Friday, May 21, 2010

A puzzling Bunker Hill print

In my last blog I wrote about John Trumbull’’s paintings of events in the American Revolution and of the engravings that were made from three of these paintings: the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Death of Montgomery, and the Declaration of Independence. Trumbull had intended to make engravings of an entire series of his paintings, but it appears that these were the only ones he succeeded in bringing to press. The first two, produced in the late eighteenth century, were engraved by European craftsmen, as Trumbull could not find an American engraver with sufficient skill, but the last, made early in the following century, was engraved by the American Asher B. Durand.

I say that it appears that these were the only three paintings Trumbull was able to have made into prints because there is a fourth engraving of a Trumbull painting which it is possible that he was involved in having made. This is a very rare print which, in fact, is something of a puzzle.

The Trumbull images have been very popular with printmakers over the years, copied by other publishers into prints from early in the nineteenth century until the present day. These copies range from moderate sized, separately issued engravings to small book illustrations to popular lithographs by firms like Currier & Ives to modern color reproductions. The most unusual of these is a print of the Battle of Bunker Hill engraved by John Norman (ca. 1748-1817). That print is quite large (almost exactly the same size as the Müller engraving), may have been engraved in the eighteenth century (even possibly before the Müller engraving), and may (like the Müller engraving) have been commissioned by Trumbull

The print in question is entitled “The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, or the Death of General Warren.” The only credits on the print are “Painted by John Trumbull, Esq.” and “Engraved by J. Norman.” The print is 19 1/2 x 29 1/2 and created by the joining of two plates. There is no indication of publisher, nor of place or date of publication.

John Norman trained as an engraver in London and in 1773 he emigrated to Philadelphia, where he continued in his trade, producing mostly small engravings. In 1781, Norman moved on to Boston where he was particularly involved in engraving maps, becoming an important figure in the Boston chart trade. One of his most important works was the twelve plate “An Accurate Map of the Four New England States,” published in Boston in 1785.

Most of Norman’s earlier plates were copies of European models and the quality of his work is rather crude. The engraving of the Battle of Bunker Hill appears to fit this picture nicely. It seems to be a copy of a European model (Müller’s engraving) and it is definitely crudely done. The print is quite detailed and large, but the engraving quality is really rather poor. So, at first glance it appears that what we have with the Norman print of the battle of Bunker Hill is something fairly common of the period, a crude attempt at copying a European-made engraving.

The problem with this is that the Norman engraving really doesn’t fit this story that well. It just doesn’t make complete sense. A separately issued print like this would have been produced on speculation, with the intent of making money from sales, and who would have had the resources and interest in paying for such a print? This was not just a cheap copy of Trumbull’s image, but a large, elaborate and clearly expensive print. There is no evidence that Norman himself had the resources to undertake such an expensive proposition nor does it seem he ever had any inclination for such ventures.

But who else would, between 1798 (the date of publication of the Müller engraving) and 1817 (Norman’s death), have commissioned such an elaborate and expensive plate from an American engraver of, at least, suspect ability? Trumbull’s own print of the battle of Bunker Hill would have been readily available to anyone who wanted such an engraving and it did not sell that well. I can see someone producing a cheap copy, as the subject would likely have been fairly popular, but not such an expensive and elaborate copy when the original was still around. So if Norman himself did not undertake the production of this print and it doesn’t make sense that another publisher would have, who did?

There are only two names that appear on the print, Norman’s and Trumbull’s. Since we have ruled out Norman, let’s look at the other, John Trumbull himself. Why would Trumbull have commissioned an American engraved version of the Battle of Bunker Hill? There are actually a couple of possible scenarios that have me thinking that one of these is likely the true story of the Norman print.

Trumbull’s two European-made engravings, of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Death of General Montgomery, did not sell well, but in 1817 Trumbull decided to try again by producing a print of his image of the Declaration of Independence. Initially he hired English engraver James Heath to do the work, telling James Madison that he did not believe an American engraver had the experience or skill to produce a quality engraving of this magnitude. There was an outcry against using a European engraver for such a quintessential American subject, so this is when Trumbull turned to the American Asher B. Durand.

It seems possible that at some point previously Trumbull had heard the grumblings about his American subjects having been engraved in Europe and that he thought his prints might sell better if he had an American re-engrave them. He might then have chosen John Norman to do this re-engraving because Norman had shown himself capable of engraving on a large scale, for he had made the twelve sheet “Map of the Four New England States” in 1785. The plates for this map are 54 x 42 cm, which David Bosse argues was larger than any other plates done at the time in America. It is interesting to note that for Norman’s engraving of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which is printed from two plates, the larger plate is 54 x 43 cm.

Under this scenario, sometime in the early 19th century, Trumbull, finding that his European-made prints were not selling well, commissioned Norman to undertake an American-made version, only to be dissatisfied by the results (the print really is not very well made!) and so abandoned the project. This would make sense of a number of things about this print. It would explain who would be willing to put up the money to sponsor such an elaborate copy of Trumbull’s scene, why only Trumbull’s and Norman’s name appear on the plate, why there are so few of these prints around, and why Trumbull made the comment to Madison about American engravers not being able to produce a large print of sufficient quality.

One other scenario is that it was Trumbull who commissioned the print, but much earlier in the process. It took over two years for Trumbull to find an engraver for his Battle of Bunker Hill, so it seems possible that at that time Trumbull might have sent a copy of his painting to America to see if Norman could do the work. If this happened, Trumbull would have seen the quality of the engraving produced and then given up the hope an American could do the work. If this scenario is the true story of this print, the Norman engraving of the Battle of Bunker Hill will actually predate the Müller engraving!

It is fun to try to figure out why the Norman print was made, who paid for it, and when it was done. I have not found any clues in the available information on Trumbull or Norman, but a consideration of the print’s nature leads me to believe that it was Trumbull, at some point, who had Norman try his hand at copying his image. It didn’t work out well for Trumbull, but we are left with this very interesting and puzzling print.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

John Trumbull's prints of the American Revolution

John Trumbull’s “Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill” is one of the most famous pictures of American history, an iconic image. In this dramatic scene, the British forces are shown cresting the last defenses of the rebels, who continue to fight bravely. Maj. Gen. Joseph Warren is seen lying mortally wounded, while one of his companions and British officer Maj. John Small restrain a ‘lobster back’ from bayoneting him. This image has appeared in many different formats since Trumbull first painted it in 1785-86, including in numerous prints issued for over two centuries. It is interesting that the publication of a print of this image was actually part of John Trumbull’s intent from the very beginning.

Trumbull, son of the Governor of Connecticut, was uniquely qualified to paint scenes of the American Revolution, as he served in the Continental army during the war and knew first-hand the characteristics of the American and British armies and the nature of this conflict. He also knew many of the participants of the Revolution and so was able to hear first-hand those events he did not himself participate in. During the battle of Bunker’s Hill, Trumbull was stationed in Roxbury, on the far side of Boston from Charlestown, whence he could hear the sounds of the battle.

Trumbull decided as a young man that he wanted to pursue a career as an artist and late in the war he sailed to England to study under Benjamin West, an American who had established himself so well there that he was appointed by King George III as historical painter to the court. At the time, historical painting was considered one of the highest forms of art, but most historical paintings showed mythological, sacred or classical history, and when contemporary events were depicted, the participants were shown in classical dress. West, had in 1770, broken with this tradition by painting the “Death of General Wolfe” with its participants in contemporary uniforms and setting.

There was some controversy over this, but West continued this course with further “modern” history paintings of “The Battle of La Hogue” and “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.” West encouraged his pupil John Trumbull—-and possibly was even the originator of the idea—-to undertake a series of such painting on the history of the United States. West could not undertake this on his own because of his ties to the King, who would not have taken kindly to his court painter glorifying the recent victory of the Americans over the British.

In 1784, Trumbull took up this project as his main artistic ambition. He began with a painting of “The Death of General Warren at Battle of Bunker’s Hill” in the fall of 1785, finishing it the follow March. This canvas was called by Benjamin West “the best picture of a modern battle that has been painted” and it was well received by those who viewed it in West’s studio. Trumbull had absorbed the style and form of West’s work, but added to this his own personal knowledge of the individuals and the military dress, weapons and events of the time.

Trumbull was worried about the prospects of selling his American historical paintings, for not only would the subject likely rule out any English buyers, but there were in general less patrons who would purchase an historical painting than a personal portrait. To help with the financial situation, West encouraged Trumbull to have the paintings made into prints, for there was a better likelihood he would make money by selling prints than just from the paintings. West told Trumbull that West's painting of “The Battle of La Hogue” sold for only 500 guineas, but that the sale of prints, at one guinea each, had generated three times that amount. Thus from the start, Trumbull intended to have his American historical paintings made into prints, beginning with the first two canvases he was working on, the painting of the battle of Bunker Hill and one showing the death of General Montgomery at Quebec.

Through West, Trumbull met Antonio di Poggi, an artist and print publisher, who agreed to publish the prints for a share of the profits. They decided to look in Paris for an engraver, as no British engraver would dare to do the work on this subject matter. They searched through the summer and early fall of 1786 in Paris and then Frankfurt, with no success. When Trumbull returned to London in October 1786, Poggi kept the paintings to continue to look for an engraver. Poggi finally found Johann Gotthard von Müller, an engraver from Stuttgart, who agreed in July 1788 to undertake the engraving of Trumbull’s Bunker Hill.

In 1789, Trumbull sailed to America to work on promoting the sale of his forthcoming prints. At this stage the engraving by Müller was not progressing very fast. Trumbull tried to market his prints when he arrived and awaited proofs, which Poggi promised to send as soon as they were pulled, to show potential subscribers. In 1795, Trumbull visited Stuttgart and was satisfied with the progress Müller was making. Finally in July 1797, Trumbull heard from Müller that the plate was finished.

Shortly after that, the engraving of the “Death of Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec,” which had been assigned to other engravers, was also finished. Unfortunately, the sale of subscriptions for these prints did not go very well for Trumbull, covering only about three quarters of the cost of their production. This was likely primarily the result of the long delay between the original conception and its fruition, as by the end of the eighteenth century large patriotic engravings of the heroics of the Revolution were not in demand, as they likely would have been a decade earlier. The lack of financial success ended Trumbull’s plan to produce an entire series of engravings of the War of Independence.

Trumbull had, however, been working on a painting of the Declaration of Independence, for which he had spent much effort in making accurate likenesses of the participants. At the end of 1817, Trumbull decided to try again with the production of a print of this historical subject. Initially, he agreed to hire the English engraver James Heath, telling James Madison that he did not believe an American engraver had the experience or skill to produce a work of art of this magnitude. There was, however, something of an outcry about using a European engraver for this quintessential American subject, so Trumbull reconsidered and hired Asher B. Durand, the most accomplished American engraver of the period, to do the work.

The resulting print is a terrific example of both Trumbull’s art and Durand’s skill. However, Trumbull still had problems getting subscribers, even though he had already signed up the then four living Presidents—-Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. By the time the print was published in 1823, Trumbull had sold only about 275 subscriptions, just about breaking even.

These three prints, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Death of Montgomery, and Declaration of Independence, are among the most desirable American historical prints ever made. They are quite rare, but do come on the market from time to time. Because Trumbull's images are so iconographic, they have appeared in many other prints over the years, including some of considerable quality and some that are merely decorative. In the next blog I will talk about one print that is of particular interest and something of a puzzle.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Steel engravings: large, frameable prints

In the last blog we talked about steel-engraved illustrations. These small prints were issued in very large numbers, usually bound into a book or magazine. Today we’ll look at another group of steel-engraved print, ones at the other end of the size spectrum.

Beginning in the 1840s and lasting primarily into the 1870s, very large steel engravings were issued as separate prints by publishers, intended for people to frame and hang for display. These prints were very popular as decoration in that period and they would have hung in many middle and upper class homes, not to mention in well-heeled offices. Similarly to the small steel engravings, these prints were issued uncolored and would have been displayed as such.

We discussed the advantages of steel engraving in the previous blog and many of these advantages apply also to the large, frameable steel engravings. For instance, steel allowed for the printing of very large numbers of prints without wear. While the large steel engravings were not issued in anywhere near the number of impressions of the book illustrations, they were still run off in large numbers. Also, steel engraving allowed for very fine lines and many of these large prints have an impressive amount of close detail.

One benefit of steel engraving which did not apply to the book illustrations was that it made it practical for printmakers to create larger prints than one could do easily with copper. Many of the frameable steel engravings of the period are quite large, often ranging in the mid-20 inch high by upper-30 inch wide size.

The American Art Union and up-market publishers like Goupil & Co. did produce some lovely genre engraving in steel, but most of the large American, steel engravings had historical subjects. Images of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and other famous American figures appeared time and again. Because of the size, these prints tended not to be just individual portraits, but were scenes at court, cabinet meetings, or other large gatherings of individuals. Political or historical allegories were also popular, and a number of battle scenes likewise appeared in this format.

When issued, these prints were considered not simply to be decorative, but also enlightening and ennobling. They were generally of high quality both in artistic rendering and skillful engraving; “fine” art, not simply “popular” art. They were “serious” prints, intended not just to decorate, but also to educate and inspire. It is interesting that at the time these prints were issued, these steel engravings were more expensive than the similarly-sized hand-colored lithographs, whereas today the opposite is true.

Their popularity seems to have been greatest in the antebellum period, and while they were issued later in the century, other types of large prints overtook them in popularity. At first, large hand-colored lithographs began to appear in greater numbers and then later in the century, large -sized chromolithographs offered just as much wall coverage, but for less cost and with color.

There was something of a revival of interest in large uncolored prints in the 1880s and 90s, with the etching revival, but by the 20th century such art fell well out of favor. It is because of this that many of these wonderful, mid-nineteenth century steel engravings were subsequently colored by printsellers, so that many are found "colorized" today. However, I am pleased to report this is beginning to change. A growing awareness of the historic importance and the visual appeal of these striking black & white images has led to a return of the appreciation of these prints both as fine antiques and as unique art for the home or office.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Steel engravings: book illustrations

In earlier blogs I talked about different print processes, including those which fall into the category of intaglio prints, that is prints where the image is printed from a recessed design incised or etched into the surface of a plate. In an intaglio print the ink lies below the surface of the plate and is transferred to the paper under pressure. One of the most common types of intaglio print is an engraving, where the image was cut into the metal plate by use of a pointed tool called a graver or burin. Engraving was one of the first forms of print making, with the earliest engravings issued in the fifteenth century.

At first engravings were made from copper plates. Copper is quite malleable and so it was relatively easy to work the image into the plate with the burin and also not too difficult to flatten out the surface when a correction needed to be made. The problems for printmakers in using copper, however, were several. It was a relatively expensive metal, the softness of copper limited the fineness of line which could be achieved, the softness also limited the number of impressions which could be run off before the image quality deteriorated to an unacceptable extent, and there was a limit to how big a plate it was possible to use on a printing press.

All of these problems were solved when a process of working in steel was developed in the early nineteenth century. When compared to copper, steel was less expensive, a finer line could be achieved, huge numbers of impressions could be run off without loss of quality, and the stiffness of the plates allowed for much larger prints to be created. Steel, of course, had its own problems, the primary one being that it was difficult to work.

An American inventor, Jacob Perkins first developed a process of steel engraving for use in banknote printing. His process was a success and he was invited to England to help produce steel engraved banknotes in 1819. At the end of that year, Perkins, and his partner Gideon Fairman, were joined by Charles Heath, the Engraver to King George II. Heath, who was known for his engraved book illustrations, realized the potential of steel engraving, and in 1820 he produced the first steel engraved book plates for Thomas Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope.

Other engravers soon began to work in and make improvements in steel engraving, including Charles Warren, William Say, and John Thomas Lupton. In 1822, Lupton produced a mezzotint portrait of the comedian Joseph Munden on steel, for which he was awarded the Isis Gold Medal of the Society of Arts. The process which evolved was for the engraving to be made on a steel that had been annealed to soften it (creating what is called mild steel), and then subsequently the plate was rehardened so that prints could be run off in the thousands without wear. Improvements continued to be made, including the development of ruling machines which allowed for the mechanical production of fine lines over a large area of the plate.

The development of steel engraving was a positive boon for book publishers, for it allowed for book illustrations which could have fine detail and which could be run off in huge numbers. Within a few years, many publications began to appear with steel engraved illustrations, including histories, travel books, gift books and magazines.

Steel engraved book illustrations are probably the most ubiquitous type of antique print which people come across. Given the large number of books published with such prints and the huge runs of many of these books, there are thousands of these prints available on the market today. Some of the prints have a genre theme, but the ones which are particularly popular today tend to be the images of events (such as battle scenes), portraits (such as images of Presidents) and scenes of particular locations (such as the widely popular views by William Bartlett).

With their small size and large number printed these prints tend to be relatively inexpensive. To get an original view of your home town or a favorite vacation spot from the first half of the nineteenth century for around $100 is a wonderful thing. These prints make great decoration and gifts. Probably more of these prints are sold than of any other type of antique print (a previous blog discusses a steel engraving of the Bartlett waterworks scene, illustrated above, which we have sold more of over the years than any other print).

I'll conclude with a few comments on these steel engraved book illustrations. First there are a number of issues involved with the fact that these prints were for the most part originally published in books but are now being sold as separate prints. There is no question that many of the prints sold today were originally published in a bound book and this is a somewhat controversial issue (I will address the topic of “breaking books” in a future blog). However, it should also be noted that many old books have fallen apart on their own, some of the prints were originally issued in parts or fascicles (so that they were never actually bound into a book), and also that publishers did sometimes issue these prints as separate publications for framing.

Another issue concerning these steel engraved book plates is the question of color. With very few exceptions, these prints were issued uncolored. Many of the volumes included a good number of plates and each plate was run off in a very large number of impressions, so it would have been impractical for the publisher to have issued them colored. However, the majority of these plates that one finds for sale on the market are now colored. What gives?

Almost all of these prints have been colored by dealers in order to sell them. There is no question that these small engravings (particularly the views) sell much better when colored than in black & white as originally issued. Many are still being colored today, but this has been going on probably since the prints were first made. I did talk about coloring prints in another blog, and the issues are interesting, but here is a case where I do not have any problem at all with these prints being colored (as long as it is well done).

The prints were issued uncolored not because the printmaker thought they should be black & white, but because it was too costly to have them colored. It is important for historical reason, I think, that there be examples of these prints still in the volumes in their “original” state, so if there is a very rare volume it would not be good to have those prints removed and colored. However, for most of these steel engraved views (like those by Bartlett or from Picturesque America) there are plenty of complete sets in their original state so there doesn't seem to be a good reason they should not be colored if people prefer them that way.

There is one other situation in which I would rather prints not be colored, where they are part of a “collection.” Part of the point of a collection is to document the history of prints of a particular topic and part of that history is that some of the prints were issued uncolored. So, for instance, when I was working with Charles R. Penney on his collection of Niagara Falls prints, I made sure he had a set of the Bartlett views and those from Picturesque America in their “original” uncolored state.

Beyond that, however, I see no reason that most of these steel-engraved book illustrations shouldn’t be colored if people want them that way. I also see no reason people should want to have them colored for display in their homes. These prints really are lovely once colored and if appropriately colored, they do not, I think, lose any of their historic interest and content.