Friday, May 29, 2009

Ewell L. Newman Award

At the recently held American Historical Print Collectors Society (AHPCS) annual meeting in Portland, the 2009 winner of the Ewell L. Newman Award was announced and I am really pleased that the award went to Panorama of Pittsburgh, the book on 19th century printed views of the city which I authored.

The Ewell L. Newman Award has been awarded yearly since 1989 by the AHPCS in order to recognize and encourage outstanding publications enhancing appreciation of American prints before 1900. As described by the AHPCS:
Small and large works, those of narrow scope and those with broad general coverage are equally considered. Original research, fresh assessments, and the fluent synthesis of known material will all be taken into account. The emphasis is on quality and on making an outstanding contribution to the subject. Exhibition catalogues, monographs, articles, and works based on local sources are eligible.

Panorama of Pittsburgh served as the exhibition catalogue for an exhibit held at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh from June to October, 2008. This was the most comprehensive exhibit of printed views of Pittsburgh ever produced and it was selected as one of the best 2008 exhibitions in Pittsburgh by both major city newspapers.

The catalogue, Panorama of Pittsburgh contains color images of all the items in the exhibit, and the thematic essay begins with images of Pittsburgh before the fire of 1845 and progresses through views from books and magazines, prints documenting events, illustrated newspapers, frameable views, advertising, music sheets, and other types of prints.

This book, however, was intended not just as an exhibition catalogue, but also as a long-term reference on nineteenth-century views of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh printmakers. Thus is provides background information on the most prominent Pittsburgh-based printmakers, a list of Pittsburgh printmakers assembled from period sources and the most encyclopedic list of nineteenth-century prints of the city that has ever been assembled. The Frick produced a beautiful catalogue, the form wonderfully complementing the content. I was very pleased with how it came out and I am also, obviously, delighted that it won the Newman Award.

The past winners of the award make an impressive list, including significant books on many different topics. Among the references on historical prints are Sherry Fowble's Two Centuries of Prints in America, Gloria G. Deak's Picturing America, Bernard Reilly's American Political Prints, 1766-1876, Noble E. Cunningham's Popular Images of the Presidency , and Mark Neely and Harold Holzer's The Union Image: Popular Prints of the Civil War North.

References on American views are equally well represented, including Ron Tyler's Prints of the West , Sue Rainey's Creating Picturesque America, and John Rep's St. Louis Illustrated and John Casper Wild . These are only some of the excellent books which have won the award, providing very good company for Panorama of Pittsburgh.

Call for entries: The AHPCS is always looking for submissions for the Newman award. Publications remain eligible for a period of roughly two years after they first appear. Once a work has been passed on by the Jury it will not be considered again except in a substantially revised edition. Jurors include collectors, authors, and scholars, of American historical prints. To submit a book to the Jury for consideration, please mail to the Jury chairperson at: Cottonwood Press Books, Attn. William Huntington, P.O. Box 24337, Omaha, NE 68124.

N.B. In this blog I use this symbol [] to indicate that the Philadelphia Print Shop sells a particular reference work mentioned. Just click on the symbol to go to our listing of that book.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Views of Philadelphia Exhibition

Philadelphia is the home of a number of important print collections, and none are of more significance than that at the Library Company of Philadelphia. This venerable institution, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 "for the advancement of Knowledge and Literature," is the home of an extensive collection of prints, with a particular strength in images of Philadelphia. Recently, that collection became even stronger when the Library Company acquired 31 lots from the Jay T. Snider Collection auction, including some important Philadelphia views. On May 4th, the Library Company opened an exhibition to highlight these acquisitions, Mirror of a City: Views of Philadelphia Recently Acquired from the Jay T. Snider Collection.

Jay Snider's collection of Philadelphia related material was sold at auction in November 2008, with 375 lots that ranged over the whole history of the city, from its founding in the late seventeenth century to the Centennial and its burgeoning industry in the late nineteenth century. Many of the most important and rarest Philadelphia views, maps, documents and books appeared in this auction, and the Library Company--in part through the generosity of Mr. Snider--was able to acquire some wonderful items to fill in to their already extensive collection.

The exhibition, Mirror of a City was organized by Curator of Prints and Photographs Sarah Weatherwax and Assistant Curator Erika Piola. It will include prints, maps and original artwork from the Snider Collection, as well as complimentary items that were already in the collection.

The exhibition will run through Septembe 4th in the gallery at the Library Company, located at 1314 Locust Street in Philadelphia. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.. The exhibition is free and open to the public. More information can be found on the Library Company's web site.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Amon Carter Museum

All of my academic and professional life I have lived in the northeastern part of the United States. This region is the location of many of the finest print collections in the country, however, there are some institutions elsewhere which house print collections of the first rank. One of these is the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

This museum is the legacy of Amon G. Carter, Sr. (1879-1955), who left instructions for his heirs to establish a museum to house his collection of paintings and sculpture by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, as well as to collect, preserve, and exhibit the finest examples of American art; as well as to foster the study of and increase awareness of American art. The museum was opened in 1961 in a building designed by Philip Johnson, who also designed the 2001 expansion to the museum.

The first director of the Amon Carter was Mitchell A. Wilder, who saw as one of his primary goals to correct the lack of scholarly information about American art, especially Western American art. Towards that end, the Amon Carter held exhibitions, with scholarly catalogues, on Remington, Russell, Peter Rindisbacker, Albert Bierstadt, Paul Kane and others. The museum continues in that educational tradition to today, and has held many impressive exhibitions accompanied by scholarly catalogues. [Click here to see list of Amon Carter exhibitions]

In terms of its holdings, the museum has collected a wide range of American art with the intention of putting the original Remington and Russell items into their proper context. The Amon Carter’s collections embrace American art from the early nineteenth century until the 1960s, including paintings and sculpture, with a particular strength in Remington and Russell, as well as other artists of the American west. Also in the museum a huge collection (hundreds of thousands of objects) of photographic prints, negatives, etc., which covers from the beginning of the medium to the present day.

And, of course, the Amon Carter houses a superb collection of art on paper, including watercolor and drawings (many by early American explorer-artists), and more than 5,700 prints. The print collection has an extensive selection of twentieth century art, with complete sets of prints by George Bellows and Stuart Davis, as well a strong collection of prints from the artists of the Fort Worth circle (1940s and 1950s) and the Tamarind Institute.

In terms of “antique prints,” the museum’s collection related to “Western Americana” is as good as any in the country. Included are prints from all the major series of Indian portraits (Bodmer, Catlin, McKenney & Hall, J.O. Lewis), as well as prints from major explorations, and landscapes and genre scenes of the American West, including bird’s eye views. Such views of Texas locations is the subject of a wonderful, on-line exhibition. While this is probably the Amon Carter’s particular strength in terms of antique prints, it has many others, including prints by John James Audubon, American historical prints, a terrific collection of Currier & Ives prints, and views of other parts of the country (for instance a set of the Hudson River Portfolio)

The Amon Carter’s collections are accessible to some extent through their web site (such as the Texas views exhibit), in their regular exhibitions, through their many scholarly catalogues, and for researchers who can view prints in person with an appointment. The prints collection continues to grow through acquisitions and through gifts, especially via the Amon Carter Print Guild support group. There is a dedicated area of the museum for print exhibits and an exhibition of the museum’s antique Western American prints will open this autumn. Given the quality of the collections and the history of excellence from the Amon Carter, this exhibition should be well worth seeing!

Coming soon, a profile of the director of the Amon Carter, print expert Ron Tyler…

Lithographic prints

In previous blogs, I talked about two types of original prints, relief prints and intaglio prints. Today I'll talk about the third major type of original print, planographic prints.

Whereas a relief print has its image printed from a raised surface, and an intaglio print has its image printed from a recessed image, a planographic print has its image printed from a flat surface. Because the matrix is not physically modified to hold the ink, the process depends upon a chemical reaction. For antique prints, the only planographic original prints are lithographs.

A lithograph is created by drawing an image onto a stone (lithography = “stone-drawing”) or metal plate using a grease crayon or a greasy ink called tusche. The process is based on the principle that grease and water do not mix. To create a lithograph, the stone or plate is washed with water--which is repelled by the crayon--and then with ink--which is absorbed by the crayon. The image is printed onto the paper from the stone or plate, which can be re-inked many times without wear.

As the process is planographic, no platemark is created when a lithograph is printed. While zinc plates were used late in the nineteenth century, most antique lithographs are printed from Bavarian limestone (other types of limestone were tried, but that from Bavaria works the best). The tuche holds to the stone in a pattern that follows the grain of the stone, so an examination of a lithographic image under magnification shows that stone grain (this is the way one can distinguish an original lithograph from a collotype, which is a planographic process but shows the pattern of the photographic gelatin used to create the image).

Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798 but didn’t come into general use until the 1820s. After that time lithography quickly replaced intaglio processes for most illustrative and commercial applications, for the design was easier to apply to the stone or plate, it was much easier to rework or correct a design, and many more images could be produced without loss of quality than in any of the intaglio processes.

Most lithographs are printed with a black or sepia ink, and many were issued that are hand colored. A tinted lithograph is a lithograph whose image is printed from one stone and which has wash color for tinting applied from one or two other stones. Sometimes, hand highlight color is added to a tinted lithograph. A chromolithograph is a colored lithograph, with at least three colors, in which each color is printed from a separate stone and where the image is composed from those colors. I'll post a blog specifically on chromolithographs in the near future.

(Feel free to browse here for more information on Famous Lithographers)

Friday, May 22, 2009

American Art Union

In the future I will be posting blogs on current print organizations, but this blog concerns a group that disappeared over a century and a half ago...

The American Art Union (1839-1851) was an organization created to support contemporary American art and to develop a popular appreciation of it by the American middle class. In 1838, James Herring opened his Apollo Gallery in New York City, as a venue for the display and sale of American art. Herring felt that American pubic needed to be exposed to and enlightened about American art, both for their personal and social improvement, but also to support struggling American artists. Hearing of the Edinburgh Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts, as well as other art unions that had been formed in Europe earlier in the decade, in 1839 Herring decided to form an art union, which he named the “Apollo Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in the United States.” It was renamed the following year as the American Art Union.

Similarly to the European art unions, individuals could join the AAU for a small membership fee, and these funds were used to purchase and commission original paintings from American artists, as well as to produce engravings from these works to be distributed to the membership. Members were entitled to receive an annual members’ engravings, as well as a chance in a lottery of paintings and prints purchased by the AAU for this purpose. The association also held a continuing exhibit of American art at its “perpetual free gallery.” While the union had a rocky start, it expanded greatly, increasing to almost 19,000 subscribers in 1849. However, within two years it was forced to fold.

The AAU is best known today for the thirty-six engravings it published based on the paintings of some of the most luminous names in American art, e.g. George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Cole, F.O.C. Darley, Asher B. Durand, and William Sidney Mount. The association is especially important for the seminal role it played in stimulating American art and for spreading an awareness of this art throughout the country. With its gallery and thousands of subscribers, the AAU probably had more to do than any other force with the success of many of America’s nineteenth century artists and the popularization of their work. The legacy of the American Art Union is immense and its prints are an important part of that.

John Blake White. "Gen. Marion in his swamp encampment inviting a British Officer to dinner." 1840. 16 5/8 x 20 3/8. Mezzotint by John Sartain. The first of the annual subscription prints, issued when the organization was still the Apollo Association. The "Swamp Fox" extends courtesy to an enemy officer.

Richard Caton Woodville. "Mexican News." 1851. 20 1/x x 18 1/2. Engraving by Alfred Jones. Woodville has captured a scene of American life, as news of the Mexican war is read to townsfolk on the porch of a hotel.

William Sidney Mount. "Bargaining for a Horse." 1851. 7 3/4 x 10. Engraving by Charles Burt. The AAU's version of Mount's famous barnyard scene, also issued as a lithograph, "Coming to the Point," four years later.

George Caleb Bingham. “The Jolly Flat Boat Men.” 1852. 18 1/2 x 24. Mixed engraving by T. Doney. Probably the most famous engraving issued by the AAU, this is a superb example of the work of Bingham, whose genre scenes present a quintessential picture of American life in the nineteenth century.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wendy Jane Shadwell

In this blog I will, from time to time, profile various influential people involved with antique prints. Most will be living individuals, but in light of the recent announcement of a bequest made at the American Historical Print Collectors Society (AHPCS), this profile is of a wonderful person no long with us.

The print world lost a good friend and eminent scholar when Wendy Shadwell died after a long battle with cancer on October 23, 2007. However, her influential legacy continues through her extensive writings, many friends, and her generous gift to the AHPCS.

Wendy received her BA with honors from the University of Mary Washington in 1963, followed by graduate studies in art history at Columbia. After this, Wendy became the curator for J. William Middendorf’s important collection of art, which included many American historical prints. Later Wendy moved on to the New York Historical Society, where she became curator of prints from 1974 until her retirement in 2002. The NYHS’s collection of prints, photographs, drawings and ephemera, numbering approximately three million items, is one of the most significant such collections in the country and it was well looked after, catalogued and augmented by Wendy.

Wendy believed strongly in spreading the word about antique prints and she wrote extensively on the subject. Among her publications was the influential book, American Printmaking: The First 150 Years, featuring the prints from the Middendorf collection, as well as numerous articles in scholarly publications, including many in the AHPCS journal, Imprint. Over the years, Wendy lectured extensively on antique prints and also brought historical prints to the notice of the public by curating many exhibitions of the NYHS’s holdings.

She was a member of a number of professional organizations, including the Print Council of America and the AHPCS, where she served for many years as board member and president from 1998 to 2001. Wendy felt a strong attachment to the AHPCS, which shared her goals of the study of historical prints and helping to spread knowledge on the topic to scholars and the general public. It was to help achieve those ends that Wendy Shadwell left an incredibly generous bequest to the AHPCS, which has received $175,000 (!) from her estate. The AHPCS board will be carefully studying how to use these funds to achieve the goals shared by the organization and Wendy, and to honor her memory. Wendy was a friend and scholar who graced the world of prints for many years; her legacy will be with us in our memories, her writings, and now through the ability of the AHPCS to use her bequest to help spread the gospel.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I watched "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" last night and was pleased to see quite a number of antique prints hanging in various rooms. The prints were all used, I think, appropriately for what would likely have appeared on walls in the periods depicted. There were some nice (though probably acidic) etching revival, landscape prints hanging on the wall of one of the guest rooms in New Orleans. Also a striking Piranesi print hanging in the Mr. Button's office. Finally, a colorful Gould hummingbird print actually had symbolic meaning in the movie. It appears in a hotel room scene and it visually references the story of the hummingbird that the tugboat captain (who just previously had died) had told in the bar in Moscow. A live hummingbird appears a couple of other times, but here the director used an antique print to carry on the theme. All the prints in the movie did look to be originals, which is not always the case....

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

AHPCS 2009 annual conference

I have just returned from Portland, Oregon, where I attended an excellent conference for the American Historical Print Collectors Society (AHPCS). About 60 members came from all over the US and Canada and enjoyed three days of informative talks, enjoyable tours and beautiful weather.

Naturally, the conference included talks on the theme of western prints. Doug Erickson, from Lewis and Clark College, discussed the artistic and cultural legacy of the Lewis and Clark expedition and Georgia Barnhill, from the American Antiquarian Society, highlighted the superb but often overlooked prints by Capt. Henry Warre. Portland dealer Elisabeth Burdon opened many eyes with her survey of the West Shore Magazine, a rare illustrated magazine published in Portland that included many interesting views of the region. I have always advocated the significance of nineteenth century magazine illustrations, and here was an important periodical about which I had previously known nothing. [click here to read more about this magazine ]

The western theme continued for the lectures on the second day, with Ron Tyler’s overview of prints of the American West. Ron is the director of the Amon Carter Museum, which has one of the country's best collections of western art (watch for a forthcoming blog on the museum’s print collections). Ron is also the author of Prints of the West, the best general reference on the topic. Despite having read that book several times, as usual I still learned a few new things from Ron. I was completely unfamiliar with the other topic, which was Carleton Watkins’ fabulous nineteenth century photographs of the Columbia River gorge. The talk was by John Laursen, coauthor on the beautiful book Wild Beauty illustrating these and other photographs of the Columbia River.

Speaking of the Columbia River gorge, we had a wonderful day trip by bus up the gorge on Saturday, with a erudite and witty tour guide, Roger Wendlick, who also treated us to an interesting talk on the camp sites of Lewis & Clark (many of which he pointed out on our trip up the river). Other interesting and fun activities at the conference included a panel discussion on conservation and framing of prints and visits to the Multnomah County Library (home of a complete, first edition Audubon Birds of America), the Oregon Historical Society and the Gilkey Center for Graphic Arts of the Portland Art Museum. There was also plenty of time for socializing with other members of the AHPCS (a varied, knowledgeable and enthusiastic group), including a print show & tell and the annual auction to raise funds for the AHPCS.

I will mention three other items of note, all of which I will expand on in future blogs. First, my book on nineteenth century printed views of Pittsburgh, Panorama of Pittsburgh, was selected for the Newman Book Award, given each year to the outstanding print reference chosen by the AHPCS. The timing on this is good, for the announcement was made that the next AHPCS conference will be in Pittsburgh in May 2010 (I’ll be giving a talk on prints of Pittsburgh at that conference). Finally, it was announced that former President Wendy Shadwell had left in her will a substantial legacy to the AHPCS. The organization has already received $175,000 from Wendy’s estate and the board will be considering over the next year how best to use these funds to honor Wendy and her wishes. More anon…

Friday, May 15, 2009

Two case studies related to the scarcity of prints

A previous post discussed the issue of how scarce antique prints are and how that affects value. Here are two interesting case studies which should help flesh out that discussion.

John Vanderlyn’s prints of Niagara Falls.

1n 1804, John Vanderlyn produced two large views of Niagara Falls. These prints were hand-colored aquatints superbly crafted in London. Their quality is first rate and they would have been fairly pricey at the time, aimed at market of wealthy art buyers. The expensive process of production, the ease of wear of an aquatint plate, and the limited number of potential wealthy buyers with an interest in Niagara Falls would all support the notion that only a small number would have been printed originally. I can only guess at how many, but I would think a number in the low hundreds would be reasonable.

This small number of originally produced Vanderlyn prints would have been reduced even further over the years by the exigencies of life affecting large, separately issued prints. Some would have been torn or mishandled and many that were framed would have been severely damaged or destroyed by the framing environment. One mitigating factor that probably means that the percentage destroyed might not be as high as with some other prints is the fact that these prints were expensive at the time and so would likely have been treasured and treated with care. Still, starting with a small pool of impressions and factoring in the inevitable attrition of such large, separately issued prints over time, we are left with the conclusion that it is likely that not many of these fine prints are still in existence.

In 1993 I curated an exhibition of the Charles Rand Penney Collection of prints of Niagara Falls at the Castellani Art Museum and authored a related collection catalogue. This was the culmination of over a decade of collaboration with Mr. Penney where we worked to make his the finest collection of printed views of Niagara Falls in existence. From the beginning I had looked for a pair of the Vanderlyn prints for Mr. Penney, as they would be one of the stars of the collection, but I had always understood that these prints were very, very rare and so I somewhat despaired of ever obtaining any.

Eventually, I was able to find a pair of these prints for the collection. The problem was that at some point in the past the pair had been torn neatly in half; however, we were able to join them and return them to an appearance that was quite good. (Click here to see image of one of these prints) I wanted a better pair in the collection, but given what I had read about the scarcity of these prints I thought we were lucky to find a nice looking, though damaged, pair. For instance, John Davis Hatch wrote an article on these prints in The Magazine Antiques (“John Vander Lyn’s Prints of Niagara Falls,” December 1990). He had systematically searched public and institutional collections in the United States and Europe and had found a total of only seventeenth impressions between the two prints.

Life often surprises us and within about a year of the acquisition of the pair of damaged prints, I came across another perfect pair of the prints as well as a single impression of the “View of the Western Branch.” So at one time in our shop we had five examples of what was supposed to be very, very rare prints, with only seventeen previously known examples, and none of those five was included in the seventeen cataloged examples. So, within one year I had increased the known number of recorded Vanderlyn prints of Niagara Falls by almost 30%. It is still clear that the Vanderlyn prints are very rare (we have found only one other copy in the subsequent 15 years), but this does show that one should always take any statement about how scarce a print is with a grain of salt.

Palmatary view of Pittsburgh

The other case study teaches a different lesson about scarcity, viz. that the scarcity of a print cannot be taken to prove too much. This example involves a very large-scale print of Pittsburgh by James T. Palmatary. Palmatary was one of the itinerant printmakers who traveled around the country in the second half of the nineteenth century making large views of American towns and cities. Palmatary’s work is unusual in that many of his views were exceptionally large, a number printed on multiple sheets including a view of St. Louis that measures 54 by 93 inches. One of Palmatary's views was a multi-sheet view of Pittsburgh produced in 1859 and measuring 43 by 85 inches, a view unknown to exist until it was recently discovered by Pittsburgh scholar Bruce Wolf.

Palmatary's 'Birds-Eye View of Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Birmingham,….' is a magnificent and imposing print, the largest and only multi-sheet view of Pittsburgh. As promised in a newspaper announcement, the print "exhibit[s] to the eye every street, square and lane in the two cities and boroughs, with a correct and life like drawing of every public buildings, store, manufactory and private dwelling." This print was too large for framing, so instead it was issued in a format similar to the wall maps common in the middle of the nineteenth century. Typically the print would have been backed onto linen, the surface varnished for protection, and then the view mounted on rollers so that it could be easily hung. Palmatary intended to market this print primarily to businesses in the Pittsburgh region. As one Pittsburgh paper stated, “This view will supply a want long felt by the business community…” and the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette stated “This splendid work in the form of a map, mounted on rollers, sells for the small sum of $10, and will be a sine qua non in every counting house in the city.”

One of the especial features of this view is that the size and elevated viewpoint allowed many businesses to be identified with signs on their buildings. The print “will give a correct and life-like sketch of every public building, store, manufactory and private dwelling house, prepared from drawings taken on the spot, and so true to nature that the stores or dwellings in any particular locality may be recognized at a single glance, and even the signs of business houses distinctly read.” It would thus be “a perpetual advertisement of many of the chief places of business in the city…” Palmatary would have used this advertising angle to sell his print to the businesses so identified, and indeed it was reported that the print “has received a very flattering encouragement from the business community.”

There is only one known example of Palmatary's view, the one just recently discovered, and though there may be one or two others in existence, and perhaps some incomplete copies, it is obviously a very, very rare print. This, however, does not necessarily mean that not many were produced, as has been suggested by a number of authors. When the advertisements came out initially, Palmatary announced that he intended to print 600 copies of the view, 400 of which were to be sold by subscription. While he might not have been able to sell that many subscriptions, Palmatary probably would not have finished the project had his sales not been reasonably robust.

Almost all of Palmatary’s very large views, such as Chicago, St. Louis and Louisville, survive in only one or two known examples despite the fact that he must have sold enough prints to have stayed in business for so many years. These prints, including the Pittsburgh view, were too large to put in a frame and the examples backed on linen and mounted on rollers, like with the comparable wall maps of the period, would have had a very low survival rate. It would seem not unlikely that many of the businesses documented in the Pittsburgh print at one time had Palmatary’s view hanging in their shop, factory or offices, but that almost all of these prints have since suffered the fate of most paper items left unprotected over the decades. Indeed, Palmatary claimed to have made over 60 urban views, but only about a third of that number are recorded.

The lesson we can draw from this, like in the first case study, is that what we know about the apparent scarcity of a nineteenth century print can tell us only so much. Not only might there be a good number of other examples of the print in question that could turn up at any time, but even if not, we still have to be careful in drawing too wide a conclusion for the apparent scarcity of any nineteenth century print.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why collect antique prints?

In a series of earlier blogs, I have discussed what is involved in collecting antique prints. Today I will consider why one would want to collect antique prints. What is it that makes antique prints special and worth collectiong? Any collector has his or her own explanation of how he or she began to collect, and there are as many reasons for collecting as there are subjects depicted. There are, however, some general characteristics of antique prints which make them particularly splendid for collecting.

Images of birds, fruit and flowers, country and city scenes, wild animals, pretty women, handsome men, colorful Indians and so on have always been popular as decorative pieces for displaying in the home or work place. Many are drawn and produced with great artistic skill, and many are beautifully colored. The wide variety of types of prints produced means that whatever one's aesthetic taste, there are likely to be some antique prints which can be enjoyed as decorative art.

Antique prints are easy to display and to store. They come in all price ranges and for the most part are affordable and a very good value. Considering their age, scarcity, historical context, quality, and attractiveness, most antique print prices are surprisingly modest. For almost no other type of antique can one find objects as old, in as good condition, as attractive, and produced by artists as prominent for such moderate prices. And while it is not generally a good idea to consider antique prints primarily as investments (go to blog on this subject), they are antiques and will only become scarcer and more sought after as time goes on. It therefore seems likely that most antique prints will retain or increase their value over time, which cannot be said for most modern art pieces.

The most distinctive aspect of these prints is their historical character and content. The subjects represented in antique prints are almost infinitely varied. Many different types of prints are available to collect, whatever one’s interest. From birds of Southeast Asia to the Prussian military, from glass blowing to Abraham Lincoln, from European composers of the nineteenth century to women’s status in eighteenth century American society, there is a vast array of subject matter around which a collection can be built. In addition to this variety, antique prints provide us with a direct link to the past. As most antique prints depict topics contemporaneous with their publication, they portray these topics not as modern historians depict them, but from the vantage point of contemporary observers. A glorifying image of George Washington, a cutting satire of King George, a lovingly depicted home scene, all express the attitudes and understanding of the printmakers and buyers of their day, giving us a privileged look at the world through the eyes of the past.

While providing modern viewers with a window to the past, antique prints were also an integral part of their own time. Prints, with their multiple copies, usually had substantially more influence in their day than did contemporaneous drawings and paintings, all of which are unique pictures. Only a limited number of viewers could see a single painting or drawing, whereas most historical prints were disseminated extensively to the general public. Indeed, general dissemination was often the raison d’être of these prints. Like books, they would have had significant impact on their time. Some examples of this effect are obvious--ornithological prints studied by natural scientists in Europe and America, maps used by politicians, generals, and travelers, and Thomas Nast prints helping to bring down the Boss Tweed machine–-but all antique prints were to some extent influential in the overall social, political, and intellectual fabric of their time.

Antique prints are wonderful objects to collect. These precious artifacts of our past are historic, decorative, easy to handle, moderately priced, and of almost infinite variety. One can derive many years of pleasure, as well as build an interesting and valuable collection, through the pursuit of antique prints.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Collecting Antique Prints; part 4

A collector can be distinguished from an acquirer by the approach he or she takes to collecting. There are three components to a collector’s approach: criteria, knowledge, and preservation. In a series of earlier blogs I discussed the various criteria that a collector needs to develop and today I will look at the last two components of a collector's approach.


Collectors must be able to knowledgeably apply the criteria established for their collections. One cannot be considered a serious collector unless a substantial effort is made to acquire knowledge of the prints being collected. The collector must understand the nature of his or her collection, of the potential group of prints which fall within the scope of the collection, and of particular prints within that group. Knowledge of the history and arts of the era when the prints were published also adds greatly to the understanding and enjoyment of the collection.

The beginning collector should develop considered answers to these questions: Why am I collecting–-for profit, for scholarship, for fun, to develop a collection for posterity, or for some other reason? What sort of collection do I envision–-one that is for display, that is comprehensive, that contains highlights within a certain theme, or some other type of collection? What theme will I use, and what are the elements of that theme? With the answers to these questions, the collector must decide what criteria are appropriate to his or her collection, and how rigorously to apply them.

A collector needs to have knowledge of the kinds of prints which fall within the scope of his or her theme. Only by having some knowledge about the universe of appropriate prints can a collector know which should be chosen for significance or scarcity and which are marginal to the collection. A collector also needs to know what he or she is seeing when presented with a particular print. Is it an original, a restrike or a reproduction? Is it in good condition, relative to what can be expected for this type of print? Is the color original, or added later? These questions can be answered by a knowledgeable and honest dealer, but there are likely to be many cases when the collector will come across a print and no assistance is available. A collector should try to gain as much practical knowledge about individual prints as possible so to be able to answer these questions independently.

There are many different sources of information for the collector of historical prints. Primary research, using prints in one’s own collection and in public collections, is an excellent way to gain knowledge, but this can be difficult for the private collector. More convenient sources of information are public exhibitions, seminars, lectures on relevant topics, and collecting organizations. Reputable print dealers can also be a significant source of information for collectors. Most print dealers allow browsing through their inventory and are pleased to discuss topics related to antique prints. Finally, there is a growing number of good reference books about historical prints available through print dealers and in libraries, though many specific subjects have not yet been covered.


Along with an effort to gain knowledge and apply relevant criteria appropriately, a collector must be concerned about the preservation of items in his or her collection. Antique prints must be treated as valuable artifacts, physical vestiges of history of which we are as much care-takers as owners. Paper artifacts are fragile and susceptible to a myriad of destructive forces; considerable thought and effort should be dedicated to their preservation. A collector should have restored any prints which are in need. The prints should be stored and displayed in a manner which meets minimum conservation standards, and injurious atmospheric conditions and ultra-violet light should be avoided as much as possible. (To read more about the preservation of antique prints, see previous blog)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Intaglio prints: part 2

In a previous blog, I described the most common types of intaglio prints, engravings and etchings. Today I'll describe three more intaglio print types: aquatints, stipples, and mezzotints.


An aquatint is created by etching sections (rather than lines) of a plate in order to create areas of uniform tone. An aquatint is prepared by applying resin or a similar ground to a metal plate, which is then heated, thus adhering the ground to the metal. This gives a roughness or grain to the plate which adds texture to the image. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which bites or etches the plate and creates areas which will hold the ink. The design is created with gradations of tone achieved through repeated acid baths combined with varnish used to stop out areas of lighter tone. Aquatint is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. Aquatinting, with its areas of tone, was often used to duplicate the feel of a watercolor. Some etching was frequently used in an aquatint print to create linear elements in the image. Aquatints were invented by Jean Baptiste Le Prince around 1768, but became especially popular among British printmakers in the first part of the nineteenth century.


A stipple print is created from a metal plate upon which the design has been produced using different sized small dots grouped more or less closely together in order to create areas of tone. A stipple etching is made in the same manner as a line etching, except that the design is composed in the waxy ground with dots created by an etching needle or some other tool. A stipple engraving is created in the same manner as a line engraving, except the design is engraved into the plate using dots made with a stippling burin. Stipple is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. Stipple was used occasionally as early as the fifteenth century, but became popular in the last decade of the eighteenth century.


Mezzotint can be thought of as the inverse of the other intaglio processes, for a mezzotint design is created working from black to white, rather than vice versa. In a mezzotint the metal plate is worked using a rocker, which roughens the entire surface of the plate with tiny holes and burrs. If the plate were printed at this time the image would be completely velvet black. Areas that are to appear in lighter tones or in white are smoothed out on the surface so that they will hold less ink. Mezzotint is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. The mezzotint process makes a very richly textured image and was used particularly for portraits. Mezzotint was invented by a German soldier named Ludwig von Siegen around 1642 but was refined later in that century by Abraham Blooteling. Used primarily in the eighteenth century, it was especially popular in England and was often called la manière anglaise.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Clues for identifying new color on old prints

1. Is the color appropriate to the period and publisher?

Most prints are colored in a typical manner compared to other prints from the same series, by the same publisher or from the same time period. While some prints were colored in an atypical manner at the time of publication, inappropriate color is an initial clue that the color is not original.

2. Is the color skillful and of professional quality?

As most original color was applied by skilled illuminators who made their living coloring prints, the general quality of original color is quite high. Sloppy coloring or coloring inappropriate to the information on the prints are both clues indicating that the color is not original. Many prints colored recently are beautifully and appropriately colored, and some original color is maladroit, but in general a print with poorly done color is likely not to have original color.

3. Does the color bleed through to the verso of the print?

Prints with new color were sometimes inadequately sized, so that the color bleeds through to the back of the paper. This rarely happened to prints with original color.

4. Is there evidence of color being applied after restoration?

If a print has been cleaned, it will often lose any original color it had, especially certain fugitive shades like red. If a print shows evidence of having been cleaned-–whiteness of paper or a chemical smell-–then there is a good chance the color has been added or enhanced after that restoration. If color is applied on top of repaired tears or holes, this is a clear indication that the color is new.

5. Does the print have gum arabic?

Gum arabic is a gummy substance often used in conjunction with hand coloring in order to add depth or texture to the image. This was only used on some antique prints, and even sometimes it will be missing from some examples of prints with original color where other examples from the same series will have it, so the absence of gum arabic does not mean a lot. Also, modern colorists know that collectors often look for gum arabic, so it is sometimes added to prints with new color. All this means that the presence or absence of gum arabic is definitely not conclusive on the issue of original color, but its presence can be a clue that the color is might be original.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The color of old prints

Many antique prints were initially issued with color, but many have been colored subsequent to their original publication. How does one distinguish between original color and new color? Does it matter? Here is brief guide to what you should know about the color of old prints.


Prints have been issued with color ever since they first appeared. Color was used for two main purposes; decoration and information. Generally, color made prints more attractive, which was an aid in selling as well as an end in itself. Color also served the function of conveying information, for instance for identification of species in botanical and ornithological prints.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the application of color was almost always done by hand. There were some examples of printed color before 1800, where, say, multiple wood blocks were used, each inked with a different color, but on the whole, early woodcuts and engravings, when issued with color, were watercolored by hand.

For the most part (and excluding many fine art prints), color made prints more desirable, but the expense of labor and materials made colored prints more costly to produce. Thus some series of prints were issued by publishers uncolored simply as a matter of economics. Also, other series of prints were issued in both uncolored and colored versions, with the latter selling for a premium.

Sometimes a purchaser might hire an independent colorist to embellish a print issued in black & white. Also, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coloring of prints became a popular pastime for cultured amateurs, with instructions printed in helpful guides for young men and women. The coloring of prints was also part of the standard education for aspiring artists. In this time period, many bookshops, framers, and printsellers kept a stock of uncolored prints and coloring materials specifically for this purpose.

Beginning in the late eighteenth and then increasingly in the nineteenth century, more and more prints were issued in color. Print publishers developed efficient procedures for hand coloring prints, adding only a small amount to the cost of production. Also, new processes of printing with color were developed, especially chromolithography which appeared around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Original Color

Strictly speaking, original color is color added to a print at the time of its publication, by or under the direction of the print publisher. However, in the broader sense implied by the alternative terms “contemporary color” and “period color,” the concept encompasses color added by the original print seller or by the initial purchaser, either by hiring a professional colorist or adding his own color.

New color is that which is added to a print after publication. Most new color was added to prints originally issued in black & white, but some was applied to prints which already had original color. This was done either for the purpose of enhancing limited or pale color, or in order to replace original color which was washed out or faded. New color has been added by owners, by professional illuminators, and by dealers. New color has been added in order to enhance decorative appearance, for the pleasure of coloring, to replace lost original color, and for increased saleability.

The first issue which a purchaser faces is how to tell the difference between original and new color. The most important way to do this is to learn about the history of the print in question. Some series of prints (such as Hogarth’s engravings) were never issued with color and some series (such as Audubon’s quadruped prints) were always issued with color. It is possible for a print to have become faded and subsequently recolored, but for many prints, a knowledge of the history of the series in question can provide an easy answer to the question of the authenticity of their color.

The problem comes with prints that were sometimes issued colored and sometimes uncolored (and there are many of these). There one needs to fall back on experience. Different types of prints and prints from different periods each tend to exhibit a typical style of color and often new color is not done in the original style. Thus a familiarity with what original color looks like for a particular series of prints can provide a determination for a particular example in question.

Modern colorist-—sometimes in an attempt to be authentic but also sometimes in an attempt to deceive-—have become proficient at coloring prints to look the same as original colored ones. As print collectors becomes more sophisticated, they are becoming more familiar with what original color looks like, so those coloring a print now take special care to do so “authentically.” This sometimes includes even the application of gum arabic (a gummy substance used in conjunction with hand coloring in order to add depth/texture to the image), the presence of which is often incorrectly thought to be proof of original color.

The Hue Over New Color

There is universal agreement that prints with original color are more desirable than prints with new color, but there is considerable disagreement concerning the relative desirability of uncolored prints compared to prints with new color. If a series of prints was never issued with color, should a collector eschew any that are now colored? If a series of prints was issued both with color and without, how much does it matter that a print originally issued uncolored is now colored, especially if done to match those which were issued with color? Is it better to have a print with poorly done or faded original color or one with attractive and appropriate new color? Are there any types of prints on which color of any sort is inappropriate? In order to clarify the issues involved, it helps to break them down into four general types: financial, historical, aesthetic, and collecting.

Financial Issues

The financial issues raised by new color are not greatly problematic. Well-done color, whether original or new, almost always increases and certainly does not diminish the value of a print. Original color carries a premium over new color, sometimes significantly so, but while some buyers will not knowingly purchase prints with new color, nonetheless these prints are generally easier to sell than uncolored prints, even at higher prices. A purchaser should be careful to acquire only prints with “good” color, for poorly done or inappropriate color can detract from the value of a print, but assuming good quality and appropriateness, a buyer is financially safe in purchasing a print with new color.

Historical Issues

There are powerful historical arguments against adding color to prints after publication. Antique prints are historic artifacts, surviving documents from our history. One can argue that we should be caretakers of our past and should treat its artifacts with respect, preserving them in as close to their original form as possible rather than modifying them to suit our purposes. Professional curators and historians are usually amenable to some restoration and to minor, reversible modifications of original state, but adding color to a print is a major, irreversible change to original condition, and as such, it is argued, should never be done.

It can also be argued that the publisher of a print made an intentional decision about whether or not to add color, and if color was added, about how it was to be applied. If we add new color to a print, we are subverting the original intent of the publisher and seriously distorting the historic meaning of that print. Original color not only provides us with specific, intended information, but it also provides us with oblique, unintended information, for the absence of color or the manner in which color was applied can give us knowledge of the publisher and his environment, about styles and tastes, about what information was considered important enough to highlight, and so forth. Adding new color can both eradicate this historical information and distort our understanding by adding false clues to the past.

The historical arguments against adding new color are persuasive, but there are mitigating considerations. As long as there are some prints by each publisher known to be in their original state, we can extract historic information about that publisher and his period from those examples. No historical knowledge will be lost and the modified prints will not provide us with false information, as long as we realize they have new color. Further, if new color is closely copied from a known original-color example, the new-color print can be used to glean historic content, the same way that an accurate facsimile of an original document can be used by scholars for research.

It can also be argued that as long as one carefully replaces lost or enhances faded original color, this is restoration rather than a distorting modification of the print. And finally, if it is known that a particular black & white print was also issued with original color in other instances, its lack of color is something of an historical accident. Coloring such a print to match the original-color examples would not seem inappropriate.

It is compelling to argue that historic artifacts should not be meddled with, but history is not an independent entity which can be segregated from our daily lives and preserved in ideal form. Assuredly our history should be respected, but we also have to be willing to give up parts of our history in order to make our future. If one takes the preservation argument too far, old buildings, laws, customs, language uses, cultural habits, and indeed all aspects of our past would be protected from change. Anyone interested in antique prints would certainly agree that we must preserve and record our history, but it is impractical and undesirable to try to preserve all of our history without modification.
With reference to antique prints, it seems reasonable that as long as some examples of the prints of any particular publisher are preserved in their original state, it is not improper to modify other examples of his prints by adding new color. Indeed, this has been done ever since prints were first published, so the addition of “new” color is itself a part of our history. While a Johannes Kip country estate print colored in the nineteenth century by an English collector does not have original color, it is an historical artifact and provides us with insights different from those provided by a Kip print with period color. If we accept such colored prints as legitimate artifacts, it would be problematic to maintain that it is not legitimate to color a Johannes Kip print today.

Looking at the historic issues, I would say that generally the more a print has its value in its nature as an historic artifact (for instance with a contemporary portrait of Washington or the first print of an American bird), and where the lack of color is part of the history of that type of print (as opposed to an historic accident), then the more important it is not to add new color. In contrast, it is not such a bad thing to add color to a print where its value is mostly based on its decorative appearance and where its lack of color was not particularly important to its intended character.

Aesthetic Issues

New color can be applied either skillfully or badly, and while judgments may vary as to the quality of any particular instance of new color, it is clear that a print beautifully illuminated with new color is preferable to one with poorly done new color. Even an uncolored print is usually more desirable than a print with inexpert new color. Over the years and up to the present day, many of the colorists who have added new color to prints were highly skilled and produced some exceptionally beautiful prints, whereas some of the colorists who did original illumination of prints were less skilled and produced rather second-rate coloring jobs. Is a beautiful example of a print with new color preferable to a print with mediocre original color? It seems to boil down to a matter of individual taste.

Indeed, most decisions concerning particular examples of new color come down to individual preference. What one person considers tasteful or attractive, another may find garish or displeasing. However, one issue concerning new color which is less subjective is that of appropriateness. Different periods and types of prints usually had a particular style of color. New color is appropriate, i.e. historically correct, if it has been added in the style of examples that were originally issued with color. While such color is certainly preferable to color applied inappropriately, this factor may vary in importance for each collector. There can be strikingly beautifully prints with historically incorrect new color. If such a print appeals to a buyer, is it important that other prints by the same publisher were not originally colored in the same manner? As in many other issues involving new color, this is a question without an absolute answer.

Collecting Issues

There is a significant difference between a print collector and a mere purchaser of prints. It is neither the amount spent, nor the number of prints purchased, nor the importance of the prints which creates the distinction, but rather the approach of each individual towards his acquisitions. The collector differs from the acquirer in pursuing his collection seriously, by having a collecting theme, and by applying a set of rigorous standards to any possible print purchase. A print collector, then, needs to develop a set of criteria for screening potential purchases, and an important aspect of these criteria must be the consideration of issues of color. (Click here for blog on the subject of collecting antique prints)

A collector must decide how these issues apply to her purposes in collecting and to the theme of her collection. If she is collecting for pleasure or decoration, then prints with attractive new color would be suitable. If, however, she is pursuing a collection with a more serious historical purpose, then new color might be inappropriate. If she is collecting for investment purposes, then original color should certainly be sought, but in many cases new color would be acceptable. If the theme of a collection is related to decorative styles of different periods, then original color would be very important, whereas new color might be fine for a collection of prints focusing on one particular type of bird or plant. Each collector must make her own decision about these issues.


The issues raised by new color on old prints are varied and complex. While original color is clearly desirable, appropriate or even merely attractive new color is considered by many to be almost as desirable. Some collectors feel that adding new color to a print is not problematic, while others feel that this should never be done. For some purposes new color is inappropriate, but one cannot say that this is always the case. It seems only reasonable to take a relativistic approach: each individual must decide for himself his purposes in acquiring prints and how those purposes relate to the issues of new color.

Along with the theoretical reasons for such a relativistic approach, there is a very strong practical reason not to be dogmatic regarding new color on prints, viz. the difficulty in some cases of distinguishing between original and new color. While there are clues which help to determine the originality of color, there are still instances where a definitive answer can come only through elaborate scientific means. If a print has color which appears to be original, as best can be practically determined, does it really matter whether the color is indeed original or not? And even if one knows the color on a particular print is new–-because one saw it applied, say–-, but for all appearances it looks original, does it really matter that it is not?

The historical arguments against adding new color to old prints are quite compelling. Even if they do not lead to the conclusion that all new color is bad, there are still lessons to be drawn. It is important that some examples of all prints be maintained in their original state. Thus for very rare prints it is desirable not to add color to them. It matters less whether one adds new color to a common print known to be held in its original state in a number of collections.

It is also important that, when known, the nature of the color on a particular print–-that is whether it is original or new–-should be identified. As long as this information is provided, the historic record will not become distorted. This is important not only for the prints themselves, but also for their printed images in books and magazines. Unfortunately, such print illustrations are often not labeled with this information, and there are many instances of illustrations of prints with new color which are not identified as such.

There are no simple answers to questions about new color on old prints. Each individual must decide for himself what approach to take. While one collector might avoid prints with new color, another might just as appropriately decide that prints with attractive new color are preferable to uncolored prints. The application of new color to prints is not wrong in all cases. As long as it does not destroy or distort the history of prints, new color does little harm and can add pleasure for many in their pursuit of these interesting and beautiful objects.