The etching revival
Fresh insights
Catalogue raisonnee
On show
Sketchbook reprint
Useful links
Background reading
Etchings for sale
Press enquiries
Terms & conditions

Through the 19th century, printmakers were held in pretty low regard in the art world.  Etchings and engravings, for example, were not permitted in the exhibitions of the Royal Academy, being seen as a primarily reproductive craft.

Things began to change in the mid 1800s when groups of etchers in France and England evolved a new, lighter style of etching, and campaigned for more recognition of etching as an original art form.  By the 1880s, the time was ripe for the formation of a new society to further their interests, and in 1880 the Society of Painter-Etchers was born.

As the 20th century arrived, public interest in original etchings was growing steadily.  The Royal College of Art's Etching School was expanding under the leadership of Frank Short, and other national and regional art schools were teaching etching skills.  The 'etching revival' was under way.

By the 1920s the etching revival had turned into an etching boom ... and then a full-scale investment bubble.  

Speculators had driven prices of etchings up to unsustainable levels.  They were buying etchings by the most famous artists of the day, confident that they would be able to double their investment in a few months.

Artists and publishers were contributing to the upward price trend by limiting the size of each print run to 100 or fewer proofs, to create a scarcity value.

To illustrate how crazy things had become by 1929, one print from D Y Cameron's etching of a window at York Minster fetched a staggering £640 at a Sotheby's auction in May.  For that much money at the time you could have bought several houses or motor cars.  A live-in maid earned £15 a year.  

Owning a collection of etchings in the late 1920s was a sign of considerable wealth.  So inviting someone to 'come up and see my etchings' was a coded signal that you had loads of money.  It was a 1920s chat-up line.

Collecting etchings in those days was primarily a male pastime.  An etching of the period titled 'The print collector' by Frank Hill (see right) caught the mood very well.

[Interestingly, though, many of the prints the collectors admired were done by women artists, working as equals with their male counterparts.  Dorothy Woollard was one of those successful women etchers of the time].

By the late 1920s the price of etchings had gone beyond the reach of many traditional collectors.  So they contented themselves instead with buying books such as the annual Fine Prints of the Year, with their reproductions of some of the best prints around. 

Then, like all investment bubbles, the etching bubble burst.  The Wall Street crash was part of the cause.  When banks started calling in their loans, and people who had borrowed money to invest in etchings became forced sellers, prices crashed. 

There were other factors as well.  Fashions in interior design were changing, and the Victorian fashion for walls festooned with pictures was being replaced by more of a minimalist look with few (if any) hung pictures.  Then there were new printing techniques that brought full-colour prints to a wide public.

For the vast majority of etchers, as the economic recession of the 1930s took hold, it became very difficult to survive on the proceeds of etching.   Many artists who had been successful during the etching boom simply disappeared from view after 1930.

The etching revival was over.

But the invitation to 'come up and see my etchings' has survived into the present time as a term rich in sexual innuendo, even if nobody knows how it originated.