A Mid-Career Sales Booklet and What It Tells Us
A 16-page (cover plus 12-page signature) black-and-white booklet titled "Original Etchings" seems to have been published by Brewer in the middle of 1925. It is a resource for identifying some of his etchings and sorting them by date, and it offers insights into Brewer's artistic approach.
Although the booklet was published without any date or authorship, there are some tell-tale clues about its provenance. We can assume its date because the most recent datable etchings listed are known to have been published in 1925, but two paired etchings of Rheims Cathedral (the West Front and the Rose Windows from the Chancel), published in August and September 1925 respectively, were not included (nor any other datable etchings produced in the years after 1925). We can assume it was printed or at least prepared in England because of the spellings of words like “colour” and “recognised.” And we know it was aimed at the American market because the prices are in dollars and cents (and because it was bought from a shop in upstate New York).
The inside cover lists 20 “Large Etchings Printed in Color,” all of which were copyrighted between 1914 and 1921 and published by Alfred Bell & Co. in limited editions authorized by the Printsellers’ Association or its successor, the Fine Art Trade Guild. (It is interesting that, for the most part, the etchings described as "not now obtainable in London" in an announcement for a 1919 exhibition of Brewer's etchings in Melbourne, Australia, are not among the etchings advertised in this booklet.)
After a page of promotional text, the following 10 pages show 29 thumbnail images of FATG-authorized editions mostly published in 1922-1925 (but including three earlier etchings listed on the inside cover). Twelve of these etchings are from his “Blue Hour” series.
On the final inside page of the booklet are pictured six smaller horizontal etchings under the heading “New Five-Fifty Etchings.” The booklet introduction on the first page explains: “With a view of bringing his work within the reach of all, his latest enterprises are two series of small etchings, one being printed in Colour and the other drypoints printed in Black and White; doubtless this will add to his already world-wide reputation.” The term “five-fifty” presumably refers to a prix fixe of $5.50 (ca. $75 today) for these smaller etchings, whether in black and white or in color. The inside back cover has a complete listing (at that time) of these “five-fifty” etchings, 14 in color and eight in black and white. The color etchings include his little etchings of gates and arches at night, and the black and white drypoints include six that document scenes from Venice and also “The Monarch” and “The Lone Tree,” both parenthetically described as “Pine Tree Study.” None of these was copyrighted by Alfred Bell or imprinted with the FATG stamps, but we can safely date them to 1924-25.
There is a difference between the prices listed in guineas in the FATG archives and the prices in this catalog. The largest color etchings were priced at 8 guineas by Alfred Bell & Co. (which would work out to $375 today), while the $44 cost of similar etchings in this booklet would now be about $600. The difference might be in the markup for a U.S. distributor and include the cost of shipping the etchings overseas.
There is no mention of Alfred Bell & Co. anywhere in the booklet (not even the little "ABC in a bell" logo used in an earlier pamphlet), which is hard to imagine if it had been produced under their auspices. Yet, the publication does not represent any break in the artist’s relationship with Alfred Bell & Co., who continued to publish and copyright etchings by Brewer through 1939. A news item in the April 22, 1928, St. Joseph (MO) Gazette—with text lifted from the brochure—says that the American agent for Brewer's "proofs" is Walter E. Iliff of West Orange, New Jersey. In the fall of 1919, Iliff, listed as a salesman in censuses, had traveled to England, and it is possible that arrangements were made then for him to represent the artists published by Alfred Bell & Co. A news item in the March 16, 1920, Richmond (IN) Palladium (about a donation of his father's books to his high school library) described Iliff as the American manager for Alfred Bell & Co. An arrangement between Brewer and Samuel Schwartz's Sons in New York City seems to have ended in early 1917, about the time Brewer was called up to serve in the RAF.
In any case, we might guess that the booklet was prepared under Brewer's direction so that the American market could see which etchings were available from his U.S. distributor. The booklet has markings by hand that indicate with an X which etchings were "ALL SOLD." Since a postcard with a 1936 cancellation was found together with the booklet, its use may have continued for a decade after its publication, with updating.
If the booklet was indeed created with the input of J. Alphege Brewer, it provides many insights into the way he regarded himself as an artist. He wears his conservatism as a badge of honor, writing that "the cult of the ugly has never influenced him" and expressing pleasure in the fact that his work can appeal to the collector while being "understood by the average man." He is proud that the architecture in his etchings "is accurate in every detail" (in part crediting heredity from his father, "the well-known archaeologist" H. W. Brewer), while noting "an underlying softness in his composition." He remembers a favorable second-hand quote from a decade before, when the December 1915 issue of The Outlook reported that the Fine Arts Journal had said the artist "makes a picture of what in less skillful hands might degenerate into a mere architectural drawing." Stressing that he executes or supervises the printing of the etchings himself, he says that "many of the wonderful effects produced are quite unique and some of the colour schemes are particularly beautiful," catching "all the mystery and romance" of the European cathedrals while giving a "feeling of antiquity." The etchings have atmosphere and light—"'luminosity' in the parlance of the modern art critic"—and combine these characteristics with "a free style and a sane outlook."
If this isn't J. Alphege Brewer talking about his art, the quotes are surely sentiments he could have agreed with and might have either provided or approved.