Tuesday, 5 October 2021

'Etched in memory, the elevated art of J. Alphege Brewer' by Benjamin S. Dunham


The kind of colour etchings that James Alphege Brewer made from about 1912 onwards were never popular with able British artists until the sixties and seventies when printmakers like Graham Clarke made small prints of rural subjects. Interestingly enough, both Clarke and Brewer concentrated on architectural subjects that conveyed a sense of the past. Because of the nature of the technique, it is difficult to achieve the bright colours that many modern artists like to use, but the moody and atmospheric tones typical of colour etching suited the evocative style used by Brewer and Clarke.

As late as the 1920s there was also a strong prejudice against any kind of colour print. Sir Frank Short, head of printmaking at the Royal College of Art until about 1930, considered them inadmissible and this may be one reason why Brewer sold so many of his prints in the United States. Beyond that, when Kenneth Guichard published British etchers 1850 - 1940 in 1977 as the print collecting revival took off, Brewer was found on the infamous list of also-rans he included. This all means that Ben Dunham's new book, Etched in memory, fills a gap in the growing list of monographs devoted to British printmakers working between 1900 and 1945.

The format is more generous than the other softbacks about artists such as Allen Seaby and Eric Slater, the reproduction quality is good and the number of illustrations numerous. Ben and his wife have been serious collectors of Brewer's work for some years but in common with so many of the artists of the period Brewer has not been at all easy to research. Consequently, a good deal of the book is concerned with the prints themselves and what happened to them. One of the most interesting aspects to the book is how many of the subjects were French and how many prints were sold in the U.S. This was a big market and showed how commercially-minded Brewer was. It also meant Brewer had to maintain exacting standards. American standards are high and there was generally nothing second rate about the complex production of the prints. To understand more, you need to buy the book. This may not seem an obvious purchase for readers of Modern Printmakers but I discovered much about the period that was new to me and Ben Dunham's book deserves a place on your bookshelf alongside the books about the more fashionable artists Modern Printmakers concerns itself with out of habit.

One of the disadvantages that many Americans face when writing about modern British printmaking is the lack of books about individual artists. As we all know, colour woodcut is taken more seriously in the States than it is here. This means that it is often difficult for writers to fit their chosen artist into a proper context and, despite this new and useful publication, Brewer remains something of an anomaly. It is easy enough to see where he fits in with the trend towards conversion to the Roman Catholic church and the interest in the past shown by a Catholic artist like F.L.M. Griggs, but little is known about what happened. Even when Brewer took up colour woodcut about 1938, the methods he used have never been clear - not to me, at least. The book includes is a short section on the woodcuts (mainly written by myself) with seven invaluable illustrations of the colour woodcuts he made.

As for the detail, I was intrigued by the way Brewer's colour etchings of Bruges and Malines in Belgium made about 1916 reminded me of the Brangwyn and Urushibara's Bruges portfolio of 1919 and I finished the book certain that here were further sources for that redoubtable portfolio. This was perhaps clinched by the fact that a British mezzotint artist, S. Arlent Edwards, lived in Bruges throughout the entire four-year period of German occupation. This is the value of studies like this one. As we read them, we all begin to make connections we would never have made on our own.

Etched in memory is published by Peacock Press at Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, and is available from Amazon Books and ABE at just under £20 in the U.K. and from Amazon at $25 in the United States.

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