Etching Revival as a term refers to a pivotal era spanning from approximately 1850 to 1930, characterised by a renewed focus on etching as a formidable art form. Prior to this resurgence, etching was frequently relegated to commercial illustration or reproductive works, a sentiment echoed in John Ruskin’s writings that often dismissed etching as “an indolent and blundering art”. However, significant artists such as James McNeill Whistler in Britain and Félix Vallotton in France contested this prevailing viewpoint. Whistler’s ‘Venetian’ series, explored in S. R. Koehler’s 1880s work American Art, exemplifies the artist’s dedication to re-evaluating and elevating the medium.
Etching Revival in Britain
British artists such as Martin Hardie, who was not only an etcher but also a notable historian of the medium, and William Strang, known for his portrait etchings, further contributed to the medium’s renaissance during this period, as explored in Hardie’s comprehensive catalogue of British etchers. Among the less heralded but no less significant artists contributing to the Etching Revival was Edward Hill Lacey. While Lacey may not have achieved the fame of a Whistler or Vallotton, his works capture the era’s fascination with portraiture and quotidian scenes, thereby emphasising the movement’s democratisation of subject matter. Lacey’s contributions epitomise the Etching Revival’s inclusivity, offering a stage for a diverse array of artists to push the medium’s boundaries.
A crucial catalyst in the Etching Revival was the foundation of specialised artists’ societies, such as the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in Britain, founded in 1880, and chronicled in Elizabeth Harvey-Lee’s well-regarded text The Seductive Art: The British Passion for Etching 1850-1950 (2001). These societies actively promoted etching through exhibitions, lectures, and publications. The Royal Society’s journal, The Print Collector’s Quarterly, became a vital platform for critical discourse, helping etchers gain both critical acclaim and commercial visibility.
The period saw groundbreaking experimentation in etching techniques, including soft-ground etching and aquatint, extensively discussed in W.S. Hayter’s New Ways of Gravure (1966). The medium’s intrinsic adaptability led to a diversity of styles and themes, ranging from the intricate landscapes of Samuel Palmer to the social commentaries of Käthe Kollwitz.
International influence was also considerable; the Etching Revival inspired artists across Europe and even reached American shores, influencing the Ashcan School. Its enduring impact is evident in the works of contemporary artists, as explored in Tristan Manco’s Raw + Material = Art (2012), who continue to push the boundaries of etching’s versatile and expressive possibilities.
Therefore, the Etching Revival serves as more than a historical footnote; it represents a paradigm shift in the art world, re-establishing a marginalised medium’s rightful place in the pantheon of fine arts. Scholarly attention to this period remains relevant for understanding the evolving criteria by which art is evaluated and appreciated.