Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Popularity of prints: favorite Philadelphia image

I have posted a number of blogs on how we price prints, looking at the various factors which influence the value of antique prints. Today I will start a few blogs which look at particular cases of print desirability, considering why it is some prints are more desirable (and thus generally more valuable) than other similar prints.

Without question, the most popular antique Philadelphia print is W.H. Bartlett's view of the Schuylkill Waterworks. This is a smallish (4 3/4 x 7 1/4 image size) steel engraving first issued in 1839-40 as part of N.P. Willis's American Scenery, a travel book describing the picturesque sights in America with text and numerous views based on drawings by Bartlett. Bartlett's print of the waterworks is quite affordable (under $200), very attractive, and was issued in fairly large numbers. By far we have sold more examples of this print in the last quarter century than any of print. It is a print which I would guess has an average "shelf life" (time it takes from our putting it on the sales floor until it sells) of about one week.

There are a number of reasons why this print is so popular. First off, it is a lovely image, as are most of Bartlett's views of American scenes. Prints by Bartlett from American Scenery are among the most popular American prints of any place that he depicted. Bartlett did four images of Philadelphia; besides the waterworks, he did an image of the Fairmount Gardens (at the foot of Faire Mount, behind the waterworks), the Merchant's Exchange and the U.S. Bank. These three prints are also very popular and sell quite quickly, though not as fast as the waterworks.

All the Bartlett prints, of Philadelphia and elsewhere, are popular because they are lovely images, well crafted, and are priced moderately. They are also of a size that is easy for people to frame and find a place for in their homes. Finally, they are of specific locations in America. Prints of American places always have a certain popularity. All the Bartlett prints have the same history, each image is essentially just as attractive as any other print, so the variation in price of these prints (which range from about $75 to $150) is totally determined by the desirability of the place depicted.

Certain places (like Boston, Philadelphia & Washington DC) have more people interested in pictures of them than other places (such as upstate New York or the Susquehanna River valley). Where there are multiple images for one location, such as for Philadelphia, the value depends on the popularity of the different subjects. Certain places, like the Capitol Building, are icons and well known, so they will be more desirable than other places. Also, if the building depicted no longer is standing or if the location has changed so that the print is not recognizable (such as the Trenton Falls in New York), then those prints are always less desirable.

In Philadelphia, there is no more iconic, well known, and beloved building than the Fairmount Waterworks, at least for those people who live in Philadelphia. I would suppose that if you talked to people from elsewhere, it is probably "Independence Hall," (the Pennsylvania State House), which is the best known symbol of America. Not only have images of Independence Hall been around since the 18th century, but its important role as the site of the beginnings of the United States give it an historic importance second to none for Philadelphia, and indeed the United Sates.

Fairmount Waterworks is, as happens, very important in the history of Philadelphia. Replacing the Centre Square Waterworks, it allowed Philadelphia to have the best public water system in the country, and indeed probably in the world in the early nineteenth century. However, most Philadelphians are not really aware of how important the Fairmount Waterworks are to our history. The reason this site is so popular lies not in its history, but in its situation.

The Fairmount Waterworks is a lovely complex; the dam, porches, and engine house form a charming Greek Revival site. Add this to its situation on the banks of the Schuylkill River, in front of the gardens behind and Faire Mount rising up to the Art Museum above, and the scene is sublime. Not is the Fairmount Waterworks one of the most beautiful urban sites in America, but it is seen by a huge number of Philadelphians. Drivers on the Martin Luther King Drive and the Schuylkill Expressway have an excellent view of the site as they approach or leave the city. It is not surprising that this is a scene that appeals to a huge number of Philadelphians. Independence Hall, somewhat buried in the urban density of Philadelphia, is not nearly as charmingly situated nor seen by as many people.

Images of the waterworks, in any medium, from any date, and for any price range, are definitely the most popular Philadelphia scenes, and for antique prints, it is the wonderful Bartlett engraving of the waterworks which is the most popular of all.


  1. I have been trudging up and down the Schuylkill all my life, and indeed there are few sights more beautiful than the museum and waterworks all lit up at night, followed by the boat houses, looking like gingerbread homes, trimmed in white lights. The print is a lovely expression of how the area once looked, and I can certainly understand its popularity.

  2. I have a small print/engraving with W.H. Bartlett printed below the bottom left corner and E. Benjamin below the lower right corner. Below, centered, it reads AYR. Below that, it reads "London, Published for the Proprietors. by George Virtue, 26. Ivy Lane, 1837."
    The scene is of people in the foreground on a beach including one on a pony, a cliff rising 50' or higher on the right with the ruins of a stone building on top. Across the water is a city skyline. The image measures about 4 1/2" x 7". I bought it at a garage sale, but the elderly gentleman said he bought it elsewhere during his travels. On the back of the heavy stock to which it is attached, the price tag indicates it was purchased in the U.K.
    Are you familiar with this piece? Would this be a different W.H. Bartlett?

  3. Same Bartlett. He produced images for a whole series of volumes and this came from one of those (of scenes of the British Isles I believe).

  4. I recently found a large version of Bartlett's The Gardens at Fair Mont, Philadelphia. It's roughly 16"x20". Framed and matted by a center city concern in, by the looks of the label, the 1940s. Do you know anything about these bigger versions? Thanks,
    Joe Meredith

  5. Bartlett's prints were issued only in the small size. The print you found is a reproduction, blown up for dramatic effect.

  6. I bought a larger version measuring 17 x 14 1/2 inches and it is colorized. It is too new looking but is very well done. Wonder if it has value and what more you can tell me. On right side is JC Armytage name