October 16, 2012

Letitia Byrne, Engraver

        Today's prodigy is Letitia Byrne, born in 1779.  The daughter of an engraver, all of her five siblings also became artists, including three sisters, at least one of whom was a successful watercolorist.  Letitia was exhibiting at the Royal Academy at the age of twenty, but reached real success when she engraved a whole series of scenes for an 1810 book entitled A Description of Tunbridge Wells and Its Neighborhood.
        The original artist who drew the scenes was the author of the book, Paul Amsinck, and Letitia Byrne converted the images into engravings.  I've tried to find out more about Letitia, but without much success.  Did she draw any scenes for engravings herself?  Was she the only woman successfully making a living as an engraver at the time?  Did she remain part of her father's studio or strike out on her own?  Did she marry?  And if so, how did career and family mix?  I just don't know.  Sources do say that she died in 1849, having made lots more engravings beyond her first Tunbridge Wells hit.
        These pieces of Byrne's are intaglio, presumably copper plate, putting them outside my usual zone of interest.  (Also, the title page calls them engravings, but they're individually labelled as etchings.  I'm not sure what to make of that.)  Intaglio images never look carved - to me, they're just like pen drawings with lots of skritchy little lines.  Still, they share with my beloved relief prints the carving of a hard surface, as well as the translation of a full-color, infinitely gradated universe into black and white: ink and no ink.
        Plus, I'm always interested in people who are able to follow their talents in a world that may not encourage them.  Byrne, of course, had a father to shepherd her talent, and an encouraging father, brother, or husband was pretty much essential for a woman to become a serious artist in the eighteenth/nineteenth century.  Still, it's a good reminder that in any age children's talents can be either valued or squelched.  That's why I think it's so important to spread the joy about art.  It's so easy for children (and adults?) to receive the message that what they create isn't good enough, and it's so important to remind them over and over that there's joy here for all of us.  Maybe we can't all engrave like Letitia Byrne (I'm sure I can't!), but whatever form of art we love, we can always keep working at it.

[Pictures: Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst, engraving or etching by Letitia Byrne from a drawing by Paul Amsinck, 1809;
House at Pounds Bridge, Penshurst, engraving or etching by Byrne from drawing by Amsinck, 1809.  (Images from The Weald of Kent, Surrey & Sussex.)]

1 comment:

  1. Letitia Byrne was closely associated with Francis Nicholson (1753 -1844) and his family including his youngest daughter Marianne Nicholson (1791 - 1854) - See "Francis Nicholson: Painter, Printmaker and Drawing Master" Blackthorn Press 2012.

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