1906 A New Era for Printmakers?
In 1906, one of the talking points among critics and artists in the months leading up to and during the Summer Exhibition was the Royal Academy’s increased regard for engravers and engravings. The Annual Exhibition had been preceded by a much-discussed event: the election of two new members, the printmakers William Strang and Frank Short, under the category of “Associate Engraver”. In contrast to other types of membership, it had been thirty years since any printmakers had been added under that particular category, but a combination of internal and external campaigning had led to this decisive improvement in the status of printmakers within both the Academy and its displays at the Annual Exhibition.
Printmakers had a long and somewhat fraught relationship with the Academy, which since its foundation had privileged the display of works by painters, sculptors, and architects. The situation had seemed to progress favourably in the printmakers’ direction when in 1853 reproductive engravers succeeded in winning the status of Academician Engravers. Nevertheless, not much had changed by 1906. As The Times critic wrote: “it is years since this distinction was conferred upon any engraver, and the art has consequently remained without official recognition for more than a generation.”1 This lack of recognition, of course, had an effect on the annual displays: at Burlington House, prints were gathered together in a small, discrete space (part of Norman Shaw’s extension to the galleries in the 1880s), which lay on the peripheries of the main run of exhibition galleries. The same critic described the “banishing” of prints to the “unvisited Black and White room”, while a reviewer in The Manchester Guardian referred to “the dead and dusty work that the Academy hides so successfully in its obscure black-and-white room.”2 In 1906 then, the critics waited with baited breath to see how the election of these two new members would impact on the display of prints at that year’s Exhibition.
The reason for the critics’ optimism must have been, in part, that Strang and Short were then held in high regard and their reputations were well established. Both men were part of a group of artists including Mortimer Menpes and Charles John Watson who, from the 1870s onwards, were producing and promoting original (as opposed to reproductive) prints as their primary medium and were also exploring or reviving different techniques such as etching and mezzotint, which allowed for greater creativity in their approach.3 Strang, who had studied etching under Alphonse Legros at the National Art Training School in South Kensington and at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1870s, developed a series of sparely defined etched portraits, which had the quality of old master drawings. This was an approach that allowed his works to sit comfortably in the eyes of the critics of an earlier academic tradition. By the time of the 1906 Exhibition however, Strang had not exhibited at the Academy since 1896 and by this date had turned much of his attention to oil paintings.4
Strang’s election to the Academy in 1906, however, would have encouraged him to submit works to the Summer Exhibition. Somewhat hopefully, he sent in several oil paintings, which were rejected by the Committee; but two of his etched portraits were exhibited. These two works, which are beautiful examples of Strang’s pared-back etching technique, are notable for their choice of sitters who were making important contributions to the contemporary revival in printmaking. Frederick Goulding (Fig. 1) was a printer of etchings and lithographs—most famously making prints for Whistler and Francis Seymour Haden—and Emery Walker was both a printmaker and founder of a printing press. All three men belonged to a circle of artists and writers connected to the Arts and Crafts movement. It is as if Strang was using the opportunity both to celebrate and promote the status of a new wave of printmakers at the Annual Exhibition.
Frank Short, who had also studied under Legros in South Kensington, belonged to the same generation of printmakers who were collectively pushing for their craft to be given the status it deserved. Short dedicated his career to producing etchings and mezzotints, particularly of landscape subjects, and he was described by one critic in 1906 as “known for the new spirit he has brought into our rather decaying art of mezzotint”.5 Short’s single contribution to the exhibition in 1906 was typical of his work. A Yorkshire Dell was based on a Turner watercolour, and with its dark, atmospheric tones, it succeeds in expressing Short’s individual creativity as an artist, rather than serving just as a reproduction of a painting—an accusation levelled frequently at the reproductive engravers (Fig. 2).6
Despite the high hopes that commentators had for the election of two new printmakers on the black and white room, their impact, at least in 1906, was frustratingly minimal. The rejection of Strang’s oil paintings from the same exhibition meant that he turned some of his energies towards exhibiting at other, more sympathetic venues such as the Fine Art Society, where in 1906 the artist’s rejected oils were hung alongside many etchings, in a display recognised by the progressive art critic Frank Rutter as showing the “diversity of his [Strang’s] genius”.7 Nevertheless, Strang did persist in submitting prints to the Academy, exhibiting almost every year until his death in 1921. Short too exhibited multiple prints almost every year until 1939. It was probably unreasonable of the critics to expect that the situation for printmakers and their prints would change overnight. Over subsequent years, it was the pressure put on the Academy by Short and Strang that resulted in the distinction between painters and engravers finally being removed in 1928, allowing printmakers to gain full status as Royal Academicians.
“Engravers and Engravings”, The Times, 11 January 1906, 8.↩︎
“Engravers and Engravings”, The Times, 11 January 1906, 8; and “Our London Correspondence”, The Manchester Guardian, 9 January 1906, 6.↩︎
For a discussion of this so-called etching revival, see Emma Chambers, An Indolent and Blundering Art?: The Etching Revival and the Redefinition of Etching in England 1838–1892 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), particularly 3–9.↩︎
For details of Strang’s career, see Philip Athill, William Strang RA 1859–1921, exhibition catalogue (Sheffield: Graves Art Gallery, 1980–1981).↩︎
“Our London Correspondence”, The Manchester Guardian, 9 January 1906, 6.↩︎
Short’s print was based on J.M.W. Turner’s watercolour A Rocky Pool, with heron and kingfisher.↩︎
Frank Rutter, “Round the Galleries”, The Sunday Times, 22 July 1906, 11.↩︎
Thematic categories: Academician Engravers, art criticism - prints and engravings, Associate Engravers, display and location of exhibits, Engraver status, engraving, independent exhibitions, prints, rejections