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Spy Prints: Enduring memorials to fleeting fames

August 28, 2011

I like Vanity Fair character prints. These are the old prints of bewigged judges and ‘pink’ blazered hunters you see in law offices and high-end men’s stores. There was one of these lithographs in every issue of Vanity Fair, a British general interest magazine, from January 1869 to January 1914. They are sometime called Spy prints after the caricaturist Leslie Ward who signed his work as Spy.

I like these prints first and foremost for the characters. Each subject is indeed a character with reams of personality rendered into the face and pose. Each has a story.

I also like their:

  • wide variety
  • history
  • quality
  • decorative versatility
  • and caché

“A Spelling Bee” John Laurence Toole, by Spy. Toole was a popular actor of “low comedy.” Spy depicts him in character during on of his highly animated performances.

I own about 90. The banner for this blog and my gravatar both come from Vanity Fair prints. I bought my first ones in a used furniture store after I got my first job and first apartment. They were cheap. I bought subjects who are especially grotesque or queeny. They were just so funny looking. Of course, they are caricatures—they aren’t supposed to be flattering, but they do say a lot about the subjects (except for 13 women and 8 horses, they are all men).

“A Spelling Bee” is a good example. I didn’t know who he was when I bought him, but from the expression on his face, the pencil behind his ear and the animation of the pose I thought he was a busy, versatile writer, very funny and slightly disorganized. (See caption for more info).

“Oscar” Oscar F.O. Wilde by Ape. Ape captured Wilde while just famous rather than notorious.

While my collection was still very small, the framer I patronized offered me a set of 8. The lot included Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, John Browning and James M. Whistler (without his mother)—some of the greatest men of the late 19th c. shapers of culture and politics, makers of the modern world. Whistler revolutionized (or inherited the revolution started by JC Turner) painting. He was also the original Aesthete. As a creator of art—something higher than reality—he was not bound by the manners and morals of society. His appearance, lifestyle and speech were scandalous. Spy depicts the disrupting shock of Whistler’s wasp waisted, smirking, public persona. From the pose to the venomous quips, Wilde copied Whistler slavishly. The great playwright was merely a clebrity poet and lecturer, not yet the notorious playwright and “sodomomite,” when Ape (Carlo Pelligrini) captured him for Vanity Fair. Ape’s Wilde is physically imposing, a touch feminine , but not completely effete. (Oscar could pick up and throw a man so maybe Ape didn’t want to be too harsh).

“A Symphony” James MacNeil Whistler by Spy. Wilde learned his pose, and many famous quips, from Whistler.

Pride by proximity

These prints, and some others, make me feel connected to history. Hanging their likenesses on my wall makes me feel like I am playing a part in the legacies of these men (and by displaying them I am in a tiny way keeping their memory alive). Is there worse vanity than pride built on borrowed glory?

I’ve read more than once that collecting is a way of achieving immortality. A great collection of art or manuscripts or thimbles is an accomplishment. The flesh withers, but proof of the life lived remains in the assembly of durable objects. It is evidence of the collector’s taste, education, and skill as a hunter-bargainer. A bit of their personality becomes attached to each object and lasts.

My collection is as much about me as it is the prints. You might read who I am in the choice of subjects. Although not every print in my trove is a key to my personality. To add variety to my growing display I bought atypical types—some women, a child—and representatives of categories such as athletes, lawyers, judges and royalty. I look for unusual editions such as horizontal compositions, double sheets and poses that break the picture plane, such as the boxer punching into the margin.

I’m taking my collection into opposite directions at the same time by hunting up subjects every collection must have such as a fox hunter and a red-robed judge. And looking for oddities that give the whole mass more texture. One of my “oddest” is a minister jutting out of the pulpit like the figurehead of a clipper ship. This late print is one of Spy’s best. It’s all forward momentum: thrusting body, surging hair, and impetuous chin. And he has dreamy eyes.

“Fearless but Intemperate” Rev. RJ Campbell by Spy. A romantic, clerical puma with Jay Leno’s chin.

I love the print work by Vincent Brooks. The thick, saturated color that is as vibrant now as it was when it came off the stone 120, 140 and 150 years ago. One subject I coveted was George Bernard Shaw. He’s depicted sporting a playful semi-smirk and laughable plaids. I got him, but I resold him. Vanity Fair had gone over to roto-gravure process printing. The color was drab and wan on the slick paper. It wasn’t for me.

All is vanity!

Here today, gone tomorrow. Temporal and inconsequential. Yet here are the pictures still alive all these years later when the celebratorially lampooned are long dead. For most of them, their reasons for fame are as mysterious as the purpose of antique kitchen utensils. Today these subjects massage the egos of collectors looking for admiration of their taste, perseverance in the hunt and disposable income.

Vanity is a deadly sin because it distracts one from thoughts of God. And just like divinity, vanity is eternal.

“Hard Hitter” Captain Walter Edgeworth-Johnstone by Spy. Amateur Boxing Association of England heavyweight champion 1895 & 96, punches his way out of his print. He was police commissioner of Dublin 1915-1923.

“Music of the Future” Richard Wagner by Spy. This is one of my favorites prints because 1) he’s historic, 2) he’s hideous, 3) he’s in a great pose. If you didn’t know Wagner was a genius and one of the most reprehensible beings in the history of carbon-based life, Spy tells you everything.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 22, 2013 9:50 am

    Great article !!~!

    The Vanity Fair Print Company

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