Whilst the owners were living in London, visits were regularly made to the Royal Exhange Gallery, not for the marine pictures which they specialised in, but the etchings which they also sold. Visits to the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street also cemented interest in the medium. As a result, the collection of etchings takes a viewer on a voyage of discovery through British etching. Gerald Leslie Brockhurst's print masterpiece Adolescence is a focal point, but all the leading British etchers are represented from Whistler and Griggs to D.Y. Cameron and James McBey, from Samuel Palmer and Robin Tanner to Dame Laura Knight and Charles Nevinson.
Etching is a complicated and involved printing process which requires technical skill, as well as artistic flair. To create an image, the printing plate, normally made from copper, is covered in varnish, into which the artist scratches with a needle to create the image. The plate is then entered into an acid bath, and the acid ‘bites’ into the scratched areas of exposed metal, ‘etching’ the design.
The appeal of etching, for both artists and collectors, is its artistic freedom. The process is similar to drawing, so it is particularly appealing to artists interested and skilled in draughtsmanship, and coupled with the technical skills required, make it an artistically important medium in its own right, as opposed to just a way to reproduce images. The etching revival of 1850-1930 celebrated these distinctive creative qualities, and generated a large market. Collecting prints became a mania, with prices rising astonishingly quickly; so quickly that an artist would make a new print, his/her gallery would invite collectors to subscribe, and at the same time as making their subscription the collectors themselves would immediately organise an auction date for six months later, allowing them to sell their impression from the sold-out edition for a higher price, generating themselves a profit. The market rose and rose until the Wall Street Crash of 1929, when the bubble dramatically burst, and artist’s whose prints had been selling out in 1929, were only able to sell a single print in 1930.
Etching came back into favour in the 1980s when a new, smaller market was established as collectors re-discovered the artistic genius and technical brilliance of these works. Their small, but important place within the wider movements in art during the 19th and 20th centuries was recognised. To this day, etchings remain an important and engaging collecting area. For collectors, they present the opportunity to own an artwork by a very good artist, often at a much smaller cost than an original painting or drawing. They also offer a very particular joy in their ability to be appreciated for their immense technical as well as artistic achievement. As a technical approach, there is room, if desired, for an academic pursuit of knowledge and understanding in their collection and study, across different states, impressions and within specific areas and subjects. Delivering across all these areas, the etchings from Kirkton House are a collecting treasure trove.