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A Discussion of Brewer's Etchings

Brewer's etchings began to appear shortly before he married into the artistic Lucas family in 1910. There are only a few illustrations in The Girl's Own Paper to give us a glimpse of his first published art, but a very large (his largest) "West Front of Ratisbon Cathedral," an etching whose foreground figures suggest the helping hand of his older brother Henry, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909.


In 1911, an untitled view of Ely Cathedral was included in a set of six etchings by different artists published by H. R. Howell. In the same year, the archives of the Printsellers' Association show an entry for "Aix La Chapelle," and in 1912, for "Ely Cathedral" (actually inscribed "The Octogen [sic] Ely Cathedral"), both published by Alfred Bell. A pamphlet disseminated by Alfred Bell & Co. shows five early etchings, including these two and three others in editions not listed by the Printsellers' Association.


Early on in Brewer's career, the Fine Arts Journal noted that his etchings were distinguished "not only as picturesque subjects picturesquely handled, but also for the almost amazing accuracy of architectural detail." The magazine went on to say that the artist "makes a picture of what in less skillful hands might degenerate into a mere architectural drawing." (Brewer must have liked this comment because it was reused in a later sales booklet.) An ad for Closson's art gallery in the March 21, 1915, edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer labeled him "the master of them all."

That same year, Brewer was included in an advertisement for "Original Etchings of Great Interest" at the Mawson, Swan & Morgan, Ltd., gallery. Others on this list were the better-known artists J. McNeil Whistler, Muirhead Bone, David Young Cameron, Hedley Fitton, Frank Brangwyn, Sir Frank Short, Albany Howarth, Andrew Affleck, Ernest Lumsden, Mortimer Menpes, William Walcot, and Percy Robertson, all but one older than Brewer.


Brewer almost always included active figures as part of his architectural scenes—choristers, tourists, workmen, carters—adding a note of humanness to what would otherwise be a sterile, if often dramatic, impression. The personalities of these figures (unlike those drawn by his brother Henry) never call attention to themselves and away from the settings of architectural or cultural beauty they inhabit.


Almost all of Brewer's larger etchings were published by Alfred Bell & Co. in London and marketed by subscription in limited editions authorized by the Printsellers’ Association (PA) and its successor, the Fine Art Trade Guild (FATG). Their dates are given in tiny copyright inscriptions at the very bottom of each plate. In the margin underneath the image at the lower left, these etchings have either a single oval stamp (PA) or a series of five stamps (FATG) in which a letter code (now lost) indicates the numbering of the etching in the edition. (The number of etchings sold might actually be less than the number authorized, depending upon subscription demand and subsequent orders.) Editions were priced from 2 guineas to 8 guineas for the largest color etchings. For instance, the etching "St. Paul's Cathedral (the incoming tide)" on the home page, priced at 8 guineas in 1929, would cost about $450 in today's U.S. currency.


Most of Brewer’s largest color etchings were done in the decade between 1911 and 1921, and the majority of these were the vertical views of cathedral exteriors and interiors among his war etchings. (His ability to produce very large etchings in a time when copper was needed as war materiel may be explained by his wife's family tradition as engravers, tracing back to her great uncle David Lucas, who collaborated with John Constable on mezzotint copies of his paintings.) The largest of these solo productions seem to be "The Rose Windows, Rheims Cathedral," copyright 1916, and an exterior view of Amiens Cathedral published in 1918. These both measure 470 square inches in area. (At 477 square inches, an interior view of the Toledo Cathedral on which he collaborated with his brother Henry, is larger still.) Views of the north and south transepts of the cathedral in Rheims are the most strongly vertical of the larger color etchings. In the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps because of changes in market tastes and in the economy (even in the availability of large copper plates), Brewer’s etchings generally stayed under 350 square inches in area, except for a few views of the most popular, iconic cathedrals, like Rheims and St. Paul’s. The last of the etchings published by Bell—"The Banks of Loch Katrine," and "Loch Lomond (and Ben Lomond)"—were copyrighted and recorded by the FATG in 1939.


It is difficult to date the etchings produced in the Acton studio that were not published by Alfred Bell & Co. One clue might be that Brewer, on his datable etchings, began incorporating the title into the plate in 1926. While not conclusive, this fact would be a good place to start in grouping the etchings into earlier and later periods. Most of the etchings believed to be from this later period were under 50 square inches in area. A 1925 sales booklet that seems to have been published by Brewer for the American market helps in this sorting by date.


Some of Brewer’s etchings were extremely popular, requiring new versions when demand exceeded the size of a limited edition. This resulted in two very similar views of Antwerp and its cathedral from across the Scheldt and two views of St. Paul’s Cathedral from across the Thames, both pairs with minor changes in positioning. There are at least six larger views of the west front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rheims. Each shows a slightly different angle of view or mode of dress. One was published in 1919 with what looks to be a peasant woman in traditional dress in the foreground. A very similar view, but with short-skirted tourists, was published in 1928. Two other views date from 1916 and 1921: one straight-on view with tourists, signed by both James and Henry, and another from about two yards to the right with figures in traditional dress. A fifth one, the first, done in 1914, was paired with an interior view of the rose window at the west end, and this practice continued with the other west front etchings. The 1914 etching, like a sixth etching done in 1925, does not show the Dubois bronze statue of Joan of Arc in front of the west entrance; perhaps Brewer had used a photograph taken before 1896, when the statue was installed. The west towers are both flying French flags, possibly as a patriotic gesture.


Brewer's favorite subject was the city of York, with at least 31 identified etchings (so far) of the Minster and various other scenes. Other favorites were Venice with 17 etchings, Rheims Cathedral with 16, and St. Paul's Cathedral, Oxford, and Cambridge with 10.


Brewer's most prolific year seems to have been 1915, when Alfred Bell & Co. published 13 of his etchings, 11 of them scenes from Belgium and Northern France of places occupied or destroyed at the beginning of WWI or in danger from the events of the war. In the Closson's ad cited above, these were headlined as "Etchings from Warring Europe," and the text continued: "We have just received about a dozen new subjects by Mr. Brewer, some of which were sketched in cities mentioned in the war despatches of recent months." These could have been sketched before the war began or perhaps were based on photographs taken in preceding years. In any case, as a group, Brewer's war etchings argue for his inclusion in surveys of important and influential political art.


In the early 1920s, Brewer began to issue a series of extraordinary vertical etchings. These reproduce the luminescent, glowing sky of the “blue hour,” capturing moments just after the sun has set and before full darkness has closed in. Most of them show the tower of a church or cathedral—Durham, St. Paul’s, Exeter, the church of St. Jean Baptiste in Namur, York Minster, etc.—looming over a lit street in the foreground. There are a few others with the same deep celestial effect—for instance, three views from Venice, one of the Bridge of the Rialto, one of the Bridge of Sighs, one of the Doge’s Palace—but the similarity of the multiple vertical tower views is striking.


Some 15 of the etchings published by Alfred Bell were co-signed. All but four of these collaborations took place in the period after Brewer's appeals for exemption from serving in WWI had been exhausted. (He served as an Air Mechanic [draftsman] in the R.A.F. until the end of the war.)  In his absence, assistance from other members of his family would have been needed to maintain a production schedule.  Most of these etchings appear to be titled in pencil by someone other than James.


Nine in this period (including two published in 1919 that may have been begun before James was demobilized) were co-signed by his older brother Henry C. Brewer, whose fame as an artist preceded James’s and perhaps even exceeded it. The greater number of these etchings show scenes in Spain, a country depicted in many of Henry's paintings.


Two etchings were co-signed by “F. Sherrin Brewer,” who is listed at the Fine Art Trade Guild not as an artist but as an engraver and whose identity remains uncertain. There is no member of the immediate Brewer family whose first name begins with F and whose middle name is “Sherrin” (or, as it might be, “Sherren,” the correct spelling of Brewer’s great-great grandmother’s maiden name). James's sister Frances Anna was a barrister's wife with three young children. His mother Frances might have stepped in to help, but she was in her mid-70s. While it is possible that his wife Florence used “Sherrin” to distinguish these efforts from her own well-regarded paintings, signed “F. Lucas Brewer,” an examination of the available signatures strongly suggests that the co-signer was James's brother Edward, whose own etchings have the same fine-line exactitude.

Above, Rheims Cathedral in a view published in 1919. Below, the same view updated in 1928. Notice the tourist wearing a modern skirt and the correction in perspective to the statue of Joan of Arc.

Below, "La Rue de la Grosse-Horloge, Rouen," one of the striking "Blue Hour" etchings Brewer produced in the early 1920s.

Above, Brewer's "Ypres," published in 1915, and a photo
of the Cloth Hall in Ypres taken in November 1914.

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An advertisement for early Brewer etchings printed in the March 21, 1915, edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

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"Evening on the Meuse, Huy," a 1916 collaboration of J. Alphege Brewer and F. Sherrin Brewer (Edward Brewer? See signatures below).

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Signature F. Sherrin_edited.jpg
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