J.S. has four framed engravings on paper from the Victorian era, circa 1840. The titles are narrative, instructive and symptomatic of the mid-Victorian sentiment around art for the home: "A Contadina Family Prisoners with Banditti," "The First Day of Oysters," "Neapolitan Peasants" and "A Procession with Christening" — all joyful, sweet and idyllic glimpses into the merry lives of healthy Italian peasant folks, just the opposite of real peasants in the 1840s.
The print I chose to include in a photo here has the added Victorian flourish of sex in the scene. Look at the dynamic between the handsome Italian bandit and the lovely young wife. Witness also the despair of the husband who, no doubt, caused the little family tragedy with his intrepid travels away from the safety of home. The artist was quite a notable Victorian tastemaker, Charles Lock Eastlake, the piece engraved by Edward Smith, and published by EW Finden. On old British engravings, J.S., look for three names: one will be the artist, from whose painting the engraving was copied; one will be the engraver; and one, the publisher.
When a mid-19th century image was reproduced in an engraving, generally the artist had little to do with the reproduction. Before copyright, any engraver could "popularize" an image. So many engravings were made of famous or beloved paintings, it's hard to understand why the original artists did not complain, but then, this was before intellectual property was property.
Charles Lock Eastlake, however, a worldly man of art, might have known his paintings were being mass-published as engravings. Eastlake was such a famous scholar, author and artist that in 1841 he was nominated to the Secretary of the Fine Arts Commission of England. Sir Charles' famous nephew, also a Charles Locke Eastlake (note the "e" after Lock, unlike his uncle's name), was instrumental in establishing "Rules for a Tasteful British House" in his book Hints on Household Taste. His uncle Charles was the famous keeper of the National Gallery in London, president of the Royal Academy in 1850, president of the Photographic Society in 1853, and finally the director of the National Gallery in 1855. The British art world respected both uncle and nephew as artists and academicians; Uncle Charles became Sir Charles in 1850.
The elder Eastlake is known for his works of art, many with Italian themes, as well as his translation of Goethe's "Theory of Colors" in 1840. Uncle Charles was a polymath, a gentleman of his times, good at almost everything, with piles of money to boot.
These engravings would have "ennobled" the room where they hung in the 1840s-50s and would have signaled the occupant's excellent taste in art and knowledge of art scholarship. Once considered valuable, these prints today sell for $40 to $50 each! I know of no poorer object in the market today than mid-19th century British "narrative" engravings or "after" prints like these, which preach a slightly saccharine story.
The younger Charles' famous bible of taste, Hints on Household Taste, recommended to the British public that each family should strive for high levels of "beauty" in their homes. Here's a quote from the book: "It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls, it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls." Charles did not flatter the female housewives of his era: "We may condemn a lady's opinion on politics, criticize her handwriting, correct her Latin, but if we venture to question her taste, in the most ordinary sense of the word, we are sure to offend." And his "Hints" included instruction on a lady's choice of upholstery, fabrics, wall colors, the type of engravings to hang, the style of furniture to purchase. He suggested "fixed principles of taste for the popular guidance of those not accustomed to hear such principles." Here again we see that late Victorian moralizing influence.
The elder Charles loved, as we see in J.S.'s engravings, Italy, where he studied art as a student in Rome with Sir Thomas Lawrence and JMW Turner. He died, after a long British career as a scholar and gallery director, in Pisa in 1865. A sea change from London, he adored Naples and admired the Italian peasant life symbolized by the "contadina," an Italian expression meaning "girl of the fields." His own wife was just the opposite type of female, a highly educated translator of thick, dense German philosophy! J.S., your four prints in a series are worth $200. Hold 'em — one day the world may admire Victorian printmaking.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter