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Old English Mezzotints

Old English Mezzotints

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Devoted to those beautiful and valuable Old English Mezzotins which interpret par excellence the great painters of the eighteenth century. Malcolm C. Salaman tells the story of mezzotint engraving from its inception to it climax at the close of the eighteenth century, and its decline in the early nineteenth. * * * * * An excerpt from the author’s introductory: WHEN, in Christie's sale-room, the fine mezzotints or familiar portraits by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney or Hoppner—familiar, perhaps, chiefly through the prints— are being handed round the table, and the amazingly high bidding of eager dealers and collectors, bidding that seems to recognise no conscience save fashion's, is being voiced goadingly from the rostrum, my fancy is wont to travel back to those eighteenth-century days when the London print-shops were full of such prints fresh from the engravers' hands. I think of the fine old engravers themselves, content to sell their prints for the few shillings apiece at which the current demand appraised them, little dreaming that, in a hundred years or more, the greasy ink they used would have so dried on the very surface of the inimitable old paper as to give that richness of bloom which would induce future collectors to pay for single impressions sums sufficient to have bought for the artists themselves life annuities. I picture genial, honest Valentine Green, in 1780, at the height of his prosperity, drawing up his "Proposals" for publishing by subscription his engravings, from the paintings of Reynolds, of that sumptuous series of" Beauties of the Present Age," as he called them, which, with no thought of being modest, he offered at fifteen shillings a copy, or twelve shillings to subscribers; and I wonder what change amazement, and regret, too, in his later days of adversity, would have worked in the benevolent, sensitive face we know so well through Lemuel Abbott's portraiture, could he have foreseen how the twentieth century would value his gracious mezzotints of beautiful high-born women, while ignoring his once popular subject-prints after Benjamin West, so that a brilliant proof of his Duchess of Rutland (Plate XXXI.) would sell for just five times the two hundred guineas Sir Joshua charged the Duke for painting the picture. Yet, what compensation of gladness would his artist soul have felt could he have foretold that enthusiastic connoisseurs would visit the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge primarily to see the finest known impression of his lovely Lady Elizabeth Compton (Plate XXXVI.)! John Raphael Smith, too, greatest of them all; I think of him scraping his masterly mezzotints to supply the mundane needs of his convivial nature and a large family, and printing off the copies only as they were called for, and I wonder whether the genuine artist or the astute business man in him would have been the more moved if, to encourage him on his way to prosperity, his good, helpful friend Angelo, the fencing-master, or, say, good-natured Jack Bannister—Charles Lamb's "beloved" comedian—had playfully suggested that impressions from these very copperplates would one day command sums approaching, and even reaching, four figures in pounds sterling. Smith, "good easy man," would probably have laughed his jovial laugh, and, laying aside for the day the plate, perhaps of Mrs. Carnac (Plate LVIII.), The Cower Family (Plate LX.),or The Promenade at Carlisle House (Plate LXXVI.), or whichever copper he happened to be engaged upon, would have called for a bottle—or two, and made merry over the fantastic idea. Yet, what a debt of gratitude we owe to those old mezzotint-engravers, who, in that wonderful second half of the eighteenth century, brought to perfection an exquisite art through which they could interpret delightful masterpieces of the painters'art, in all their spiritual and pictorial vitality, with an appealing charm of tone and suggested colour, ...