Friday, August 07, 2015

A Call To Arms

John Taylor Arms (1887-1953) was one of the major American etchers of the first half of the 20th Century.  Nicknamed the "Modern Medievalist," he is particularly famous for his almost photographic black-and-white renditions of Gothic cathedrals and their gargoyles.  Like a number of notable etchers, Arms was trained as an architect, and buildings were the things he depicted most in his prints.  But Arms was also drawn to nautical subjects.  He learned to fish and sail as a youth on the Potomac River in Maryland (a stone's throw from where I live) and, as an inveterate fisherman, he kept a pond stocked with trout at his studio home in Vermont.  He served as a ensign during World War I, and issued a couple of prints as a record of his time in the U.S. Navy.  After the war, he depicted sailboats on Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, and various New England sailing vessels.  During World War II, one of his contributions to the war effort was a series of etchings documenting the construction of naval vessels at various coastal shipyards that were sold at Navy Exchanges.

   John Taylor Arms

I recently discovered that, early on in Arms' career, he also did a handful of Oriental nautical scenes. The first such published print was a black and white etching called "On The Road to Mandalay":

On The Road To Mandalay (1917) 
(etching)

Although, with rare exceptions, Arms would print exclusively in black and white after 1925, during his first decade as an etcher Arms often printed in aquatints, especially if the print featured a sailing vessel.  Such aquatints would be printed in both black and white and in color editions.  Arms scholar S. William Pelletier has commented that, while Arms was not a student of Oriental art, the muted hues and delicate shading of Arms' "A Hong Kong Canal Boat" etching recall the woodblock prints of Hiroshige.

A Hong Kong Canal Boat (1919)
(etching with aquatint)


A Hong Kong Canal Boat (1919)
(etching with aquatint)

After creating the original preparatory pencil drawing for a given print design, Arms would trace the main outlines of the subject on a piece of tracing paper.  The tracing would be laid face down on the grounded, smoked plate if the subject is to be reversed, face up it if was not.  A piece of rouge paper would be inserted in between the plate and transfer drawing.  He would then go over whatever lines of the tracing as he saw fit with a needle dulled so as not to tear the tracing paper, leaving red lines on the plate as a guide.  He would then draw through the protective ground with a sewing needle to expose the copper plate, adding details freehand above and beyond the transferred tracing lines.  Many of these original transfer drawings have survived.

The Harbor At Aden
(pencil drawing)

The Harbor At Aden (1919)
Personal Collection
(transfer drawing)

The Harbor At Aden (1919)
Personal Collection
(etching with aquatint)

Drifting, Somewhere In The Orient
Personal Collection
(pencil drawing)

Drifting, Somewhere In The Orient (1919)
Personal Collection
(transfer drawing)

 Drifting, Somewhere In The Orient (1919)
(etching with aquatint)

Still Waters (1919)
Personal Collection
(pencil drawing)

Still Waters (1919)
Personal Collection
(transfer drawing)

Still Waters (1919)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop, N.Y.C.
(etching with aquatint)

These prints clearly suggest that Arms traveled from the Gulf of Aden to Burma to Hong Kong Harbor at some point.  But when?  I have been unable to find any mention of such a trip in the standard references on Arms.  I originally assumed that he did so while serving in the Navy during World War I, or else immediately after he was discharged.  But the United States entered the War in April 1917, so the plate for "On The Road To Mandalay" would have had to have been executed before Arms enlisted.  (It would also have been little reason for the U.S. Navy to have had much of a presence in Asia during the War.)  There is also a record of an early unpublished print in 1915 called "Harbor At Aden" that Arms seems to have abandoned after a single trial proof (which may not have survived).  So his trip to Asia, if he in fact ever took one, must have taken place on or before 1915.  Was it on some trip around the world that he took with his wife, Dorothy, who he married in 1913?   Or did he base these etchings upon photographs filtered through his own imagination?  If a reader can shed light on this mystery, please let me know.

In 1921, Arms started his "Ship Series" of etchings, designed to cover the development of ships from the earliest days down to the present.  Although abandoned after seven designs in 1925, Arms depicted in aquantints such various vessels as a Spanish galleon, a Norse Viking ship, and an American clipper ship.  The fourth plate in the series was a Chinese junk.

"Where The Junk Sails Lift" (1922)
Courtesy of The Old Print Shop, N.Y.C.
(pencil drawing)

"Where the Junk Sails Lift" (1922)
Personal Collection
(trial proof etching with aquatint)

"Where The Junk Sails Lift" (1922)
(etching with aquatint)

Arms may have been unaware of the state of Japanese woodblock printing, but it is interesting to compare his work with a few sailboat prints by contemporaneous Japanese woodblock print artists.

Boats On A Cloudy Day (c. 1910s) by Ohara Koson
(woodblock print)

Fishing Boats (c. 1910s) by Ohara Koson
(woodblock print)

Kominato Harbor (c. 1910s) by Suzuki Kason
Personal Collection
(woodblock print)

Interested readers will want to know that The Old Print Shop in New York City still has for sale a number of preparatory and transfer drawings from the Arms estate for various other Arms print designs.

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