminal Mapping the Trans-Mississippi West.


The Frémont/Preuss map was probably issued in September, 1848, just after information about the discovery of gold in California reached the east coast. This was reflected in two very small legends on the map, “El Dorado or Gold Region,” placed along the South Fork of the American River and on the upper part of the Rio d.l. Plumas (Feather River), both flowing out of the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Though inconspicuous, these legends makes the Frémont/Preuss map the first general circulation map to include any mention of the California gold discovery of 1848.


As the news spread of this discovery, through President Polk’s announcement on December 5th and then all the subsequent newspaper articles and private publications, there was an immediate demand for information on the gold strike, especially for maps which prospective prospectors could take with them. Many publishers rushed maps to the market, many containing spotty or completely erroneous details, but the maps which had any accuracy were mostly based on the Frémonth/Preuss map, which was without questions the best map of California available at that time.


The same demand led to an 1849 reissue of Frémont’s Geographical Memoir, with its maps, as well as a reduced version of the “Map of Oregon and Upper California,” which focused on California, eliminating Oregon Territory and the Rockies.


What has not previously been reported is that there was the reissue of the full-size “Map of Oregon and Upper California” specifically designed for those planning to head to the “Gold Regions” of California. Rather than being a map that was issued in a report, this was produced as a separately issued pocket map.


The convenience of having maps that folded into a small size had been obvious ever since maps became items that were sold to the general public. For those wanting to take a map with them when they traveled, these maps could be easily carried in a pocket or bag. In the nineteenth century, these maps were printed onto banknote paper, which is tough yet thin, so it could be folded without as much wear. The maps were folded into covers and were usually brightly colored to make them easier to read when on the road. For those heading to the California gold fields, the need for such a map would be clear.


Thus, a pocket map edition of the Frémont/Preuss map was issued, probably either right at the end of 1848, or in early 1849 (the date on the map states 1848, but that is from the original title, which the map contains). The covers of the map are entitled "Fremont's Map California. &c." It was printed from the same stone as the original edition, but with a number of changes made, besides the obvious format change.


First, typically of pocket maps, this map was much more brightly and extensively colored than the original issue. Secondly, two additions were made to make the map more useful to the California gold seeker. A large legend, “Gold Regions” is placed along the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, colored with gold highlighting.


Then inserted into the upper right corner is a map “showing the various routes from New York to San Francisco.”


It isn’t clear who published the map, but given the use of the original stone Frémont may very well have been involved in its production—perhaps hoping to cash in on his explorations after their rather unpleasant ending. An extensive search has turned up only two copies of this version of the map, and while all pocket maps from the 19th century have a high attrition rate, this would seem to indicate that this map did not sell as well as the publisher would have hoped. This scarcity, and its historical significance, make it perhaps as desirable a map of related to the California Gold Rush as any. A true nugget from the California Gold Rush.