A Personal Revelation?
In 1934, the Fine Art Trade Guild made an entry for a different kind of Brewer etching, unlike any he had made before or would ever make again.
Titled “Into the Light,” it seems to be a one-off experiment in religious ecstasy. For precedents you must go back to Hieronymus Bosch’s “Ascent of the Blessed” and the poetry and images of William Blake, and seek out other artwork of revelation and rapture. There is no hint of this kind of theosophy in Brewer's etchings of cathedrals or in the pastoral woodcuts he did in his last years, even as uplifting as these are for many viewers. There is no other instance of his moving beyond the real toward the surreal.
“Into the Light” presents a tableau of struggling humanity standing on fallen, burnt timbers and reaching for and merging with a brilliant white light shining down in the shape of a cross. The cross is wearing a crown of thorns. Everyone and everything, including the distorted, inflamed cathedral towers, are swept up to the heavens. The deformed buildings, so unlike Brewer’s usual solid architectural shapes, remind one of the warped urban images of Ludwig Meidner, done before and during WWI. But the overt Christian imagery of Brewer's etching is foreign to Meidner’s Nietzschean mindset; the towers are rising toward ethereal bliss rather than being twisted in psychological angst.
It is likely that Brewer made this etching as an expression of personal faith. The Fine Art Trade Guild accepted it as an authorized edition of 300, but, at this point, it is not clear that the etching was ever put into production, or if the etchings were made, that they were indeed marketed and sold on subscription by his regular publisher Alfred Bell & Co. The only known copy is held by the family, and, while it is signed, it is not debossed with the FATG stamps.
The texts for the etching might be ones familiar to many people from Handel’s Messiah:
But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire. (Malachi 3: 2)
And four numbers later in the oratorio:
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 60: 2-3)
Many observers have noticed that Brewer, almost always, focused on an area of light in his etchings as a gentle way to draw attention to a particular feature or to provide a depth of chiaroscuro to the composition. Brewer himself mentioned atmosphere and light—“‘luminosity’ in the parlance of the modern art critic”—in describing the effect of his etchings.
In this etching, however, the light is meant to be more than luminous; it is transfiguring. Beyond seeing a great light, the mass of humanity is actually drawn to it. In his book Life After Life, Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., writes of the near-death experience:
What is perhaps the most incredible common element in the accounts I have studied...is the encounter with a very bright light. Typically, at its first appearance, this light is dim, but it rapidly gets brighter until it reaches an unearthly brilliance.... He senses an irresistible magnetic attraction to this light. He is ineluctably drawn to it.... Most of those who are Christians...identify the light as Christ and sometimes draw Biblical parallels in support of their interpretation.
In the etching, one notices the atomization of the people as they float toward the celestial light, almost as if the souls become merged into the thrall of a heavenly existence, as in the common phrase ‘becoming one with God.” See 1 Corinthians 6:17:
But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him.
Brewer was named for St. Alphege, Archbishop and First Martyr of Canterbury. His father was a prominent convert to Catholicism, and his older brother was the organist at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a Jesuit church in central London. It is possible that, beneath the surface, feelings of Catholic mysticism were strong in Brewer. In the Cappadocian school of thought, a complete union with God is realized by entering the “Cloud of Unknowing” in which one can begin to glimpse the nature of the Divine.
More digging must be done into what provoked Brewer to make this etching, especially since the style and import were never repeated. Was it some world event? Or a fatidic first heart-attack accompanied by a near-death experience? Except for this one effort, Brewer published no etchings that carry a 1933 copyright, and only a few with dates in the rest of the decade before he began making woodcuts. And why was this unusual etching accepted for publication by Alfred Bell and Co.? What would have caused Bell to think that he could find a market for 300 copies?
Although the size of the etching and its coloring suggest 1933-4 as the correct date, it is also possible that “Into the Light” recalled an earlier revelation of cathedral towers in flames during WWI with worshipers seeking absolution from the Almighty for the cataclysm humanity had brought upon itself. Or perhaps the etching reflects the great loss of life during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918-19. During and immediately after the war, such an extraordinary image would have disrupted the established market for Brewer’s solemn architectural memorials, but it might have been resurrected when the embers of war had cooled. One hint might be that the in-plate titling, inscribed over a burnished area, looks as if it could have been added after the fact, as would have been the case with an etching done before 1926.
Whatever the timing or cause, the result reveals previously unknown aspects of Brewer’s artistry in both style and substance.
Above: Ludwig Meidner's 1918 "Strasse am Kreutzberg." Top: J. Alphege Brewer's 1934 "Into the Light." The overt Christian imagery in the Brewer is foreign to Meidner’s Nietzschean mindset; the towers are rising toward ethereal bliss rather than being twisted in psychological angst.