Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Disaster prints

There are basically two types of commercial prints, "job order prints" and "speculative prints." [click here for discussion of the difference between commercial and 'fine art' prints] The staple for most commercial printmakers were job order prints. These were prints where a customer hired the printmaker to produce a specific type of print for a particular need. This included such items as advertisements, menus, tickets, checks, billheads, labels, plans, circulars and many other prints of an ephemeral nature. Other commissioned prints included individual and group portraits and views of buildings or landscapes, ordered by private customers or civic and commercial organizations.

In some cases, printmakers would create non-commissioned prints in hopes that these would find a market and repay the investment of funds and time by the printmaker. Here the printmaker hoped that his sense of what people wanted to buy, and his skill in producing an appealing print, would lead to sales. Sometimes these would be generic prints with a timeless appeal, prints of landscapes, pretty ladies, flowers, birds, animals and the like. More often, though, speculative prints were topical, relating to a political event, military battle, or other event that would spur interest in a topic such that people would want to acquire a print illustrating that event. Disasters, of course, were just such events and it is fairly common that following some tragedy, a print would be created and put out on the market almost immediately in hopes that the printmaker could benefit from the calamity.

This was especially common in the nineteenth century, when lithography allowed a printmaker to very quickly create a colorful image of good size in large numbers and at a reasonable price, thus potentially realizing a significant windfall from sales of the print. Many of the disasters of the nineteenth century were followed almost immediately by the appearance of separately-issued, speculative prints showing the catastrophe in bright colors, often by more than one printmaker.

The most famous of these disaster prints is a broadside print by Nathaniel Currier. On January 13, 1840, the passenger steamer Lexington on its way from New York to Stonington, Connecticut, burned in Long Island sound. There were only four survivors from among the 150 passengers and crew members. This spectacular catastrophe was disastrous for many, but proved a boon for a young New York lithographer named Nathaniel Currier. The news of this tragedy reached New York two days later, and the next day the New York Sun came out with a broadside about the disaster which included a lithographed image of the ship in flames. The sensation caused by the burning of the Lexington continued for weeks, spurred on by the repeated reissuing of updated versions of this broadside.

One week after the first publication, a new, more accurate lithographed image appeared on the broadside, this one attributed to artist W.K. Hewitt and lithographed by Nathaniel Currier. With its correct nighttime imagery, giving it a much more dramatic appearance, this broadside kept interest in the tragedy alive. In the days before photography and television, the combination of fast reportage and a dramatic lithographed image made this Sun Extra a big success. The popularity of the broadside inspired Nathaniel Currier to take over its publication after the Sun stopped its involvement, and he issued another three versions thereafter. According to Harry T. Peters, the popularity of his Lexington lithograph is what firmly established Nathaniel Currier as a financial and popular success, and allowed him to build his firm (later Currier & Ives) into the dominant American printmaking company.

Currier's was not the only "rush print" made of the burning of the Lexington and an anonymous printmaker issued the print above, an unusual and unattributed lithograph of the same scene. The title is similar to the Currier print, but the image is quite different. It was undoubtedly issued within a short time of the event and was aimed at the market created by the public fascination with this famous disaster.

The burning of the Lexington was not the only marine disaster Currier documented, as shown by the print above entitled "Awful Explosion of the ‘Peace-Maker’ on board the U.S. Steam Frigate, Princeton, on Wednesday, 28th. Feby. 1844," just one of a number of this sort of print by Currier.

And it wasn't just popular printmakers like Currier who issued marine disaster prints. On March 6, 1860, the Alfred Thomas exploded on the Delaware River at Easton, PA. The Alfred Thomas was a small passenger steamship built to run on the Delaware River between Belvidere, New Jersey and Port Jervis, New York, a distance of about 60 miles. The ship, constructed at Easton, was completed and after some trials was declared ready for its maiden voyage. On Tuesday morning, March 6th, the Alfred Thomas set off from Easton, filled with an official party of about 100 passengers and watched by many spectators along the shore. After a number of stops, as the ship set off, the boiler suddenly erupted in a huge explosion, throwing the passengers far into the air and totally wrecking the boat. A print drawn by Philadelphia artist James Queen issued shortly thereafter shows that explosion and it was said to have been based on a "Sketch from Nature." The quality of this print is significantly better than the typical popular print, but it still has enough dramatic tragedy to appeal to a wide audience.

The most common type of disaster in the nineteenth century were the fires that raged through many American cities. These fires were usually followed by the appearance of speculative prints which were sold not just in the city in question, but around the country. One of the earliest documented by a lithographic rush print was the great fire in Pittsburgh on April 10th, 1845. Nathaniel Currier once again took advantage of this tragedy to sell a sensational print of the “Great Conflagration At Pittsburgh PA.” The large mountain in the background is totally out of place, but otherwise the print is fairly accurate, likely based on a first-hand drawing.

Another New York publisher, James Baillie, also came out with his own print of the same scene, this with an even more Alp-like mountain in the background. Still the scene is rather accurate, based on a painting by local artist William Coventry Wall. The extent of the fire, the way it is burning on the bridge, and the foreground landscape all come from a painting by Wall which he produced immediately after the fire.

Wall was himself involved in the production of a rather better quality print of the fire, based on his own drawings. This was a three part print which included an image of the city before the fire, and two images showing the ruins of the city. While this print is beautifully made, is larger than the Currier and Baillie prints, and is directly based on first-hand renderings, it is quite a bit scarcer than the other two. Likely not that many were sold as the public was more interested in the drama and color of the scenes showing the fire, rather than the images of the depressing aftermath.

Probably the most famous city fire of the nineteenth century was the great fire in Chicago of 1871. Currier & Ives, of course, produced a number of images of this fire, including the one above. In order to rush this image to the market, they seem to have taken a stock bird's-eye view of Chicago and simply added a lot of flames. This print is a good example of why prints can be used as historical documentation only with great care, for not only are the flames not in the right place in the city, but they are clearly blowing to the south, while in fact the wind that day was blowing north.

Disaster prints continued to appear throughout the nineteenth century, including late in the century when the prints were usually produced by chromolithography. Kurz & Allison, a Chicago publisher, produced a very dramatic print of the Johnston Flood of May 31, 1889. Even into the early twentieth century, printmakers produced similar disaster prints, like Carl Beck chromolithograph of the great fire in San Francisco following the great earthquake of April 18, 1906 (shown below). The scene is a bird’s-eye view of the conflagration in the evening of the first day, from above the foot of Market Street. The fire, showing burning in the downtown area and on Nob Hill, had a length of over five miles.

These prints range from the crude to the sophisticated, and from the accurate to the made-up, but they are all interesting in documenting the lives of our ancestors and their fascination (which of course continues to today) with tragedy.

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