Unprecedented and remarkably unique collaborations between American artists and progressive independent publishers during the last quarter of the 19th century—which featured original art work—were the forerunners of magazines like Egmont Ahren’s early 20th century Playboy. The first of these artist driven ventures to achieve widespread commercial success was Poets and Etchers.
The first edition of Poets and Etchers, copyrighted in 1881, was released in early 1882. The publication, which incorporated original etchings created by members of the New York Etching Club, was an instant success and almost immediately went into a second printing, followed by a third and possibly fourth edition. However, the genesis of this sensational project—organized by America’s first artists etchers lay in inspiration from many years earlier.
In 1866 a young American artist named Henry Farrer saw an exhibition in New York City of etchings by largely contemporary European artists. The show was produced by a Frenchman named Cadart under the auspices of the French Etching Club. The exhibition and a second mounted in 1868 were both presented in a gallery at 625 Broadway. Farrer was so inspired that he built his own etching press to begin printing his first etched plates.
Following the 1868 exhibition Cadart collaborated with publishing professionals Verlaine, Paul, and Lemerre in Paris and helped produce Sonnets Et Eaux-Fortes (Poems and Etchings) in 1869. Printed in an exceptionally deluxe edition of 350 copies this remarkable and popular project featured etchings by Corot, Daubigny, Manet, Gerome and Dore, among many others.
|Henry Farrer, Twilight—5" x 7"|
No doubt Henry Farrer soon knew of this publication and, in my estimate, eventually had a chance to study one; for, about a decade after its release, Farrer succeeded in enlisting the participation of four other early members of the New York Etching Club in a similar project published by Osgood & Co., of Boston, Massachusetts, not-coincidentally titled Poets and Etchers.
One of Farrer’s collaborators in the publication was fellow artist-etcher James D. Smillie. Smillie, whose diaries have been preserved by The Archives of American Art, kept detailed records of many of his artistic endeavors. On November 3, 1880, Smillie noted that,“Farrer, Bellows & Colman called—much interested in etchings & proving paper.” Each of these artists and a fourth, Robert Swain Gifford, were the eventual artist-illustrators of Poets and Etchers. On November 13 Smillie recorded that "Farrer brought his four etchings for the Osgood book," and on November 29 he further noted: "then to 51 W. 10'S"—with Farrer’s 'Poets & Etcher's' Jap. P.fs for his autograph.” Henry Farrer must have had Smillie, who had his own etching press, proof the above-referenced plates.
|James D. Smillie, Nocturn—8" x 6"|
Between Henry Farrer and his colleagues James D. Smillie, A. F. Bellows, Samuel Colman, and R. Swain Gifford they produced twenty original etchings to accompany poetry by such distinguished poets as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A later diary entry by Smillie suggested a high level of satisfaction with the success and quality of this exquisitely executed and seminal "artist’s book" project. This collaborative effort between publisher, artist and poet in the publication of Poets and Etchers marks the first such successful commercial event of this type—incorporating copies of original prints—in American history.
By today’s standards, some of the original prints in Poets and Etchers may appear a bit primitive to some, but in their day they were state-of-the-art artist etchings. Similarly, the subject material in a number of these Victorian era etchings, created to accompany period prose, may seem understandably remote, but they were all the rage 130 years ago. Had these artists not initiated this publication—and several similar projects that would soon follow—the shape of artist printmaking, fine art publishing for a mass market, and the greater art world at the turn of the 20th century would have been quite different. Today, intact copies of Poets and Etchers, while not commonly available, may be found on line at auction for as little as $60—a remarkably good buy and investment.
|A. F. Bellows, Telling the Bee—7 1/4" x 5 1/4"|
|Samuel Colman, The Belfry at Bruges—4 1/2" x 3 1/2"|
|Robert Swain Gifford, Palestine—5 7/8" x 3 3/4"|