by Brooke Chilvers
Mr. Benson’s 55 hunting and fishing intaglio prints.
I first heard about Benson-aficionado John R. Lewis at Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville, Georgia, at their 2017 show featuring the works of Kuhnert, Kuhn, Rungius, and Liljefors. Executive Director Whitney White told me of a retired businessman and former academic who was writing a book, the book, on Frank Benson’s late-career hunting and fishing etchings, drypoints, and etching/drypoints.
To create a book from an idea, Lewis paired up with sporting art expert and Benson collector John T. Ordeman who has already authored two authoritative books on Frank Benson, as well as titles on William Schaldach, Roland Clark, and George and Belmore Brown. He also curated two exhibitions on Benson at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, MD.
The authors‘ passion for Benson’s (1862-1951) etchings and drypoints featuring hunting and fishing situations—most often featuring a hunter or fisherman—dates back to Ordeman’s 1979 purchase of a 4 x 6-inch drypoint, Dead Goose. Lewis completed his collection of all 55 works of the sporting art sub-genre—out of the artist’s output of 350 titles—including 10 prints with proof runs of 10 or less in 2019.
The result is a genuine and enjoyable contribution to the history of sporting art. Its comprehensive content is also of benefit to every current or future owner of an original Frank Benson. These are images sportsmen dream of owning.
The 320-page book, Frank Benson’s Hunting & Fishing Art – Etchings & Drypoints, published by Stackpole Press in 2020, is printed in a limited edition of 600 copies, of which 110 are numbered and tastefully bound as a Deluxe Edition. The Deluxe Edition, which costs $225, also contains an original etching, Canoe Guide, by Brett James Scott, whose own “catalog” of sporting etchings numbers over 300. Scott sees in Mr. Benson’s “backlit figurative designs” the artist’s personal experience “of being in the marshes well before daylight when birds could be identified only by their distinctive silhouettes.”
The text offers insight into the artist who, at age 50, traded his tremendously successful career as an American Impressionist “of elegant ladies, aristocratic gentlemen and delightful children in idyllic settings” for etching the sportsman’s activities of waterfowling and fishing, expressing a certain Yankee austerity in his outdoorsman who never seems to feel alone.
Each of the 55 sporting prints is beautifully reproduced, accompanied on the opposite page by an informative text, including all the pertinent information about size, date, print run, and paper.
The artist’s biography – his family, teachers, and influences – leaves nothing to be said. The authors discuss style, composition, technique, and the elements of design. “Design makes the picture. Good painting can never save the picture if the composition is bad,” warned Mr. Benson, who also recommended, “Don’t paint anything but the effect of light. DON’T PAINT THINGS.”
For those of us familiar with Paff numbers for Frank Benson’s prints, the story of Adam E.M. Paff (1891–1932) and his five-volume catalogue raisonné of Mr. Benson’s titles (and tragic early death) makes good reading. And the contribution to the content by Faith Andrews Bedford, the artist’s great-granddaughter, is especially appreciated.
The detailed appendices include “Collector’s Notes,” which offer a serious look at the “sport” of collecting Mr. Benson’s sporting titles. Among the rarest, they inform us, are Two Fishermen (1931) and Boats at Swan Island (1937). In the 20 pages of reference charts of sales prices, and who sold what and when since the original was issued, we see that The Gunner, was listed at $30 in 1915 and sold for $22,000 in 2019; yet The Deer Hunter (1924), which sold in 2008 for $2,500, brought only $1,000 in 2019.
I am so delighted to own this book, and tickled by the authors’ kind mention of my small contribution.
To order, you can explore online; or go to FWBDeluxeEdition.com.
Brooke Chilvers thanks the folks in Clarke County, Virginia, responsible for the excellent roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, allowing her to check out the new Benson acquisitions at the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.