Etching in Britain

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I would like to take the opportunity to look at etching in Britain in the 1920/30’s. Before starting out on a selective survey it is important to know exactly what etching is. The word comes from the Dutch Etzen, to eat, and in order to create an etching one must employ an eating-away process which is technically called biting. Two metals used during the time we are discussing are copper and, less frequently, zinc. Briefly the process requires an acid-proof ground applied to the plate which is then drawn into and the plate etched with acid so that cleaned it is ready to be printed. That plate can be worked more than once and this results in the different ‘states’ that come about as a result. A dry point etching is strictly speaking not an etching at all as no ‘eating’ into the plate is involved. A steel plate is incised with a sharp object to draw the image needed. It is not always obvious which process has been used when looking at prints of the period. Complete books have been written on the history and techniques of all printing processes but for the purposes of this article my description will suffice.

Printing holds a high standing in the history of art and you only need to look at the prices some Durer prints make in auction to see that still applies. It is not the case with etchings of the period we are talking about, however, whilst some artists’ works make considerable sums in auction others seemingly just as good technically do not. In the 1920’s many of these ‘lesser’ works were sought after and it is often the case that £5 was the least charged for them at the time. I believe there is an opportunity for the discerning collector to put together a body of work for relatively little money. If collections need a theme it is easy to decide on one given how wide ranging in availability the prints are.

Perhaps you would choose artists who were member so the RE [Royal Society of painter-Etchers and Engravers] but then many fine artists were not. You could collect by subject matter but why be limited by that and just buy quality works by listed artists that take your fancy. Be warned however some subjects like architectural scenes that have not changed over time and works sold as souvenirs for visitors are worth avoiding. Here are three artists chosen randomly I think are undervalued.

Firstly, Malcolm Osborne [1880-1963] who was an RA [1926] and one time President of the RE which he became a member of in 1910. His work is wide ranging in subject matter from Continental town scenes, especially Amiens, to portraits and landscapes. His Cathedral steps, Le Puy was included in the 1923 edition of Prints of the Year. Prices in auction can be as little as £70 with some selling for around £200 but only occasionally. He came from Frome, Somerset, was Professor of Engraving at the RCA survived service in the World War 1 and lived latterly in South Kensington. I have given biographical details because it adds a human interest to any artist. Surely his work is worth more?

Next Ian Strang [1886-1952] a very similar artist who was the son of William Strang RA [1859-1921] and who became a full member of the RE in 1930 having studied at The Slade and in Paris. His subjects were largely Continental but his entry into the 1923 Year book was for an etching of Repairing Oxford Street. His results in auction are even less than Osborne with many works making sub-£100 figures although London scenes can do rather better. Once again an artist who is listed and well regarded in his day but ignored by many collectors.

My third artist is James McBey [1883-1954] not a member of any association but who exhibited at the RA and many other galleries. He was wildly travelled and his work, which is lighter in touch than our previous two artists, is more successful in sales. His 1923 entry into Prints of the Year is called The Ebb Tide. Typically his work can make £300-500 but prices vary and whilst some might top those estimates others sell for a great deal less. Arguably he is the odd one out of the three chosen in that he is well regarded, as reflected in those auction results, and that a sumptuous book of his etchings was published as early as 1929 in London and New York with an introduction by Malcolm Charles Salaman [1855-1940] who wrote about many other etchers of the period discussed.

So in conclusion I have chosen three artists at random who happen to be in Prints of the Year, an indication of their standing at the time, and all of which are listed online, in reference books and auction records. There is scope for their work and that of many other etchers of the period to increase in value but even if that is not the case owning a work by a competent listed artist of technical ability is always going to give intellectual rewards. I just wonder if some of the badly drawn art of today will stand the test of time, even if it is worth a great deal more nowadays due to current trends, often lacking in draughtsmanship as it does.

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