An Early Glimpse
A number of illustrations by James Alphege Brewer in The Girl’s Own Paper contribute to our understanding of his art in the years before his first etchings began to appear.
The Girl’s Own Paper was started in 1880 by the Religious Tract Society (later Lutterworth Press) to edify and entertain daughters in middle- and upper-class families. From early on, members of the Brewer family were involved. The first was James’s great aunt by marriage, Emma Brewer (née Rose), who wrote on a wide range of topics, including hospitals, servants, the making of perfumes, and the Bank of England. Then his father, Henry William Brewer, wrote numerous articles on historical architecture. His older brother, the organist and writer John Francis Brewer, collaborated with the editor Charles Peters on travelogues describing trips they took together to Italy and Norway in 1887-88.
In the period 1905-1908, GOP published four color plates taken from Brewer’s paintings, and also a series of four black-and-white illustrations for a serialized “Romance of the Norlan’ Seas” by W. Gordon-Stables.
The color plates were bound into editions in 1905 and 1907 as frontispieces to the monthly numbers, and each is a romanticized view of young womanhood of a kind that is typical of this publication in the Edwardian era. “Come Back to Erin” portrays a red-haired lass in a lace-trimmed robe playing the harp, and “A Bed of Daisies” shows a young mother (we can assume) in a field of flowers exchanging adoring looks with her baby. In "Summer," a bonneted young lady admires a nosegay plucked from the wildflowers bordering her path. In April 1907, Brewer supplied another frontispiece, this time a contemplative young woman in an oval frame illustrating the Christopher Marlowe verse, “By shallow rivers to whose falls/Melodious birds sing madrigals" (slightly misquoted as “O by rivers by whose falls...”) from “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”
Each of these confirms drawing skills that would certainly pass examination at a school like the Westminster School of Art, where Brewer had recently studied, but they don’t exhibit an individual viewpoint or personal artistic stamp. Were these paintings typical of what Brewer was producing on his own, or do they represent only what The Girl’s Own Paper commissioned him to paint? In the Marlowe painting, there are indeed “shallow rivers” but no “falls” and no “melodious birds,” so we may suspect that the quote was chosen to fit an existing painting and not the other way around.
The four illustrations for the Gordon-Stables romance present a different picture. One who hadn’t seen the academically accomplished frontispieces from earlier years would think that these 1908 drawings revealed a worrisome nescience of anatomy and physiognomy (even the castle disappoints). But surely Brewer was attempting to match the archaic language of the romance with a deliberate “folk” style in keeping with the mythic culture of the characters in the text. Was Brewer influenced in these drawings by the work of emerging international artists in which photographic accuracy of anatomy, facial expression, and perspective is less important than the overall mood? It is unlikely that Brewer would have seen works by Chagall (who would have been 21 in 1908). But he was the same age as Picasso, and Matisse and Munch were well established. It is not unlikely that a young artist in Britain would experiment at this time with what was important in an artwork and what was not.
As one observer has noted, “What jumps out at me are the mountains! High snow clad mountain peaks. Clean, clear, champagne air. Then you think of his woodcuts of majestic mountains and his etchings of scenes in northern Italy and the Scottish lakes. That is what he dreamt of while having to comply with the strict social straitjacket of Edwardian London—higher, cleaner ethereal beliefs reflected in the sheer majesty and power of the majority of his etchings.”
A clue to Brewer’s future appears in another color frontispiece from 1908: “Nonsuch House,” a reconstruction of what London Bridge looked like before the bridge’s buildings were removed after 1757. It is attributed to both Alphege Brewer and his father, the well-known illustrator of historical architecture Henry W. Brewer, who had died five years before, in 1903. If they worked on this painting together, the father might have been trying, helpfully, to lead his son to follow in his footsteps. If it was an unfinished painting completed by Alphege Brewer, perhaps this was the son’s posthumous acknowledgment of where his talents really lay. A year later, his massive etching "West Front of Ratisbon Cathedral" was exhibited in the Black and White Room at the Royal Academy.