Catalog listings and original labels for Brewer’s work suggest that he used a range of intaglio techniques, sometimes in combination, depending on the effect desired. Most labels describe his prints generally as etchings, but a few are more specific. A label for a view of the interior of the York Minster describes it as a drypoint. An exhibition catalog in 1932 lists a view of the Taj Mahal as an aquatint.
Some labels for his color etchings advertise the fact that they were done with a single pass through the press, and this technique may be what Brewer wrote about in his 1916 statement requesting an exemption from serving in WWI (see LIFE STORY). In other words, the "work" Brewer claimed to have “invented” might have been an efficient method for producing the large, dramatic color etchings that were his signature effort and a major source of his income.
At the time, it was not unusual for successful etchers to send their plates out to commercial printers. Brewer's first published etching seems to have been included in a 1911 portfolio of six etchings sold by H. R. Howell. This one, of Ely Cathedral, and in 1912 another, showing the Portail de la Calende of the cathedral in Rouen, were printed by Charles Welch. But after that, as noted in the December 1915 issue of, The Outlook: "An interesting thing about Mr. Brewer's colored etchings is that they are printed by himself." As we have seen, "himself" included a staff of as many as eight, including members of the Lucas family, who assisted him in the studio at the back of the family property in Acton.
The idea of printing etchings in color from a single plate had been documented in an article by George W. H. Ritchie on page 196 of The Building of a Book (The Grafton Press, New York, 1906).:
The process, now almost a memory, is a costly one.... This kind of printing requires the plate to be actually painted by hand...and the painting has to be repeated for every impression that is taken....
The successful printer of color plates must be a rare artist or else work under the direction of an artist. Little of this work is now done except in Paris and Vienna.... Even English plates are usually sent to Paris to be printed.
Ritchie exaggerated the rarity of printing etchings in color; this work was being done by a number of artists in France, usually with a separate plate for each color, au repérage but sometimes painting all the colors on one plate, à la poupée. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, at least two artists were producing engraved color illustrations in this way: French-trained George Senseney and English-born Samuel Arlent Edwards. Brewer had yet to make any color etchings in 1912 when Senseney and his wife Dorothy married in London. But Senseney had been teaching the technique in New York for years and had established a reputation for his color etchings à la poupée. It is possible that Brewer learned the technique at that time from Senseney, His first color etching is dated 1913.
Alternatively, Brewer may have developed his technique for printing color etchings in association with Edwards, who himself claimed to have revived a lost technique for printing color mezzotints from a single plate. The Brewer family lived in the Kensington section of London, and Samuel Edwards attended the nearby Kensington Museum Art School. Did Edwards know the children in the artistic Brewer family? James's father was the well-known architectural artist H. W. Brewer. James's older brother Henry and Sam were four years apart in age; they might both have been interested in reviving the old single-plate process for printing color images used before the introduction of modern color lithography. Sam went off to America in 1890 to pursue this idea, producing best-selling mezzotint copies of famous paintings under the name "S. Arlent Edwards," while Henry might have passed these ideas on to his younger brother James.
In the first years of the 20th century leading up to World War I, Edwards traveled back to England and to Belgium many times. Brewer might have met Edwards or become reacquainted with him at this time, There is a large, color etching by Brewer of the cathedral in Brussels and other scenes along the Meuse River
and elsewhere in Belgium from this period, In the fall of 1914, Edwards and his wife were detained in Bruges by the Germans and held there throughout the war (he returned finally to the States only in 1934).
That Brewer had an awareness of Edwards may be apparent in the similarity of their signatures: “J. Alphege Brewer” and “S. Arlent Edwards.” I can imagine Brewer thinking that the middle name of Alphege would be just as good as Arlent, perhaps better, as a way of achieving name recognition. Edwards signed his etchings with lines above and below, using an extended cross of the “t” in Arlent (though sometimes unattached) to draw the upper line. I think Brewer improved upon this, using the cap of the J to make the upper line, but the similarity between the two signatures is striking.
In 1900, Edwards described what was involved in making his color mezzotints from a single plate, and it is likely that Brewer used some of the same techniques:
Every proof in colors is practically an oil painting. When the plate is engraved and ready to be printed, the colored inks—which are specially ground and mixed with thick oil and varnish—are rubbed on the plate in a thick mass and then wiped off the surface, the fine indentation of the mezzotint leaving a place for the colors to lie. Each color has to be put on and rubbed separately. [To color tiny areas such as the iris of the eye, Edwards would often use a match stick.]
After the ink is put on and the plate wiped and manipulated in a manner which blends the colors together, so that there is no ink left except in the engraved work, the proof-paper is then laid on the plate and is passed through a heavy copper-plate hand-press, the paper being thus pressed into the engraved work in the plate and taking up the ink, and so making the finished proof.
The same process has to be gone over for each proof, and consequently, it necessitates a great amount of labor and experience, but the end justifies the means, for these engravings possess a richness of color which can be achieved by no other process.
The first step for Brewer would have been to limn the image in a wax coating on the surface of a copper plate and then use an acid bath to etch the drawn lines into the plate. Or in some cases, the illustration was inscribed directly, using a drypoint method. (On his etchings, there may have been some extra drypoint work done directly on the plate in order to add character to the lines of the illustration.) Because so many of his early etchings memorialized structures damaged during World War I, it is possible that Brewer used some kind of photographic projection, perhaps with a Magic Lantern, to mark out the proportions of the buildings and even to aid in reproducing details that had been destroyed.
Then the plate might have been prepared for an aquatint process in order to add some continuous tones for shading. There are etchings that seem to show the addition of aquatint tones in the shadows and others that seem to rely on packed lines and/or cross-hatching.
At this point Brewer might have produced a monotone "draft" print of the etching, sending it to Alfred Bell and Co. for his publisher to use in proposing a color edition authorized by the Printsellers' Association or Fine Art Trade Guild.
The coloring was not applied afterward in watercolor, nor was the coloring done with a modern three-color process (which would have required three plates, possibly four), Instead, before each impression colors were applied directly on the etched plate, probably à la poupée (with a ball-shaped wad of fabric). The palette of warm colors for his cathedral etchings could have been mixed by Rembrandt (for example, shades of tawny gold for the main image, reddish orange for roofs, touches of turquoise for water and robes, and perhaps some accent colors for stained glass windows). As Brewer's mid-career sales booklet said, "...the color schemes are particularly beautiful, giving that feeling of antiquity which is so attractive in this Artist's work." Even with "antiquity" as a goal, the early etchings exhibit at least two distinct color "palettes," and these can't be explained by fading or aging. While both palettes must have been acceptable to Brewer, he and his assistants or co-signers must have had different effects in mind. With changing tastes in the market, and after the "Blue Hour" series in the early 1920s, his color balance became less antique and more natural.
"The Cathedral of St. Gudule...Brussels, Belgium," presumably drawn late in 1913 at a time when Brewer
might have been in touch with S. Arlent Edwards.
A 1917 Brewer etching of "Bruges," where
S. Arlent Edwards was quarantined by the Germans for the duration of the war.
The signatures of J. Alphege Brewer (above) and S. Arlent Edwards (below), both with lines above and below.
Above, a detail from a monotone trial print of Exeter Cathedral, possibly showing the size of a suggested print run.
A comparison of different impressions of three etchings (Rheims Cathedral, Rose Windows, 1914, Ypres, 1915, and St. Mark's, Venice, 1915) showing color variations, an indication that different people may have been involved in "painting" the plates during the print run.
Part of this inking process might have been to make stencils, allowing the efficient addition of colors to the plate. And while stencils might have guided his assistants in the application of colors—for instance, for the dappled lighting of stained-glass windows—there are other examples where gradations of light blue, rose, and sand are blended to create sky tones. These suggest what one observer called Brewer’s “dab hand” at coloring his etchings. There are also etchings where color is applied in a way that would be unlikely if restricted by the use of a stencil (for instance, in the Blue Hour series, where the application of the deep blue may gradually overlap the buildings in the foreground).
In production, the plate would have been inked for the blackish color of the lines of the illustration and the aquatint shadings, then wiped down, leaving the main lines holding ink. After that, stencils could have been used to guide the application of each chosen color until the plate was fully inked for a run through the press. The aquatint tones, if any, would have provided shading for a black-and-white print, and would have darkened tones in the appropriate places when color was applied.
Whether or not the etching had been accepted by the Printsellers' Association or Fine Art Trade Guild, the complete printed edition, titled and signed (and with the tiny copyright inscription at the bottom edge), would have been sent off to Alfred Bell & Co., which supervised the sales and fulfillment operation. For PA/FATG editions, the etchings had to be brought into their office together, along with the plates. They were then all run through their stamping machine in the order in which they were printed and the plates destroyed.
The Lucas-Brewer studio in Acton with paintings on display. The large landscape at the back is by George Lucas, father of Florence Lucas Brewer. Later, the studio was filled with the tools for making etchings, including a large easel that came down from David Lucas's work with John Constable.