1 APRIL 1882, Page 16


THE PAINTER-ETCHERS.* TnE present exhibition is one which will be disappointing to many, if only because of the small size and number of the examples shown. When examined closely, the disappointment extends itself to a feeling which almost amounts to despair, at the lack of ambition and dullness of the majority of the works. There is always this danger about etching,—that it is a facile means by which any artist whose name is known can earn a considerable sum of money, with the very minimum of labour and thought, and so it offers great temptations to all those who care more for the remuneration of their work than the work itself. Closely connected with this is the fact that the present market value of etchings is absurdly high, and is care- fully fostered by the fine-art dealers, who find in that over- valuation one of their chief sources of profit. We can do no better service to our readers, and to the cause of Art in general, than by devoting this article to an explanation of a few of the inconsistencies which prevail with regard to the public sale and valuation of etchings, and we do this the more readily as there are no works in the exhibition before us which call for very special notice. We cannot, it is true, hepe to puncture the bladder ; but we can at least show reason to believe it is a bladder, and should be punctured, when occasion serves. Let us proceed, therefore, to consider what is the market value of an etching, what is the amount of time and skill re- quired to produce one, and what are the means which are employed to keep up a fictitious value.

An etching, in the ordinary sense of the word, is a sketch -upon a material which is capable of being corroded by the application of acid; and its peculiar qualities of richness depend upon several causes, of which the principal are the peculiar shape of the etched line, the differences in depth which can be obtained by leaving the plate a longer or shorter time in the

• Fine Art Society, New Bond Stx,et.

acid, the size and shape of the tool employed, and what is technically called the "bur." This last is the edge of copper which is raised by the scratching of the needle employed to draw the design.

Those qualities which are peculiar to the etched line are chiefly softness, richness, and freedom, and are obtained fully only upon one metal,—copper. Now, every etching, or rather every proof of an etching which is taken from the copper-plate, loses—in a fractional degree, but still loses—some of the freshness of the original work, the very qualities which produced the beauty of the impression, being those which cause the deterioration of the plate in printing. The high price of etchings was miginally due to the fact that only a few first-rate impressions could be taken ; but of late years, a discovery has been made by which a thin coat- ing of steel can be deposited by chemical means upon the sur- face of the plate, which then becomes, for all printing purposes, a steel engraving, from which copies can be taken by the. thousand. Moreover, this operation can be repeated, when the steel coating has worn off.

The practice of etchers at the present time—or, we should rather say, the practice of the fine-art dealers, for they have the responsibility in the matter, and reap the greater portion of the profits—is as follows :—Before the plate is steeled, some thirty, forty, or fifty impressions are taken, for which the price varies from three to fifteen guineas apiece, according to the size of the plate, the fame of the artist, and the rapacity of the publisher. The plate is then steeled, and the impressions are then sold as proofs, at about half the former price. In this way,.

a plate may be made to yield some five hundred pounds before it begins its career as a steeled etching ; and subsequently, the sale may be continued for years, as long as buyers can be found.. The cost of printing careful proofs varies from sixpence to two shillings and sixpence apiece; ordinary, small proofs are executed for a few pence.

Now, it needs a certain amount of education, and, perhaps, even a certain amount of innate artistic feeling, to see muds difference between a steeled etching, and one which is still in its copper purity ; and we are firmly convinced that not one in twenty of the buyers of the "artists' proofs," as the latter are called, could distinguish between the two. But it is worth in- sisting upon that the only reason why an etching proof shouht fetch money to the amount that it does, arose from the fact that in the old days every proof taken was another nail in the coffin of the plate; that there could only be so many copies, of which this proof was one. Now that copies so little inferior that it needs an expert to detect them, can be multiplied ad infinitum, the value of the proof is seriously diminished, and there is abso- lutely no reason why the steeled impressions should fetch more than the impressions of an ordinary engraving. A slight in- crease in the price, owing to the increased skill which is neces- sary in the printing, mast be conceded. Briefly, the price of an ordinary impression at a fine-art shop of any moderate-sized etching varies from 21 is. to 25 5s., according to the name of the artist and the popularity of the etching, the worth of these impressions being from about 2s. 6d. to 10e., their cost about sixpence. How, it may be asked, can we assign the worth to each impression ? Of course, we can only do so approximately, but we may arrive at it from a consideration of two or three matters.

But this is by no means all that takes place with regard to' the selling of proofs of any given plate. There is another—

shall we be excused if we call it "dodge ?"—which is constantly being practised as follows :—The artist who has executed the plate from which the etching will subsequently be printed, scribbles something, it does not matter what, upon the margin surrounding his picture. Sometimes this is a little imaginary head, more frequently some emblem of his craft, such as an etching-needle or two and a bottle of acid,—in fact, anything that comes into his head. When the plate comes to be printed, twenty or thirty proofs are taken (which include this marginal decoration), which are entitled "remark proofs," and for these, double the price of ordinary artist's proofs are charged ; so that we then get the following results :—Remark, or as some pub- lishers prefer to spell it, " remarque," proofs, at, say, 210 10s.

apiece ; artists' proofs, 25 5s. apiece ; proofs, or ordinary prints, 22 2s. apiece. Now, there is a double loss to the public in this proceeding, which consists in the fact that those who buy an artist's proof in name, no longer get it in reality, or, at least, no longer get under that title one of the first impressions of the plate; if they wish for that, they have to pay double the

price of an artist's proof, simply because all the first impressions have some marginal scribble. Besides this, there is absolutely nothing gained in a " remarque " proof, but the priority which is supposed to be paid for by the purchaser of an artist's proof, and yet a double price is gravely asked by the enterprising dealer. Suppose an artist said to the purchaser of a fifty-guinea picture, "If you give me another fifty guineas, I won't frame this up to its margin, and I'll blot you in a paint-brush or two, or an outline of my lay figure, or something of that kind," do you think any pur- chaser would entertain the proposal, or regard the artist making it with much respect? But this is actually and absolutely what takes place in etching, except that the blotted margin is repro- duced, say, fifty times, and charged double each time. The artist is not altogether to blame ; he is in the hands of the dealers, and he could hardly be expected both to offend them and deprive himself at the same time. And the proceeding is one of those which can hardly be called anything but "honest," from a trade point of view. It results, however, in a very bad state of things, for itproduces an amount of false valuation, which practically stops any genuine sale of etchings, except through a middle- man. Take any ordinary well-known artist who etches ; he will be glad enough to do you a good-sized plate for forty guineas. Now, supposing the price at which proofs of the various kinds we have mentioned are sold, is a genuine one, the plate might very well be worth four or five hundred pounds, or perhaps more. But do you suppose an artist gives for forty what is worth five hundred ? The truth is that no etchings, practically speaking, can be sold at all at the present time, except through the publishers, and even then their sale is practically limited to chance customers. But the publisher gains by this in every way. Suppose, for instance, he buys the plate. Well, he gives fifty guineas, as an outside price, for it. He has only to sell ten copies at five guineas to recoup himself, and he will then have the plate to reproduce in a periodical, or sell ordinary proofs from, till it is destroyed. On the other hand, say he does not buy the plate, but undertakes to sell the impressions for the artist ; and this is the ordinary course. He then pockets half the price of each impression, as a reward for his trouble. This is not a fancy statement of the case, but to the best of our knowledge an actually true one. There are one or two artists, per- haps, who can make special terms with the publishers, but only one or two ; and it may be taken as practically true, that every time an etching is bought at five guineas, half that sum finds its way into the hands of the publishers. The value of etchings seems to be one of those things wherein skilful trade manipulation has entirely blunted the public sense. Let us consider for a moment what is the criterion of value of a work of art. Beyond the individual power of the special artist, there are only the great distinctions of quality and rarity. Now, the first of these can be possessed by an etching, but the second cannot, at least not in the highest degree. The differ- ence in value between an original pen drawing by an artist, and an etching by him of similar scale and work, must always be affected by the fact that there are perhaps five hundred of the latter, and there is certainly only one of the former. The proof of an etching is only autograph work in a secondary degree. I have before me as I write a list of etchings, with prices appended, by a good many English artists, and I notice that the price asked for a single impression is, in many cases, nearly equivalent to that which would be given for an original pen or pencil drawing by the artist who has executed the plate. Making due allowance for the technical difficulty of drawing upon copper instead of paper—one which is comparatively easy to overcome—it seems to me that, according to all common-sense views of the matter, the relation of value of the print to the draw- ing should be in direct ratio to the number of impressions which are to be taken of the first-mentioned. If, for its techni- cal excellence, my drawing is worth ten pounds scratched with a pen on paper, how, in the name of all that is reasonable, can I make it worth three or four hundred by scratching it on copper, and reproducing it by mechanical means ? People pay the ten pounds for my actual work, of which no copy is possi- ble. If I were to make three or four hundred drawings of the same subject, I should not get the same sum,—in fact, I should not sell them at all. Directly a thing is not unique, its worth is ganged by its rarity, and the proper value of an etching is the value of its master's work divided by the number of impres- sions which are taken of it. And this, it must be remembered, is the fullest artistic value, and bears no proportion to its cost, which is so small as to be practically nothing. I wonder whether my readers will think that in what I have said, I have intended to depreciate the value of Etching ? So far is that from my intention, that it is the one of all the graphic arts for which I have most sympathy, and it is for that reason that I wish to see it freed from the shopkeeper element, which at present surrounds it so closely. The sale of etchings, at present, is exceedingly small, owing to the enor- mous prices asked by the dealers, and the artists are almost entirely in their hands. There is no reason why a first-rate proof should average more than a guinea, and a good print more than five shillings ; such a price would leave a handsome margin of profit, for both artist and publisher. " Remarque " proofs, as they at present exist, are simply trade abomina- tions, devices whereby the unwary are deluded out of their money. The present Society of Painter-Etchers might, if it would, do much to remedy the present state of things ; and we commend to it and its accomplished President, the above remarks, with the motto, applicable to etching as to trade, of "Small profits, and quick returns." H. Q.