Victorian engravings were among the first things that I started to trade in. I still find the technical processes behind them fascinating – so many different effects can be achieved by the multifarious methods. And I found it was cheap to buy really good ones, which it still is.
I’m talking about a specific kind of black-and-white print that is a reproduction of a painting. They were sold to people who aspired to the original artwork but couldn’t afford it. Middle-class Victorians would find them at the major art dealers, where they might be for sale alongside the originals. These engravings are difficult to find now, but if you do find a good one, you could pick up a superb, large, limited-edition artwork for £100 or so.
Engraving was an art in itself, and the relationship between artist and engraver was often intense. Lawrence Alma-Tadema and his engraver Leopold Löwenstam, for instance, had a very dramatic relationship. Tadema used to write Löwenstam the most bullying letters, but the engraver made a living on the back of his artist’s success. And Tadema had an enormous income from the prints his engraver produced.
There were natural pairings between different artistic styles and engraving techniques. The reason Löwenstam so suited Tadema was that his etchings matched the clean lines of Tadema’s style, whilst Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings suited mezzotint – a complicated type of print that’s very good at reproducing subtle tones and shadows – and he had a great affinity with his engraver.
Good Victorian engravings are rare now, as so few have survived. They were printed on fragile materials and are quite large, which makes them vulnerable to neglect. Look in junk shops and small auction houses – salesrooms that are book orientated, like Bloomsbury or Dominic Winter, are most likely to turn them up.
For a good-quality Victorian engraving, you could start with one of a famous painting that speaks to you. Look for a rich impression (rather than a pale, ghostly image, which might be from later on in the print run), subtle artistry and pencil signatures of the artist and the engraver. Also look for the Printsellers’ Association blindstamped mark. The Victorians systematised the print-making trade, and the Printsellers’ Association sent an official to stamp every print from the limited editions that rolled off the presses. Some of the engravings were magnificently framed, so look out for those as well.
Learn as much as you want about the various engraving techniques if you collect in this area, but don’t rely on learning – use your instincts when you buy.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT RUPERT
- In the early 1980s Rupert sailed the Atlantic as part of a three-person crew aboard a 36-foot yacht.
- Rupert’s favourite artwork is one he’s had for 30 years – a six-foot-long piece of art deco glass, etched with a mermaid chasing seahorses.
- In 1997, Rupert went to observe a recording of the Antiques Roadshow. He saw a painting that he happened to know a lot about and soon found himself in front of a camera. ‘I’ve never looked back.’
- Rupert has realised recently that he’s inherited a compulsion for antiques collecting. Initially dismayed by the number of pieces he inherited from his parents, he promptly went and spent hundreds at a junk shop.
- Aside from collecting antiques, he loves to read, fix things and play the piano, albeit ‘rather badly’.
LEARN MORE Read Rupert Maas’ quick guide to the techniques behind these prints at here – it’s a great place to start if you’re going to collect Victorian engravings.
Interview: Mel Sherwood
Portrait: Grant Scott