Antiques: Prints


As wall decorations, nothing complements antique furniture more effectively than old prints. Their wide range of subjects offer the collector a variety to choose from and they blend with practically all the old style periods.

For instance, I once saw a dining room furnished with American Chippendale furniture, including display cupboards filled with Oriental Lowestoft, where the chief wall decoration was a large folio Currier 9c Ives print of Eastman Johnson's painting "Husking." This colorful farm scene with the figures in plain working clothes hung above the mantel. The claw and ball-footed table and chairs antedated the print by at least ninety years and were sophisticated pieces of urban craftsmanship. Yet there was no clash, but rather a pleasing contrast.

Another example was a guest room furnished in maple, which included a Queen Anne highboy, a Hepplewhite bowfront chest of drawers, a Sheraton tripod bedside table and Empire fiddle-back chairs.

Here a pleasing touch was added by three English prints (two from Thornton's Temple of Flora, done in 1812, and a Gould bird print) and a map of the locality from a typical county atlas published about 1860. A guest doubtless found these much more restful than the assortment of family and school group photographs that are sometimes hung in such "spare rooms" for want of a better place.

American prints are most favored by collectors. Subject groupings include portraits of prominent people, from presidents to prize fighters; outstanding events, from naval engagements to conflagrations; localities, city views or country scenes; genre depictions of social customs that have passed; prints that are records of the economic development of the United States, such as clipper ships, early railroads and volunteer fire companies; sports, such as horse racing, hunting and fishing, yachting and the start of baseball; early views of American colleges; and comic and sentimental prints. In point of age, these prints range from the Burgis view of Harvard, done in 1726, to a lithograph of the Brooklyn Bridge, published as late as 1890 by Currier 9c Ives.

There are three main kinds of prints-engravings, lithographs and woodcuts. Engravings were executed by artists or by technically skilled craftsmen who copied their pictures on metal plates, from which the printing was done. With plates of copper, five distinct types of prints could be executed. They were line engravings, mezzotints, etchings, stipples and aquatints. Line engraving was printed with black ink and coloring was added afterward by hand. Etchings were also done with black ink. Some mezzotints were colored after they came from the press; for others, two or more colors of ink were used in printing. Coloring was part of the process with stipple engravings and aquatints.

Prints from copper-plate engravings mostly date before 1840. From about 1850 to 1875 a quantity of steel engravings were published. They included such subjects as "Marriage of Pocohontas ... .. The Death Bed of Daniel Webster," and "The Pilgrims Going to Church." They lack the quality of the earlier copper-plate engravings and because of their size (24 by 36 inches or larger) are not popular with collectors. They are classed as late and do not command nearly as high prices as contemporary Currier & Ives lithographs. Their appeal is limited to collectors particularly interested in the subjects depicted.

Lithographs were printed from stones on which the pictures were drawn in outline by the artists or by draftsmen working for the publishers. After the printing in black and white, they were hand-colored by young women working in teams, somewhat like a modern factory assembly line. American lithographs date from 1835 to as late as 1900. They were usually published in three sizes-large folio, 17 by 24 inches; medium folio, 11 by 15 inches; and small folio, 8 by 12 inches.

N. Currier, starting in 1835, and Currier & Ives from 1857, were the great publishers of such prints. Any lithograph bearing either of these imprints is collectible, and some are rarities. "The Life of a Hunter-a Tight Fix," by Currier & Ives, holds the record for the highest price paid at an auction. In 1928 this print brought $3,000. The price has not been equaled since then.

About 1865, a form of lithographic printing that eliminated hand-coloring was introduced, known as chromolithography. Some interesting prints were produced by this method, but they are considered late, are not much in demand and usually sell at fairly low prices. Louis Prang of Boston was the most important publisher of them.

Woodcuts were printed from blocks of wood on which the artists or special craftsmen cut the pictures. Most of these prints were of a size suitable for book or magazine illustrations. The majority date from about 1850, with a few very early ones going back to the colonial period. As important an American artist as Winslow Homer made a good many drawings as an artist war correspondent during the War between The States, which were published as woodcuts in Harper's Weekly. They are collectible and inexpensive. Many woodcuts of buildings, localities and important events are removed from old books or magazines, nicely hand-tinted and framed. These are often the only pictorial records available and are desirable for such reasons. I have one in my collection, of "Lana Cascade," Lake Dunmore, Salisbury, Vermont, which is the only print of this waterfall. As the waterfall no longer exists, this woodcut is doubly interesting. The majority of American prints found in antique shops are lithographs published by Currier & Ives and their many contemporaries. A few of the better known were Pendleton, in whose Boston shop Nathaniel Currier worked as an apprentice, Bufford, Kellogg, Baillie, Endicott, Rosenthal, Sarony, Knapp 9c Major, and Britton 9c Rey of San Francisco. These lithographs range in price from a few dollars for sentimental subjects done as small folio prints to sums in three or four figures for large folio rarities.

Condition should always be taken into consideration in buying such a print. Blemishes such as tears, creases, stains and cut margins, even though slight, reduce its value. To rate as in prime condition, a print should be free of the brownish stains known as "foxing," should have its full margins, be free of creases in the paper, and not be torn along the outer edges. The latter defect is sometimes skillfully repaired, and if it does not extend into the actual picture is not too detrimental. Coloring should also be clear and unfaded.

As stated earlier, originally all lithographs came from the press as black and white outline impressions and were then hand-colored. Since some uncolored copies were sold to art teachers, examples of these "albino" prints are occasionally found today. Sometimes, particularly with the more desirable subjects, this lack of color is rectified by colorists using full colored originals as their guide. This late work can usually be recognized by the brilliance of the individual colors. A print that has been recently colored will not be offered to a prospective buyer by a print dealer of good repute without stating what has been done and the price asked will be less than if the coloring were contemporary with the printing.

Some full-size copies have also been brought out of such popular prints as "Home to Thanksgiving." These are not done as fakes but as acknowledged re-issues. Here careful reading of the fine lettering immediately below the picture will identify such a print for what it is-an honest copy made much later than the time of the original.

These do not rate as "restrikes," which were subsequent re-issues done from the same copper plates or lithographic stones used when the print was first published. These restrikes bear much the same relation to prints as subsequent editions of a book do to the first edition, except that later book printings bear on the title page the dates when they were done. Except in rare instances, restrikes carry nothing in the caption data to distinguish them from earlier impressions. They can usually be identified by inferiority of the paper on which they are printed. It is lighter in weight and has a harder surface.

In the 1930's, some of the most popular of the Currier & Ives prints were reprinted in quantity and widely sold in five-and-ten-cent stores. They were all smaller in size than the originals. Coloring was part of the press work, and the paper was not of the same thickness or texture as in the originals. Of about the same vintage are the pictures copied from some of the Currier & Ives prints and used on large calendars issued for several years by a large insurance company. Some of these were trimmed and mounted by people who admired them and are now occasionally offered to collectors by uninformed people as Currier & Ives prints. These calendar copies are much smaller than the large folio originals. The coloring is an integral part of the press work and the paper is much smoother and thinner than was ever used by Currier & Ives. They also lack proper margins, especially at the bottom.

Prints done from copper-plate engravings offer the collector a wide choice. Those made during the eighteenth century were mostly scenic or historic as to subject and are now expensive rarities. Among them are the Harvard College print already mentioned, that of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, and the fine mezzotint portrait of Sir William Pepperell. This was the work of Peter Pelham, an English artist who settled in Boston, where he married the Widow Copley and became the stepfather of John Singleton Copley, the greatest native American painter of the colonial period.

Following the American Revolution and continuing until about 1830, many prints depicting historic events, scenic views and prominent people were published, which are now highly desirable rarities. Among the men who were both artists and engravers was Amos Doolittle of New Haven, Connecticut, probably best known for his print of the Federal Hall in New York City, which depicted Washington taking his oath of office as the first president of the United States. Another was Charles D.J.F. de St. Memin, the French refugee whose small profile portrait prints of prominent patriots are rarities. Still others were William H. Bartlett, who did the American Scenery series; William R. Birch, known especially for his Philadelphia views; Samuel Maverick, a New York engraver who drew and engraved the print of the "Landing of Lafayette," which was reproduced by Clewes, a Staffordshire potter, on his blue and white china; and William G.Wall, famous for his Hudson River Portfolio.

Any engraved print of an American subject of this period is a desirable collectible, as are others down to the time of the large steel engraving vogue. Some of the men who did them had colorful careers, like the counterfeiter, Christian Meadows, who engraved a print of Dartmouth College, now much sought for, while serving a prison sentence for his sins against the law.

Along with American prints, many collectors are partial to the wide range of English prints, among them caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson that are frequently quite broad in their treatment. There are also very fine flower prints, such as Thornton's Temple of Flora and the beautiful bird prints by Gould. Also in England, between 1827 and 1838, Havell executed the elephant folio aquatints for Au,dobon's Birds of America. Prints from this, especially the "Wild Turkey," are very high-priced. Less expensive, but by no means cheap, are the same subjects from the American edition of 1860 of this work and those from Audubon's other great accomplishment, The Quadrupeds of North America, published in New York in 1845 and 1846 with a hundred and fifty colored lithographic plates.

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