Friday, February 5, 2016

"Alone In His Field"... The Book Art of Bernhardt Wall

What could someone convey in artwork roughly the size of a postage stamp? If you were master etcher Bernhardt Wall, a great deal.

Our Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) contains a unit on Wall, showcasing his talents with art from his volume, Following Andrew Jackson. Also, when delving into a folder of correspondence between Wall and former State Librarian and Archivist Mary Daniel Moore, we located a miniature volume entitled Walliana pasted to the top of a 1947 letter. A self-portrait of Wall, “Ye Etcher,” is included in the little book, as well as a detailed image of Abraham Lincoln, who is the subject of an 85-volume set in the pictorial biographical series Wall began in 1931. Wall even works into the tiny volume the historical origin of his 400-year-old art form with an illustration of monks. He writes, “As did the Monks of old I personally design, etch, print, and bind my books.”

This tiny volume is not much larger than a quarter.

Bernhardt Wall's self-portrait in miniature.

Wall's artwork stands out for several reasons. Wall used a steel pencil to etch his images and text in reverse in wax onto copper plates that were then immersed in acid. He considered himself a painter/etcher due to the artistry required to manipulate and print the etched plates. Once the plates were prepared, Wall inked and hand-printed each page of his books before binding them. Wall began his career as a commercial artist. Prior to etching, his artistic mediums had been watercolors, pencil, and ink. He had, however, received early tutelage from etcher Henry Reuterdahl and master printer, etcher, and caricature artist William Auerbach-Levy.

A closer look at Wall's self-portrait.

Wall began etching books in 1914, and he was the only known etcher at the time who etched, printed, bound, and sold his own volumes. The prolific Wall produced 140 etched books and never lost what he called his “itch to etch.” The quote that appears in the title of this blog post comes from Mary Daniel Moore and references his uncommon endeavors.

Wall met Moore on a research visit to Nashville in the 1930s. Correspondence in our Bernhardt Wall Collection between Wall and the longtime state librarian and archivist begins in 1935 and extends to 1949. Moore assisted Wall over the years in obtaining images upon which to base etchings in his biographical series. His subjects included Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Andrew Jackson, Edwin Markham, Lafayette, and J.M. Whistler.

Moore convinced Wall to stage an exhibition and lecture in Nashville for her Centennial Club in December of 1935. You can get a sense for Wall’s artistic process, his tireless work ethic, his frequent travel for research and exhibition, and his numerous limited edition projects come through reading these letters.

Wall lectured on etching at many places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, the University of Missouri, and the National Library in Madrid, Spain. The British Museum, the Library of Congress, and Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Brown universities house his books, and the private collections of J.P. Morgan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Henry Clay Frick also contain his works.

A sketch of President Abraham Lincoln.

Additional Wall miniature books are held by the Huntington Library and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A & M University has a significant Bernhardt Wall manuscript collection, and Wall’s alma mater of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee received a large archival collection of Wall correspondence and artwork. Lincoln Memorial also maintains an impressive digital exhibit fittingly entitled, “Following Bernhardt Wall: A Pictorial Biography of the Etcher of Books.”

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is proud to house in its Bernhardt Wall Collection 12 bound volumes, in addition to the aforementioned letters. We encourage patrons to visit the manuscript section of the Library and Archives and explore the world of pioneer etcher Bernhardt Wall.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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