Etching was popularised in the 17th century by artists like Rembrandt (1606-69). By the early 19th century printmaking in Britain had reached an all time low. Seen as a reproductive medium and not original art, etching became devalued through the mass production and distribution of print.
The etching revival redefined the medium and brought a shift in etching style which can be traced to France in the 1830s and 40s. The artist Charles Meryon (1821-68) was influential through his ‘Etchings of Paris’ in 1850-54 and the Société des Aquafortistes (Society of Etchers) was formed in 1862. Renewed interest had begun in London from as early as 1838 with the founding of The Etching Club.
The writings of Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) and the art critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-94) were instrumental in promoting etching as an original art medium in Britain. Haden was James McNeill Whistler’s (1834-1903) brother-in-law. In 1866 he published an article, ‘About Etching’, in the Fine Arts Quarterly Review. Haden established the etching practice as an immediate response to nature, championing its creative qualities rather than its reproductive function. He highlighted the importance of biting a plate immediately after drawing on it, to minimise the gap between inspiration and execution. Haden emphasised the significance of the etched line and advocated ‘a labour of selection and omission’ in which blank spaces could prompt the viewer to determine the meaning of what they saw. The lack of a line was therefore just as important as the line itself.
Etchers became more involved in the printing of their works, selecting individual and unique inks, paper and processes. They also collaborated more closely printers, most notably August Delâtre (1833-1907). Etchings became objects of desire, kept in portfolios and albums to be viewed on social occasions. Newly developed terminology, classification systems and sales strategies determined a print’s artistic and market value. Collectors paid high prices for rare states and limited editions.