The Wartime Etchings
From 1914 to 1919 Brewer published many large, color etchings showing scenes from Belgium and Northern France—cathedrals, churches, and town buildings threatened or damaged during the battles of World War I. Both in the United States and Great Britain these etchings, and inexpensive copies of them, were proudly hung on parlor walls in solidarity with the Allied cause and as a remembrance of the devastating cultural losses inflicted by the onslaught of war.
Brewer's wartime etchings showed the historic buildings as they once were, not as they appeared after the attacks. They must have been sketched or photographed before the war began, a fact suggested in a December 1915 edition of the New York political journal The Outlook: "These etchings were made shortly before the war and are worthy memorials of magnificent edifices which are now partly or wholly in ruins." Brewer would likely have seen newspaper articles in 1913 about the course of a possible invasion of Belgium. For instance, in September 1913, after the Belgians had finished their summer training war games, the Paris correspondent for The Times reported that the French grumbled about the defensive exercises near Dinant and Namur, a course that was “considerably to the north of that which a German army would follow if it violated Belgian neutrality.” But only a year later, that was exactly where the Germans attacked. Reading reports like this, Brewer might have known enough in 1913 to envision a series of etchings showing scenes from the heart of Belgium. As Barbara Tuchman pointed out in The Guns of August, the Schlieffen Plan (even with Moltke's adjustments) was based on a German advance through the whole of Belgium. Schlieffen said, "Let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve."
Brewer’s most prolific year was 1915, when Alfred Bell & Co. published 13 of his etchings, 11 of them scenes of places that had been destroyed or were in danger from the events of the war. A March 1915 ad for Closson’s art gallery in the Cincinnati Enquirer was headlined “Etchings from Warring Europe,” and the text continued, “We have just received about a dozen new subjects by Mr. Brewer, some of which were sketched in cities mentioned in the war despatches of recent months.” More would follow throughout the war. As a group, these etchings—which were, in essence, anti-war or,
at the very least, nostalgic for an earlier era of peace—argue for their inclusion in surveys of important and influential political art. For more about the context in which Brewer's war etchings were created, visit www.jalphegebrewer.info/war-etchings-context.
“The Cathedral of St. Gudule, Brussels, Belgium”: Published in January 1914, this etching of the cathedral in Brussels may represent an artistic premonition that foreign troops would soon march in the streets of Brussels (see inset photo). There had been many published reports predicting hostilities that were especially worrisome for those with a concern for Belgium. Some examples: In January 1913, The Times’s military correspondent had written that Belgium had "no natural obstacles to present to an invader.” In April 1913, the paper’s German correspondent reported “the fear prevailing in Belgium that Germany might violate her neutrality in the event of war.” Then in September, a Times article warned that planning for a proposed channel tunnel might be premature "at a moment when the probability of a German offensive through Belgium is so seriously exercising Continental strategists.” Finally, a review of the military novel In the Cockpit of Europe, printed in The Observer in November, praised its author as a “master of the military detail demanded for the battles to be fought...very near Liège, where France and Germany are to be the combatants, with England as the ally of the former in defending Belgium against invasion.” Because a U.S. copyright was not included, litho copies of this etching were sold widely in America. Were the French flags flying from the towers of the cathedral an expression of Brewer’s own sympathies or rather a concern that Belgium might come under French control? We don't know; this was certainly not a reflection of the official Belgian policy of neutrality.
“Rheims Cathedral” and “The Rose Windows, Rheims Cathedral”: At the beginning of the war, Brewer completed his first etchings of the West Front and Rose Windows of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rheims, the iconic site of the coronation of Charles VII in 1429 after Joan of Arc’s victories over the English. The cathedral had been shelled in September 1914. The timing of publication, December 1914, and the French flags flying from the towers leave no doubt about the message Brewer was trying to impart. It was these two etchings, also published without a U.S. copyright, that Emil Jacobi and others reproduced and marketed
widely to an American public sympathetic to the Allied cause.
“Rheims Cathedral” and “The Rose Windows, Rheims Cathedral”: A new version of the West Front of Rheims Cathedral, co-signed by James and his brother Henry, was published in 1916 in an edition of 500 (largest yet of any Brewer edition). This time it included the statue of Joan of Arc that had been missing from the 1914 etching. We can only guess that Henry realized that his brother had used an old photograph of the cathedral for his first etching of the West Front, one taken before the statue had been installed in 1896. (It was unlikely that James would have done an on-site sketch in Rheims in the fall
of 1914 after the war broke out. In any case, if he had gone to Rheims any time after 1896, he would have seen the statue.) Like the earlier etching, this new version was also widely
distributed in a litho print.
“Nave Looking East, Rheims Cathedral ”: An etching of the interior of Rheims Cathedral published in 1916, along with a photo showing the rubble in the chancel after the roof collapsed in September 1914.
“Rheims Cathedral from the South West”: Another etching of the Rheims Cathedral, published in 1917, together with a photo showing its roof in flames during shelling on September 19, 1914. It was reported that 60 injured German soldiers being cared for in the cathedral died when the roof collapsed.
“Ypres” and “The Church of Notre Dame, Dinant-on-the-Meuse, Belgium”: These two etchings of scenes in Belgium, one of the
medieval Cloth Hall in Ypres and one of the interior of the Church of Notre-Dame, Dinant, were reproduced in a December 1915 issue of the influential American political journal The Outlook under the headline "Architectural Sacrifices of the Great European War.”
“Antwerp” and “Antwerp Cathedral”: A waterfront view of the city of Antwerp, Belgium, published in May 1915, and a view of its cathedral with the statue of Rubens to its south, published in 1917. The city was attacked in the early months of the war, first with bombs dropped from a Zeppelin airship (Count von Zeppelin pictured in inset German postcard) and then with artillery fire during the Siege of Antwerp. Germans were given maps showing cultural sites to avoid, but nevertheless the cathedral’s south transept windows (lower right of etching above) were damaged.
“Evening on the Meuse, Huy”: Published in September 1916. After the bridge over the Meuse was blown up by the retreating Belgian Army, the city of Huy was attacked by the 2nd German Army under Karl von Bülow on its
way to Namur. To cross the Meuse, the Germans built a temporary bridge.
"On the Sambre, Old Namur": Published in 1914. Above and to the right, Brewer pictured the foundations of the Citadel of Namur, part of a system of forts that were of little help in defending against the 2nd German Army. The contrast between this peaceful canal
scene and the devastation pictured in the postcard of the German soldier posed in the rubble of the Place d'Armes—located beyond the houses on the left—is startling.
“Malines”: A view of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the Grote Markt square in Malines (Mechelen), Belgium, published in September 1915. Malines
came under attack in the first weeks of the war. The secretary to the U.S. legation in Brussels wrote: "...the Cathedral...is a dreadful sight, all the wonderful old 15th-century glass in powder on the floor.... A few of the surrounding houses...were completely wiped out...."
“The Palais de Justice from the Boulevard Waterloo, Brussels”: Published in October 1915, this etching issued an indirect but firm reprimand for the German occupation of the capital of Belgium. A notable landmark in Brussels, the Palais de Justice is larger than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and is said to be the largest building constructed in the 19th century. The inset photo shows German soldiers fraternizing in its Court of Appeals.
“Hôtel de Ville, Louvain”: In 1915, Brewer pictured the 15th-century town hall in Louvain, Belgium, near the historically priceless university library, which was burned by German troops. American architect Ralph Adams Cram observed: "When the University of Louvain passed in the smoke of a murdered city,... there was the symbol of a new thing in the world, destroying the very outward show of what could not exist on earth side by side with its potent and dominant negation."
“Hôtel de Ville, Arras”: Brewer’s 1917 etching of the town hall in Arras, France: The area around this historic 16th-century building was bombed three times during October 1914, leaving the town looking like “a modern Pompeii.”
“Laon Cathedral”: The Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Laon, France, an etching that was co-signed with James’s brother Henry and published in September 1917 when James was serving in the armed forces. In the fall of 1914, German forces captured the town and held it until the Allied offensive in the summer of 1918. The inset photo shows captured French soldiers by the city walls of Laon.
“Verdun from the Meuse”: Published May 1, 1916. The Battle of Verdun, lasting from February 1916 to the end of the year, was the longest of World War I. When the German initiative was finally called off in order to reinforce troops in the Battle of the Somme, Verdun and the surrounding area were left severely damaged.
"Amiens Cathedral": Pictured in an etching published in September 1918, the cathedral in Amiens is the largest Gothic structure in France. The town was the focus of German operations during the Spring Offensive of 1918, and later, in August, the Battle of Amiens began the Allied counterattack that led to the end of the war. While the cathedral survived mostly intact, on May 4 a shell crashed into the Chapel of St. John the Baptist. An etching of the Amiens nave, begun in 1918, was published in January 1919.
"Ypes, The Cloth Hall" and "The North Transept, Rheims Cathedral" : At the beginning of 1918, Brewer's series of etchings revisited two sites, the Cloth Hall in Ypres, which had suffered further attack, and Rheims Cathedral, whose destruction had continued to be iconic for the Allied forces. The new Cloth Hall etching was co-signed by "F. Sherrin Brewer" (his brother Edward?) when James was serving as a draftsman in the RAF.
Other "wartime etchings" include one of the Church of St. Gertrude in the occupied town of Louvain as well as scenes from Bruges and Dieppe. In addition, two etchings of buildings in Venice—an interior of St. Mark's Basilica (1915) and an exterior of the Doge's Palace (1916)—might be counted as war etchings. Austria bombed the Piazzetta di San Marco and other sites during this period, as noted by Alan Kramer in his Dynamic of Destruction, "in the hope, as the Germans had in destroying Rheims cathedral, of intimidating Italy with the fear of the mortal danger thus facing its 'città adorabile.'"
Postscript: Brewer’s first big success as a young artist came with etchings of buildings damaged or threatened during WWI. But as an older artist—during WWII—his approach was just the opposite. He turned away from the war and focused on scenes of natural and almost spiritual beauty. Beginning in 1939, if we are guided by what he exhibited, Brewer began to produce woodcuts of mountain views and pastoral vistas, done with fresh colors and bold compositions. These are so different in effect from his architectural etchings that many people have trouble relating the two as the work of one artist.