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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.  Sixteen were listed in 1918 as additions to the holdings of the museum of the Royal United Service Institution, London, and described as "places and buildings mutilated by the Germans during the great European 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

“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.

Cathedral of St. Gudule_edited_edited_ed
57 Brussels German soldiers marching pas

“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 Cathedra, West Front 1914_edited_
Rheims Rose Windows 1914 alt color_edite
reims cathedral_on_fire.jpg
Rheims Cathedral 1915 from auction cropp
Rose Windows, Rheims Cathedral 1916_edit

“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 possible but 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. 

57 Rheims As It Is Today.JPG
Rheims Cathedral from the South West BSD
57 Rheims in flames cropped.JPG
Rheims Cathedral east end WWI.jpg

“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 vaulting collapsed.

“Rheims Cathedral from the South West”: Another etching of Rheims Cathedral, published in 1917, together with a photo showing its roof in flames during shelling on September 19, 1914. Michelin's post-war guide for Rheims reported that a dozen injured German soldiers
being cared for in the cathedral died when the roof collapsed.

57 Destruction_of_Dinant_in_WW1.JPG

“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.”

Cloth Hall photo.JPG
The Church of Notre Dame, Dinant-on-the-
57 Willy_Stöwer_-_Antwerpen_1914.JPG
57 Antwerp postcard showing Zeppelin.JPG

“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. In an unpublished manuscript, Edouard Bunge, a merchant in Antwerp, remembered: "Everywhere one looked, one saw flames appearing above the housetops, one heard the shells whistling over, and the roar
of their explosions together with the crash of falling walls made a great and terrible combination. One felt powerless—at the mercy of some irresistible force let loose." (transl., Milton M. Brown) Germans were given maps showing cultural sites to avoid, but
nevertheless, the cathedral’s south transept windows (lower right of etching above) were damaged.

57 Huy with temp rr bridge.JPG

“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 (see inset photo).

"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 behind the houses
on the left of the etching—is startling.

Malines for web_edited.jpg

“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 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...."

On the Canal (Sambre), Old Namur
Namur place d'Armes postcard fr eBay.JPG

“The Palais de Justice from the Boulevard Waterloo, BrusselsPublished 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.

Palace of Justice from Marks4Antiques_ed
Palais de Justice with German soldiers.j
Hotel de Ville, Louvain 1915.JPG
Louvain damage from

“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.”

Hotel de Ville, Arras cropped_edited_edi
Arras dec 1915.JPG
Laon Cathedral (JAB_HCB)
57 French prisoners Laon from battles of

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, with the cathedral in the far background.

Verdun from the Meuse - Kevin O-W_edited

“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.

Verdun cathedral damage 1916
St Mark's at 300 dpi with 10 percent compression.JPG

"St. Mark's, Venice" and "Venice" [The Doge's Palace]: Two etchings of buildings in Venice—an interior of St. Mark's Basilica (1915) and an exterior of the Doge's Palace (1916)—should 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.'"

Venice ...the doge's palace adjusted.jpg

"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. Appropriately, the Amiens etchings, at a combined 930 square inches, are, as a pair, among the largest known color etchings to have been done by Brewer..

Amiens Cathedral chapel shell damage c 1
The North Transept, Rheims Cathedral.JPG
Ypres  horiz  corrected (JAB-FSB).JPG

"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 and Rheims Cathedral, both of which had suffered repeated attack throughout the war. 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. 

Cloth hall end of war.JPG
Transept view Rheims.JPG
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

"Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem": After Gen. Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem from the Turks in December 1917, he entered the city on foot and issued a proclamation that included: "The hereditary custodians at the gates of the Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed duties...." Henry and James collaborated on an etching signifying the event in August 1918. 

Alleby enters Jerusalem 3 crop.JPG

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.


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. 

“Beside the temple of religion we erect the fortresses of destruction.
Within the shadow of the 
cathedral we build the barracks of the professional soldier. Mingled with the Hosannas to the Most High can be heard
the clang of the hammers shaping instruments of death.
To the same Throne of Grace go at once the triumphant thanks of the victor
and the groans and petitions for mercy from the agonized lips of the vanquished.”
James A. Reed (1861-1944), U.S. Senator from Missouri
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