BLTC Press Titles

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Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Hermenie Templeton Kavanagh

Shakti and Shakta

John Woodroffe

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison

Etching and etchers

by Philip Gilbert Hamerton


Mr. Palgrave refers to the difficulty of manual execution only, and there is much truth in what he says, but not the whole truth. In speaking of an art like etching, it is exceedingly difficult to detach manual from intellectual qualities. In line engraving this is easier, because in line engraving manual dexterities have been made a distinct aim, and you know when a man can make lozenges of equal dimensions, and put his dots exactly in the middle of them. But the peculiarity of etching, and its great nobility as a fine art, consists in its disdain of all mechanical or purely manual dexterities whatever. The quality of an etched line depends on its meaning, and on that alone. Skill in etching is always complicated with considerations of feeling and knowledge; if you eliminate these, anybody may etch, because anybody can make lines on a varnished plate as clear and free as Haden's.

When Mr. Palgrave says that "the highest skill in etching might be reached sooner than the skill to lay one square inch of even lines with the graver," he does not tell us by what sort of person this " highest skill " in etching might be so easily reached. This is unfortunate, because the reader may allowably infer that average humanity is understood.

The "highest skill in etching" cannot be reached at all by the average aspirant. Thousands have attempted etching, and these include painters of considerable artistic culture and experience. In this multitude you cannot find thirty first-rate etchers: there are not twenty, there may be ten. If there is any human pursuit wholly inaccessible to men of ordinary powers, it is etching. In this respect there is nothing comparable to it except poetry. Patient industry and some imitative faculty may produce a passable engraving; learning and long training an academic picture; but nobody can be taught to make fine etchings or fine poems.

Some pursuits require long labour, but reward all students of fair ability who are willing to give the labour; amongst these are the common trades and professions. Other pursuits reward a few aspirants richly and speedily, but to men of ordinary organization give no return for a whole life of toil. The first may be difficult, but are yet possible to all sane men at the price of ten or fifteen years' labour; the second may "be what is called "easy," and yet to nineteen men out of twenty absolutely and eternally unattainable.

The highest skill in poetry might be reached sooner than a comprehensive acquaintance with historical literature. Yes, if you pre-suppose a Tennyson.

The greatest technical difficulty of etching—not precisely a "manual" difficulty, for it depends in great measure upon the use of the mordant—is the difficulty of arriving at the relative weights of dark which the artist desires.

In this respect etching is far more difficult than any form of art where results are immediately visible. An artist may be able to get the tones he wants in sepia, or with the pen, and yet be altogether uncertain with the etchingneedle.

Etching is here more difficult than line engraving, because the engraver sees his plate, and has frequent proofs taken during its progress, for his guidance.

A negative process is always so far more difficult than a positive process. Drawing on wood, lithography, and the graphotype, are technically easier than etching.

When the brush can be used for shading, instead of lines, there is, so far, greater facility. Setting aside the difficulty of colour, painting is easier than etching.

In an introductory letter by M. Charles Blanc, prefixed to Lalanne's treatise on etching, occurs the following passage :—

"Ah! si les dilettantes qui s'ennuient, si les artistes qui aiment k fixer une impression fugitive, si les riches qui sont biases sur les plaisirs de la photographie savaient combien est piquant l'interdt de l'eau-forte, votre petit ouvrage aurait un succes fou. II n'est pas jusqu'aux femmes elegantes et lettrdes qui, fatigudes de leur ddsceuvrement et de leurs chiffons ne puissent trouver un d&assement plein d'attraits dans l'art de dessiner sur le vernis et d'y faire mordre avec esprit leurs fantaisies d'un jour."

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