Thursday, December 21, 2017

Appreciating (some) religious prints

I have been in the print and map business for three and a half decades, getting into the business because of my love of history and graphic images of that history. Initially, I focused on early maps—-from the age of exploration-—and historical prints showing scenes of events in the past. Even after all these years, I still love this business and enjoy researching, writing and lecturing about old maps and prints and their place or role in history.

One of the things that amazes me is that I still regularly come across new items which I have either not handled before or which I didn’t even know about. This is always an exciting thing and I will spend days researching and writing up a description of the new item both for my enjoyment and for the edification of our clients.

The latter point is a central policy of my business. Ever since I started The Philadelphia Print Shop with Donald H. Cresswell, our company policy has been to present everything for sale with documentation which places the items in their historic context. We believed in 1982, and I still believe today, that understanding the history of an old map or print is essential for its true appreciation.

One of the things that this approach has done is from time to time to allow me to come to appreciate prints which I used to dismiss as uninteresting. This still happens, as was proved just recently with a new group of prints we got in our shop which I was not even going bother to put on our web site. However, I decided I really should put them up on our web site and so I had better do some research and write them up.

The prints in question are religious prints, a type of print most print dealers, including me, usually dismiss pretty much out of hand. The reason for this is not that print dealers have a prejudice against religious prints, but that i) there are more religious prints than any other kind of prints, ii) most religious prints were done in large numbers without a lot of care for quality, and iii) antique religious prints generally have little market value.

Actually, there is, and has long been, a considerable demand for religious prints by the general public. These prints which hang in many homes around the world. However, that demand means that ever since prints have been made, there have been printmakers creating large numbers of prints to meet that demand. The demand, especially today, is generally not for high quality prints, but rather inexpensive prints with a strong impact. Thus most religious prints are not of the best quality, though there were far more top quality religious prints made in the 18th century.

So, all that explains that when we acquired a group of uncolored engravings of scenes from the bible, I was underwhelmed. That changed, however, when I began to research the prints. These prints are from what is called the “Macklin Bible.” This was a project produced by London print and book publisher, Thomas Macklin between 1792 and 1800.

Macklin decided to produce the largest England Bible ever printed, which took almost a decade and cost about 30,000 pounds! Of particular note is that he decided to include 70 large engravings based on paintings commissioned from a number of important artists, including Philippe Jacques de Loutherbrough, Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, and engraved by the best English engravers.

Macklin said the publication was to promote "the glory of the English school' of painting and engraving and 'the interest of our HOLY RELIGION." Macklin died on October 25, 1800, before the Bible was completed, but he did manage to see the last of the engravings, which was finished on October 20th, 1800.

Once I read up on this work, I looked again at the prints, and they came alive for me in a way that my initial, cursory look totally missed. While the subjects are all familiar, the images are special, with each of the artists taking a unique and inspired take on the subject selected. The engraving quality is also superb. I must say I was really surprised, but I actually became engaged with a group of religious prints!

The moral of the story is that almost all old prints and maps are “special” in their own way, and that the only way to truly appreciate them is to study their history and try to understand them in their original context.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Election satires

In November, on election day, just a year after one of the most traumatic election days of recent history, I spent a lot of time thinking about the drama and foibles of the election process. This is, of course, nothing new and there have been many prints made over time on this topic. This blog will consider two such prints.

One of the two prints is the second in a series of four plates from a series of images drawn by William Hogarth and inspired by a notorious election for the Parliamentary seat from Oxfordshire in 1754. That election was famous for its corruption and inspired by this Hogarth produced his series, supposed to take place in a fictional town of ‘Guzzledown,” as a lampoon of not only that specific election, but elections in general. The series shows the chaos and corruption surrounding electioneering in eighteenth century England, but with universal relevance to any election.

The first plate in the series, entitled “Election Entertainment,” is a parody of Leonardo's Last Supper, showing a raucous scene of a dinner put on by the Whigs to woo voters with all sorts of debauchery. The candidates are shown at left while various party figures and voters cavort in drunken revelry. Outside the window, a mob of Tories is rioting, one member of which hurled a brick in the window which hit the Election Agent.

The print we will look at more closely is the second in the series, entitled “Canvassing for Votes.” Here the scene is outside “The Royal Oak,” the headquarters of the Tory candidate. The sign for the inn has been partly covered by another sign ridiculing the Whig candidate by showing him as Punch distributing coins to voters. Ironically, the Tory candidate is shown buying trinkets to use to buy the votes of two women on the balcony above. Meanwhile, an undecided voter is shown being cajoled by representatives of the two parties, each of whom is placing coins in the voter’s open palms. Two drunks are shown at left, while in the background a mob is attacking the Whig headquarters located in “The Crown.”
A century after the Oxfordshire election, in 1854, George Caleb Bingham’s engraving of “The County Election” was published. One of the best American painters and printmakers of the nineteenth century, Bingham captured the election experience with as capable a brush as Hogarth’s.

The scenes are remarkably similar in viewpoint and composition, though now showing a scene that is a hundred years later and in America. Bingham drew the scene based on his home town of Arrow Rock, Missouri, and the artist can be seen sitting on the step in the middle of the image. The print, similarly to Hogarth’s, shows a raucous election scene in a small town.

The image includes candidates caucusing right on the steps of the Court House, an already tipsy voter accepting even more cider so that he’ll vote for a particular candidate, and a slumped drunk being carried to the poll to “cast his vote.” All this is similar in feel to Hogarth's print, but Bingham seems to have been of more of a mixed mind about the validity of elections, for other votes are shown seriously arguing and a wide variety of figures from all walks of life (though, of course, no women nor blacks) seems to cast a positive spin on the American election system.

Democracy is clearly flawed, as Hogarth and Bingham show a century apart, and it sometimes produces winners who are not worthy of their positions, but it is still the best system going. We need to remember the problems illustrated by Hogarth and Bingham, but it is our open and honest participation in the process which will overall produce a better society.