Part of the joy of printing is that it can offer a more affordable form of art for collectors. Unfortunately, the language of print making, (‘editions’ proofs’ and ‘states’ etc) can sometimes be off-putting. This is a barrier to those people who may wish to dabble their feet in the art market and are unsure where to start. It is also not easy for the rest of us! Trying to figure out what you have, and what that means in terms of availability and sensible pricing can all be a bit tricky.
A good example is an etching by Whistler that I bought recently. James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a hugely influential artist. Born in America, his work is a link between the art worlds of America and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. A painting by James McNeill Whistler can be worth millions. A drawing can be worth thousands. His work is the realm of the top auction houses and the top collectors and galleries around the world.
An etching by this artist is an affordable way to own a piece of his art history. In Victorian times, a boom time for the printing industry, ‘showstopper’ paintings would go on tour around the country, and the licence to print the etching (at different qualities for different audiences) was part of the artist/dealer negotiations.
So, when you look at a ‘print’ – how can you tell if it is ‘original’ or a later edition, or even how limited they are? It depends what type of print it is, and the description is important. Each print from a ‘plate’ (either a woodblock or a metal plate) is an impression. It is a unique print from the original plate. A reproduction of one of these impressions would be a printed copy. Although a printed reproduction of an impression could be produced as a limited edition, it is not usually considered to be an original artwork.
The process of etching dates back to the fifteenth century, but most famously first recorded as a technique when used by Dürer in the 16th Century (in 1515). The technique is one of the Intaglio processes. This is where the image is incised or scratched into a surface which is then covered with ink and wiped, leaving the ink in the incised lines, which then are transferred by printing on to a sheet of paper. The metal sheets onto which the marks are made are ‘plates’. In engraving, the marks are cut straight onto the metal plate using a sharp instrument (a burin). In etching, the plate is covered with a softer substance that can be ‘drawn’ on, and the plate is then dipped in acid to ‘etch’ the lines into the plate.
Whereas engraving is an extremely specialist skill, etching is a technique that can be relatively easily learned and employed by a draftsperson. The artist can ‘sketch’ onto the wax resist with an etching needle as they would a pencil on paper. Etchings can therefore look like a sketch, and the artist can choose the ‘weight’ or thickness of the lines created. Usually, lines in etching are thin and fine. Areas of colour can be added with other processes, such as aquatint or monotype printing.
States of Plates
When an artist has completed the plate, it can be used to print multiple impressions of the image. Unless the plate is then destroyed or spoiled to preserve the ‘limit’ of the image, it can be used again. When the plate is altered by the artist for a different look or use, by adding to or removing from the image, it is a different ‘state’. Unless it is a very famous and well-recorded image, it is often difficult to identify what state the plate is in, unless this is noted by the artist either in the image plate or when signing the image. If the state is recorded, it is usually using Roman numerals (such as V/VI). A print with no different states is referenced as ‘only state’.
Our etching is part of a series of etchings Whistler made of the Thames. It is titled Sketching No. 1 and depicts a figure sitting beside a wide river. According to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Whistler made several etchings and drypoints on trips along the Thames in the summer of 1861, during visits to Edwin Edwards and his wife Ruth at Sunbury near Hampton Court. This print was made in August 1861 on an etching trip along the river with Edwards, Fantin-Latour and Haden.
Earlier editions such as the example at Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge were printed on chine collé paper, (a thin tissue paper that is adhered to a stronger backing paper through the printing process). The Met Museum of Art in New York has a fourth state impression of this image. It is printed on chine collé, and has the additional note within the plate “London. Published December 1st. 1861 by Day & Son, Lith. to the Queen", but not the PL. 45 in the top right.
Our etching is a later ‘state’. It was published in 1862 as part of a publication of illustrated poetry - 'Passages from Modern English Poets, illustrated by the Junior Etching Club'. You can see in this wonderful digital archive of the publication, that on page 10 of the contents, our etching, titled A River Scene, is listed as Plate 45 (see p.186 for the etching and the poem). This corresponds with the Pl.45 etched into the top right of the plate for this edition. This edition is on smooth cream wove paper.
The Detroit Institute of Art has an impression like ours, with the plate number included. The Victoria & Albert Museum collection also has this impression, but on their etching, the publication information along the bottom has been removed!
Indexing and referencing this etching was made easier by the existence of the Catalogue Raisoneé of Whistlers work, surveyed by the University of Glasgow . There is also a specific project to create a complete record of his etchings that includes information about the different ‘states’. There is, thankfully, a catalogue reference for our etching. The catalogue reference has a tab marked ‘states’ which lists and records images of each of the changes. Ours is number 5 – the publication of poetry by the Junior Etching Club, like the one shown from the Institute of Chicago .
As Whistler is so well known and popular as an artist, and because the Catalogue Raisoneé includes this etching project, we can identify exactly where in the history of his career our etching belongs. Often it is harder to discover details of lesser-known artists, where resources to research them are not as accessible or may not exist at all.
It is good to become familiar with what resources are available. We are very lucky that this catalogue is online and an open resource, so anyone can investigate their Whistler! Even though many physical archives may be more challenging to visit, or closed, it is nice to explore what is available, and zip around the globe taking a peek into great art collections.