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What Next for Reba and Dave Williams?

 

 

   

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What Next for Reba and Dave Williams?
The Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction

 

 

 

   
 



Reba and Dave Williams continue to own prints, including some of the rarest impressions from their original collection, and more than 100 color woodcuts. They will buy prints from time to time, and will make their interests known on this website. They are both enrolled at Spalding University, in the MFA Writing Program, and continue to write about prints.

Dave Williams, drawing on his experiences as a collector, is writing a book about print collecting. The book is divided into chapters on particular types of prints; chapter working titles include "American Screenprints," "Color Woodcuts," etc. The following is an excerpt from the chapter "Early American Prints."

Paul Revere is best known as a Revolutionary War messenger, immortalized in Longfellow's poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." His primary occupation was as a silversmith, recorded in John Singleton Copley's famous portrait of him, holding a silver teapot and stroking his chin.

He's hardly known at all as a printmaking artist, yet he was--one of America's earliest and best. The strong, steady hands required for working and engraving silver can also be used to engrave on a copper plate, and that's what Revere did. His subjects related to the War; his most famous print was The Boston Massacre of 1770, in which a squad of British soldiers fire on a rowdy mob of American civilians. Revere produced this engraving in black ink on white paper, then he and other artists colored it by hand, using watercolors--mainly to show the red of the British Redcoats, clearly identifying the enemy.

The Boston Massacre is the most famous print by an American artist made in the eighteenth century. We never acquired it. In the nearly forty years of our print collecting, The Boston Massacre came up for sale only once, as far as I know. We were so concentrated on twentieth century work, we let it pass--to our regret. In print collecting as in much else, it's the errors of omission, not commission, that linger in painful memory.

We did not miss another famous American eighteenth century print.

Joe Goddu, head of the print department at Hirschl & Adler Gallery, called. "We've just acquired what I think is the only copy of Charles Wilson Peale's only engraving. You should own it. It comes with the copper plate as well. It's impossible to get any of his prints--they're all in museums."

This was in 1990, and we were well on our way to creating our collection of 20th century American prints, having vowed to focus on this period. Just the same, we raced to 71st Street, home of Hirschl & Adler, intrigued with the possibility of owning this rare 18th century print by one of America's most renowned artists, a true Renaissance man... scientist, philosopher, author, as well as artist.

Hirschl & Adler is the ultimate "uptown" gallery, a beautiful, immaculate space, filled with paintings and sculpture, mostly 19th century American, carefully placed and lighted to present the art at its best. A high quality museum that also sells art.

Joe Goddu greeted us at the door, led us upstairs to the print department, and produced an elaborate gold frame that surrounds two small bits: a copper plate about two inches square, and a printed piece of paper the same size. We squinted at the tiny image as Joe explained, "Look at the animals and exotic plants in the border. The pelican has a fish in its bill. This is an actual ticket to Peale's museum of natural history, the first of its type in America, located in Philadelphia. The ticket is dated 1788. He printed his own entry tickets from his own engraved plate-- the entry price was twenty-five cents, pretty rich for the time."

Reba looked at me. "We've got to have it. It doesn't work with our collection, but it's a great historical object."

Joe told us more. "Peale made his first prints--mezzotints--in 1787, portraits of famous Americans, like Washington and Franklin."

"Don't you mean someone else made the mezzotints, copying his paintings?" I asked.

"No, he did all the work himself. He must have been tireless. He scored the copper plates, then burnished them to bring out the image. Maybe a professional printer ran them through a press. He also made an etching--only one, I think. It's interesting."

"You've seen it?" Reba wanted to know.

"I saw a copy at Winterthur. I don't know of any others. It's a clever image."

Joe took a book off the shelf, and found an illustration of the print, titled The Accident in Lombard Street. The caption explains that it was the first of a planned series of Philadelphia street views, but this was the only one he ever made.

Joe elaborated. "As you see, a maid has dropped a platter of food, and it's broken and spilled. Spectators are mocking her, dogs are barking. It's a great print, but I don't think you'll ever see an impression for sale, or any other print of his. He stopped making prints after 1787-1788. He devoted all his time to oil painting and his natural history museum. This ticket is the last print he made."

I confirmed Reba's opinion. "Not only is it good quality art, however small, but it's a token of an Enlightenment figure, artist, naturalist, inventor, and scientist. We can't resist." And so it became ours.

*****

Charles Wilson Peale stayed in our minds, partly because of his progeny. As art historians know, he named his children after famous artists, and some of them made prints. Rembrandt Peale, for example, was an active printmaker. The art-making impulse in this family was very strong. Several generations later, a descendant, Sophonisba Hergesheimer made prints. We collected Hergesheimer's floral prints made in the 1920s-30s, and hung them in our apartment. Reba was intrigued with the long family history of printmaking, so we decided to go back in time and look at Rembrandt Peale's work--if we could find it.

Find it we did, at the aptly named Old Print Shop, located downtown on Lexington Avenue. The Old Print Shop is just that. There's nothing modern or slick about the décor in this old-fashioned place. Creaking wood floors, prints in bins and drawers, hung frame against frame on walls, and stacked on tables--barely room for a customer to move around. A huge inventory of many types of prints. This is a place for a serious collector to search for and acquire prints.

The owner and proprietor, our friend Robert Newman, wasn't in the gallery the morning of our hunt for Rembrandt Peale. We were invited to paw through bins and stacks by a gallery assistant who helped us search. We soon uncovered two portraits of George Washington, one of Rembrandt Peale's specialties, both with inscriptions noting that Peale had himself drawn on the lithographic stones. No "afters" these.

The prices seemed too low, at $750 and $1500. We were assured that these prints weren't all that rare, and the condition wasn't perfect for either. Reba believed otherwise about one of them--Patriae Pater--in which the portrait of the Father of Our Country is seen through a stone surround covered with a garland of leaves and topped by a mask. She thought this a very rare print, and as usual, Reba had done her homework. She had researched the Peale family lineage, identifying printmakers, Charles Wilson to Rembrandt to Sophonisba Hergesheimer, etc. A typical American print research opportunity, still awaiting completion.

Patriae Pater was early-made in 1827. Lithography was invented in 1798 in Germany, and this was less than thirty years later in frontier America. We argued with the dealer assistant about the rarity of Patriae Pater, but he was adamant in his view. We asked, "Are you sure this is priced at only $1500?" The last thing we wanted to do was take advantage of a dealer on whom we depended for future supply.

We were assured the price was fair, so we paid and left with both Rembrandt Peale prints. A few years later, the Childs Gallery's annual sales catalogue arrived. On the front cover was Patriae Pater. The catalogue had this to say about the print:

The Washington image is rare--Peale said the stone was spoiled after only a few impressions. This exceedingly rare print was one of the first major lithographs made in America during the first two years of American lithography by the important American artist Rembrandt Peale.2
Childs was offering the print for $9500.

Reba White Williams has written two mystery novels Restrike and Fatal Impressions, both set in the world of prints, and is writing the third, while her agent seeks a publisher for the first two.

Excerpts from the first two novels follow.

Excerpt from Restrike

Fifteen minutes before the bidding was to begin, Dinah was in her seat at Grendle's, paddle in hand. The ancient auction house on First Avenue in the fifties was small and shabby, and smelled of damp and mice. But it was jammed with reporters and curators-the press to see Heyward Bain and learn more about his plans for the print museum he was soon to open, the museum crowd to look at Toulouse-Lautrec's The Midget, which many of them would try to acquire.

Dinah had seen the print for the first time at Grendle's preview. It featured a cabaret actor, a tiny man in a top hat, white tie and tails, not an image the dwarf Lautrec might have been expected to find appealing. But the little man had great charm and the print was brilliant with splashes of red against the vivid yellow background, sharply contrasting with the black and white of the figure's apparel. The Midget was an outstanding example of Lautrec's Parisian nightlife series.

When she researched The Midget, Dinah learned that only three impressions were believed to exist until this one-the fourth-emerged. Neither The Metropolitan Museum nor The Museum of Modern Art owned the work; in fact, there wasn't an impression in the United States. No one seemed to know the identity of the seller. The catalogue didn't provide its provenance, unusual for a work of this quality and rarity. She wondered why, and also why such a rare and important print was being sold at an offbeat auction house like Grendle's, instead of at Christie's or Sotheby's or Killington's. The Midget should fetch a great deal of money; any auction house would have been happy to have it to sell. She assumed Heyward Bain would try to buy it for his museum, but he'd have a lot of competition.

Coleman arrived at Grendle's just before The Midget was to come up. She looked fabulous in an olive green shift and matching coat of her own design. She wore her signature three-inch heels, and huge gold hoop earrings dangled below her mop of blonde curls. Dinah guessed she'd dressed up to impress Heyward Bain, handsome, single, rich and new in town. She sat down beside Dinah, whispering, "Brett-Barker says he's going to buy the Lautrec for Bain-price no object. Look, there he is now. But Debbi called just as I was leaving the office to say Bain won't be here, damn it." She was already scribbling in her notebook.

The early bidding had been desultory with prices near the lower end of their estimates, and the crowd was restless and noisy. But the room became silent and tense when a Grendle employee brought out the Lautrec. The crowd sighed in near unison, while dozens of covetous curatorial eyes stared at the work.

But Simon held his paddle up ostentatiously throughout the bidding, and one after another the bidders dropped out, until for the last few bids, only Simon and a telephone bidder remained. The Midget's price far exceeded the Lautrec print auction record of about $500,000, selling to Simon for $800,000. Disappointed bidders from both the Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum left when the hammer went down on the Lautrec, as did most of the other people in the room. Coleman raced after Simon to get a quote, while Dinah successfully bid with little competition on two prints she planned to sell in her gallery.

Excerpt from Fatal Impressions

Thursday Night

Dinah's team hung the architectural prints--bridges, skyscrapers, Manhattan skyline views-in the 33rd floor reception area first. Next, they turned to the dining room. The river and harbor scenes, ferries, tugs, and ships transformed the big empty room, softening its starkness and complementing the magnificent water view. After the nineteenth century landscapes and seascapes were hung in the 32nd floor reception area, she could scarcely recognize the grim room; the overwhelming effect was now one of elegance.

When everything was completed, she walked through the three rooms again, photographing the installations with her digital camera. Tonight they'd hung nearly 150 prints, about 50 in each of the three rooms. Getting these rooms finished so fast was fabulous. Her first corporate client should be thrilled.

She and her team would hang on the corridors next week. They'd require about 600 prints, and arranging them would be challenging, because there would be greater variation in the themes, images, and sizes of the prints, but she had plenty of time, and she'd already acquired about half the needed works. She'd continue to hang at night--it was great not having to deal with bothersome bystanders-but the empty office was eerie. She heard a faraway clock strike midnight: the witching hour. She shivered, glad for the company of the hangers, gladder still to leave the place. It was quiet as a tomb.

Friday Morning

By five-thirty AM, Dinah was dressed, and had finished packing. At 5:45, Tom, her husband's driver, picked her up in the Lincoln Town Car Jonathan used mostly for business appointments and to travel to and from the airport. Dinah usually took the subway to the gallery and home, but today was different: Tom would drive her to her client's office, wait while she made a final check of the installations, then take her to the airport.

She was on her way uptown by a few minutes past six. Her suitcase and carry-on bag were in the trunk, her ticket to LA in her handbag. The weather was cold, damp and gray--a typical March day in New York. But in a few hours she'd be in warm sunshine, surrounded by the beautiful Bel-Air gardens, and enjoying a loving welcome by a surprised Jonathan.

She paused to admire the prints in the 33rd floor reception room, then hurried towards the dining room. But before she reached it, she noticed the door to Mrs. Anderson's office--the anteroom to the Managing Director's throne room--was open. Hunt Frederick must be in. She'd invite him to join her for a tour.

The door to his office was ajar. Dinah called out, but there was no reply. Maybe he was on the telephone, and couldn't hear her. She tapped on the door, and pushed it open. The carnage jumped up at her, a vision in a nightmare, and the smell was horrific-blood, urine, feces and-oh, God-a whiff of Jungle Gardenia. The heavily carved bookshelves on the left had pulled away from the wall, and shelving and books lay all over the floor. Beneath the jumble of dark wood, red leather, and white pages splattered with blood, a body and more blood, black against the red carpet. Blonde hair soaked in blood. A bloodstained beige platform shoe. A hand with purple-painted nails. Dinah tiptoed into the room, avoiding the blood, and touched the woman's wrist. No pulse, and the skin was cool. Nothing could help the poor woman.

Fighting nausea, she backed into the corridor and called 911 on her cellphone. "There's b-been a f-fatal accident," she said. Oh, help, she was stuttering. She hadn't stuttered in years--not since she was a child. Well, she had good reason. She was alone with a dead body in a creepy place.


 

 

 


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