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  • Artistic Communities:The Example of the Etching Club
  • Juliet McMaster (bio)

Some communities are self-sustaining and self-renewing and last through many generations; others, like their human members, have a finite lifetime and may sicken and die from internal causes. The Etching Club, a thriving and productive association of distinguished artists, was the latter kind, and died before its members did. John Calcott Horsley, ra, was both a founding member, in 1838, and present at the club’s last meeting, in 1885. The club’s minute book in the National Art Library, as well as memoirs and letters, both published and unpublished, of its members, allow us to put together a “biography” of this very lively and creative community and to measure what it achieved.

The membership comprised many of the distinguished painters of the day, including John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Samuel Palmer. In addition to Horsley, Charles West Cope and Richard Redgrave were founding members. James Clarke Hook and Richard Ansdell were members of long standing; James McNeill Whistler made occasional appearances in the club’s offshoot, the Junior Etching Club. A majority of the members belonged to that more august and formal institution, the Royal Academy, or were elected ra in the course of their membership.

The aims of this community were formally declared and recorded in their minute book. “The enjoyment of one another’s Society” is mentioned [End Page 17] early. But the principal object was their “mutual improvement in art, and the advancement of that branch of it, concerned with etching” (7 November 1838). They wanted not only to advance their own expertise in the art but also to contribute to the advancement of etching itself so that, like many other communities, they had a mission beyond mere gratification.

“The enjoyment of one another’s Society” involved much of that classic element of community, the sharing of food and drink. From the beginning, members met over meals—initially simple bread-and-cheese repasts in one another’s houses, where they managed to spoil tabletops with acid during their experiments; then more elaborate meals at the King’s Arms, a Kensington pub; and at last, as their means improved in the booming Victorian art market, at one another’s country houses, where they delighted in hospitality that lasted for days.

They had their annual rituals. One of them was to take a holiday after the busy weeks leading up to “sending-in day” for the Royal Academy; on these occasions they travelled to the country and disported themselves like schoolboys, walking, rowing, and playing at rounders. In the long history of the club, wrote Cope, “Young men … got to be decidedly old, but yet with some friskiness left in [them]” (138). Hook in his sixties could still challenge his guests to leapfrog.

This was a community, too, that looked after its own. When Redgrave grew old and was losing his vision, he offered to resign, but his colleagues could not spare his company. They arranged for him to be escorted to and from the meetings, and his daughter records that between tall Millais on one side and short John Oldham Barlow on the other he had a memorable walk home (Redgrave 351).

But they had their serious business too. Each was expected to bring an original etching to the meetings; the club had its own press, and members learned about the complex processes of biting-in and printing. They proceeded to club publications advertising collections of their work for sale—and because their names were already established, their work sold well, though the prices were modest.

The early publications were largely exercises in illustration—for instance, the club issued illustrated editions of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1841) and William Shakespeare’s Songs and Ballads (1852). But they gravitated to more individually expressive subjects, such as etched versions of their own paintings. For instance, Hook adapted his much-admired painting A Fisherman’s Goodnight, exhibited in 1856, as an etching the following year (fig. 1).

Why etch a version of a painting that has already been exhibited and sold? Some club members, at least, believed in etching as a poor...


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