Thursday, February 25, 2016

Asian Art Deco #1: Dorsey Potter Tyson

Dorsey Potter Tyson (1891-1969) is one of those individuals whom I call an “armchair orientalist.”  His print output is defined predominantly by Asian imagery but, other than a trip to Bermuda, there’s no evidence that he ever left the United States.  Born in Frederick, Maryland, Tyson spent almost his entire life in the Baltimore area, which is where I also coincidentally grew up.  Even so, this fellow Marylander has found information about Tyson's life and career to be frustratingly hard to come by.

Dorsey Potter Tyson in Atlantic City (c. 1950s?)
Courtesy of Geoffrey Oliver

After hours of Internet sleuthing, I learned that Tyson was the son of Caleb Dorsey Tyson, a clerk and later salesman of cement and building supplies, and Lillian Potter.  He was often mistakenly referred to as “Dorothy” Tyson, a fact which no doubt contributed to his decision to be called “Pete” or “Petey” by close friends.  Tyson graduated from Baltimore City College in 1911, where he appears to have studied law, although it is not clear that he ever sat for the bar.  He was elected the Law Department’s class secretary and was also designated the class artist, all the while working at the Title Guarantee and Trust Co.  According to his WWI draft card, by 1917 he was a clerk at the Fidelity Trust Company in Baltimore and said to be of medium height and build with blue eyes and slightly balding brown hair.  It appears that he was stationed on Long Island during the Great War but apparently never served in combat. The following year he married Caroline (“Kitty”) Polk of Baltimore, Maryland.  According to the 1920 federal census, he was listed as living on the Upper West Side of New York City and working for a brokerage firm as well as living at his parents’ home in Baltimore where he was listed as a bond salesman.  He also appeared in the 1922 edition of Investment Bankers and Brokers of America working for the Investment Registry of America, Inc. in Baltimore as the Manager of their Philadelphia branch.

Ex Libris for William E. Bauer (1926) by Dorsey Potter Tyson

Near as I can determine, Tyson’s earliest etching dates to 1926, an ex libris for William E. Bauer.  Bauer's identity and relationship to Tyson is not currently known, but the most likely candidate was a identically-named gentleman who was involved in lending maps and pictures of Baltimore to be used as illustrations for "Baltimore: A Not So Serious History" (1928) by Letitia Stockett.  If so, he might have been a local patron of Tyson, as many of Tyson's early etchings were scenes of Baltimore.  Starting in 1928, however, Tyson began to make his art deco-styled colored etchings of Asian (and usually predominantly Chinese) scenes.  One can only assume that he took his cue from Elyse Lord’s popularity in this genre and, probably for that reason, he enjoyed a strong English following for his work.

Washington Monument (1927) by Dorsey Potter Tyson
(archive photo of etching)

By 1930, Tyson and his wife were still living with his parents, but his occupation in the 1930 federal census was listed as an “engraver,” which suggests that he was now a full-time artist.  The Depression, however, was very hard on most etchers, and it appears that Tyson was no exception.  England originally had been a major market for Tyson's prints, but those sales dried up by the early 1930s when Great Britain imposed a fifty percent import duty on such works.  Although not all of Tyson’s etchings are dated, the latest example I’ve found is dated to 1934 and the latest scored plate I’ve found was cancelled in 1938.  By 1940, the federal census reports Tyson as living in an apartment in Baltimore (with his widowed mother living in the apartment next door), an apartment which he had been renting for at least 5 years.  No occupation is listed and it appears that he was unemployed at the time.

Dragon Boat Festival (1929) by Dorsey Potter Tyson
Courtesy of The Art of Japan

Unfortunately, federal census records after 1940 are not yet available to the public.  Tyson’s 1942 WWII draft registration card has him listed as being self-employed and living in Ruxton, a section of the Towson suburb in Baltimore County.  It is known that Tyson was a dog fancier, particularly of spaniels.  As early as 1917 he had an Airedale Terrier listed in the American Kennel Club stud book.  He was approved to judge for the AKC English Setters and certain spaniel breeds in February 1938 and for Maltese and Pekinese dogs in 1943.  Newspaper articles mention him judging toy dogs into at least the early 1950s.  Tyson was also friends with the etcher and fellow dog breeder/judge Marguerite Kirmse and her husband George W. Cole.  Thanks to an introduction by Kirmse, Tyson designed a bronze terrier sculpture for the Gorham Foundry in the mid-to-late 1930s, similar to a series of bronze Scotties that Kirmse had designed several years earlier for Gorham.

Patsy (Sussex Spaniel) (copyrighted March 31, 1931) by Dorsey Potter Tyson
Courtesy of
(bronze sculpture)

Not much else is known about Tyson’s later life except that he executed a number of gouache and colored pencil works collectively known as the “Pixiecraft Collection” that were used for a series of covers for Poodle Showcase magazine circa 1964-1969.  These whimsical covers featured poodles dressed as people engaging in a variety of activities such as playing golf or skiing.  It’s possible that Tyson worked as an illustrator prior to 1964 for other publications, but such freelance work is as yet undocumented.

Cover designs for Poodle Showcase magazine (c. 1964-1969) by Dorsey Potter Tyson
(gouache and colored pencil)

It is Tyson’s art  deco colored etchings, however, for which he is largely remembered today.  His standard technique for producing such colored etchings was rather unusual.  They were not handcolored, as Charles W. Bartlett’s etchings were.  Their colors were also not applied by woodblocks, the method often employed by Elyse Lord.  Nor were these prints mezzotints or aquatints.  The English print dealer Michael Campbell of Campbell Fine Art has made a detailed analysis of Tyson’s prints and determined that “[t]hey are in fact, the result of skillful colour printing alone, using a technique which effectively combines the printing of a normal etching simultaneously with that of printing a monotype.  The lines of the etched design, which compose the basic image are inked with black printer's ink, and the surface of the plate is then cleaned in the manner used for printing a normal monochrome etching.  Thick, coloured printer’s inks are then painted onto the surface of the plate using a brush as though painting a plate for a monotype printing; the proof is then printed at one pull through the press.”  This is a time-consuming alternative to applying color “à la poupée,” and was a “technique was being used in England on single metal printing plates in one printing by the Detmold twins from the 1890’s through until the 1920’s (by the surviving brother) and on multiple metal printing plates in multiple printings by William Giles.”

Original label for the etching "Dawn" (1932) by Dorsey Potter Tyson

There is, as yet, no catalogue raisonné for Tyson’s prints, so the following list is undoubtedly incomplete.  If a reader is aware of a missing design, please let me know and I will add it to the list.  Tyson’s etchings are sometimes, though not always, hand-titled in pencil.  Fortunately, the original labels for many of his etchings have survived to supply authoritative titles that might missing from the prints themselves.  Nonetheless, some of the reported titles by certain dealers and auction houses appear to be unofficial, descriptively-attributed ones.

The dating of Tyson’s prints can also sometimes be problematic.  In some cases, the creation date is noted in the plate itself.  However, such dates are almost microscopically small and often illegible in most on-line images.  In other cases, Tyson helpfully hand-noted the date in Roman numerals in pencil.   But no date is readily apparent for a number of his designs.  I’ve listed his color prints chronologically, with those that are undated or with illegible dates last.  If a reader has ready access to any of his prints and can date a given design (or correct the date for a given design), let me know and I’ll put the print in its proper place.

Restrikes of at least some of Tyson's etchings were made in the 1970s after Tyson's death.  Absent a label to that effect, it is not known at this time how the restrike etchings can be distinguished from the original etchings.  The mat for one of these posthumously-printed etchings bears the name of the Marson Ltd. Gallery, but that may have been the name the framer, and not the publisher of the restrike etching.

Unless otherwise indicated, the following etchings are all in color and have an edition size of 100. 


 1. Ex libris William E. Bauer, black and white etching, edition unknown.

[See image above]


2. Washington Monument, black and white etching, edition of 300.   View taken from the southwest corner of Mt. Vernon Place.

[See image above]

3. Washington Monument Looking North, black and white etching, edition unknown.


4. North Avenue Viaduct & Mt. Royal Pumping Station, assumed to be a black and white etching, edition unknown.

5. Old Gay Street [Baltimore Skyline from the Northeast], assumed to be a black and white etching, edition unknown.

6. University of Maryland School of Medicine, dated "28" in plate, edition unknown.

7. Village, etching in sepia, original edition unknown; restrike edition of 100 made in 1974.

(restrike edition)

8. Chinese Study #1, edition assumed to be 100, plate cancelled.

9. Chinese Study #2, dated "28" in plate, edition assumed to be 100, plate cancelled.

10. Dancer #1, edition assumed to be 100.   Note:  I have not found any record of this print, but the existence of "Dancer #2" suggests that such a print was made by Tyson.  It is also possible that this is the same print as "The New Dance" below.

11. Dancer #2, edition assumed to be 100.


12. Feast of Lanterns


13. Gossip, plate cancelled.


14. The Head Dress

Courtesy of Campbell Fine Art

15. Junks and Coolies, plate cancelled.


16. Siamese Dancers


17. Song of the Wood Wind


18. Hanover St. Bridge, assumed to be a black and white etching, edition unknown.

19. A Chinese Gong


20. Dragon Boat Festival
[See image above]

21. Loading Junks, dated "29" in plate, plate cancelled January 1933.

Courtesy of the TOJ Gallery
22. North Gate, dated "9/29" in plate.


23. Peacock Fan (aka My Peacock Fan), dated "29" in plate, plate cancelled May 18, 1934.

24. Puppet Show, dated "6-19-29" in plate.

25. The Snow Maiden

Courtesy of Frazer Fine Art

26. Sword Dance



27. Baltimore Cathedral, black and white etching, edition unknown.

Note: This etching, published by the Purnell Galleries, was commissioned as a Maryland Chapter Souvenir of the Ninth Biennial Convention of the International Federal of Catholic Alumnae, August 1930.

28. Bright Sails, dated "30" in plate, only 86 proofs were made, plate cancelled March 1, 1938.

Courtesy of the TOJ Gallery

29. Chinese Study #3, dated "1-2-30" in plate, plate cancelled June 30, 1938.

 Note:  This color variant is dated "11-1-30" in plate:

30. Chinese Study #4, dated "10-30-30" in plate.

31. East Wind, dated "4-22-30" in plate.


32. Joy Ride, dated "11-8-30" in plate.


33. Mother and Child, edition assumed to be 100.


34. An Old Song


 35. A Peking Cart dated "2-11-30" in plate.

36. A Princess, dated "2-9-30" in plate, plate cancelled March 17, 1937.


37. The Temple 

38. Untitled [Asian Woman]



39.  The Coolie, dated "31" in plate, plate cancelled June 30, 1938.  Note: In lieu of locating an image of the colored print itself, I have shown a print taken from the cancelled plate.

40. Jade Market, dated 4-31 in plate.

Courtesy of The Art of Japan

41. Market Day


42. Phoenix Bird, edition assumed to be 100.

43. Spring Rain, dated "6-26-31" in plate.



44. At Bay, dated "1-2-32" in plate, plate cancelled June 30, 1938.

45. Brush Boat

46. The Concert


47. Dawn, dated "8-19-32" in plate.

48. The Favorite (aka The Singing Geisha), dated "9-12-32" in plate.


49. Flower Basket


50. Jewel Box


51. Nomads, dated "8-12-32" in plate, plate cancelled January 3, 1935.


52. Secrets



53. Blossoms (aka Gathering Blossoms)

54. Dance of the Dreams

55. Lacquer Bridge


56. The Offering


Unknown Dates

57. Baltimore Skyline from the Northeast,  presumed to be a black and white etching, edition unknown.

58. Basilica of the Assumption, presumed to be a black and white etching, edition unknown.

59. The Bridge [aka New York From Brooklyn], etching in sepia?, edition unknown.

60. The Bridge (possibly a descriptive title), black and white etching, edition unknown.   Note: Could this be the Pont Neuf in Paris?

Courtesy of Mills College Art Museum

61. West Biddle Street, presumed to be a black and white etching, edition unknown.  Note: There is an untitled print of a street in the Maryland Historical Society archives dated 1928 and of an edition of 100 which is possibly this print.

62. The Bridge

63. China Bridge, plate cancelled December 23, 1933.


64. The Circus, edition assumed to be 100.

65. Goose Boy


66. The Jinrikishaw (aka Rikishaw)


67.  Moon Maid, edition of 100, plate size 9-3/4" x 11-3/4"

.68. The Necklace, only 54 proofs were made, plate cancelled November 28, 1932.


69. The New Dance

Courtesy of The Art of Japan

70. Orange Sails

Courtesy of the Edward T. Pollack Fine Arts

71. Plum Blossom


(color variant)

72. River Traders

73. Sing Song Boat

74. Tea Time

Courtesy of Campbell Fine Art

75. Snag (aka Tangled)


76. Untitled [Water Gate #2?], edition assumed to be 100.  Note: In lieu of an image of the colored print, I have shown a black and white print taken from the plate.  Given that the plate was not cancelled at the time that the print was made, it is possible that less than 100 proofs were made, or that the design was never commercially issued.


77. Vanity

78. Water Gate

 79.  Unknown "S.P.Q.R." design

 Courtesy of a Private Collector

Note:  This etching is known only from Tyson's plate and may not have finished or ever commercially issued.  It shows an Erte-type flapper near a crest bearing the initials "S.P.Q.R." (the Latin initials for Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and the People of Rome).

 80.  Untitled [Couple under an Umbrella]

I'm also aware of another Tyson design but the details concerning its medium are murky.   I'm told that the first work below appears to be a photograph (presumably of a drawing or uncolored test etching) with a little bit of white paint applied, and that the second is a fully hand-colored copy of the same photographic image.  Bertha Lum is known to have produced similar types of works.  Perhaps this was Potter's way of planning out the colors for his etchings, or maybe it was his way to generate additional income once the original edition was completed and his plates had been scored.  In fact, the second work is illogically numbered "215/100."  Could this mean that at least an additional 115 of these mixed media pieces were created outside of the edition of the 100?  Whether Potter commercially issued etchings based on this design is not known at this time, but it does not seem illogical to assume that some might have been.

 Mixed media work ["Tea"] with test color added by hand
Courtesy of Geoffrey Oliver

Mixed media work ["Tea"] with extensive hand-coloring
Courtesy of Geoffrey Oliver

The University of Baltimore Langsdale Library, was at one time, in possession of 23 prints taken from (mostly) cancelled plates by Tyson (and possibly the plates as well).  However, at some point prior to 2013, these prints were destroyed.  A visual record of 20 of those prints can, at least for the time being, be found on a prior incarnation of the University of Baltimore website.  The location of Tyson’s plates are largely unknown, although a few turned up for sale at a Maryland auction a number of years ago (including at least three of the plates used to make some of the Langsdale Library's prints).

Dorsey Potter Tyson in Atlantic City (c. 1950s?)
Courtesy of Geoffrey Oliver

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