This rare portrait of Lawrence by Australian artist Hewitt Henry Rayner, etched in 1929, is thought to be the last portrait made of Lawrence before he died on 2 March 1930. If you’ve got £3,000 to £5,000 going spare, it’s up for auction at Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers, Cambridge on Thursday 11 October.
In 1923, 21 year-old Hewitt Henry Raynor left Melbourne, Australia and headed to England to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. One year earlier, Lawrence had set off in the other direction, taking a detour to Australia on his way to New Mexico. Raynor settled in London, attending the London Royal Academy of Art where he was taught by Walter Sickert. He would remain in the capital for the rest of his life, returning to Melbourne for a brief visit in 1931. Lawrence never settled anywhere for too long, and very rarely returned back to his country of birth. The two would meet in 1929 when Raynor produced what is thought to be the last portrait taken of Lawrence.
Rayner was an etcher who perfected the drypoint technique, creating over 500 drypoint plates during his life. This is believed to be the largest body of drypoint work of any mid-20th century artist, most of which were produced after 1926. Unable to afford copper plates, Raynor used any type of metal he could get his hands on, such as oil containers and sweet tins. He didn’t have proper engraving tools either, instead opting for second-hand dentists’ drill bits, which he found more suited to the task. Sustainable approaches are all the vogue now, but Rayner’s techniques were born out of economic necessity – he only achieved notoriety after his death. This was due to numerous factors which we’ll look at in a moment, but it’s worth briefly giving a potted history of etching.
Printmaking of all varieties had a low standing in the 19th century due to it being perceived as a reproductive craft and therefore not worthy of exhibition at the Royal Academy. But a change in style in the mid-1800s saw it gain in popularity, eventually resulting in the formation of the Society of Painter-Etchers in 1880. As Art Schools began to develop up and down the country, the techniques were taught, and the discipline was taken more seriously.
Etching reached its peak in the 1920s when prices became so inflated they were unaffordable to traditional collectors. Instead they had to settle for anthology books celebrating reproductions, such as the annual Fine Prints of the Year. These prices were partly inflated by the publishers, who limited print runs to create a scarcity value. To put this into context, in 1929, the year that Raynor made his sketch of Lawrence, one print by DY Cameron went for a staggering £640 at Southeby’s. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that’s the equivalent of around £38,500 today. Although back then it would have got you quite a few houses.
It was during the 1920s that ‘come up and see my etchings’ became code for wealth, although in contemporary culture it became a romantic euphemism whereby women were lured up to bedrooms under false pretences. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) the narrator reassures his suspicious wife that the lady she had seen wander off ‘just wanted to show me some French etchings’.
Lawrence took up painting towards the latter end of the 1920s, though this wasn’t for money or popularity. Painting simply offered an alternative mode of expression that was more pleasurable in process than writing.
“I disappeared into that canvas. It is for me the most exciting moment – when you have the blank canvas and a big brush full of wet colour, and you plunge. It is just like diving in a pond – there you start frantically to swim. So far as I am concerned, it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and striking out for all you’re worth. The knowing eye watches sharp as a needle; but the picture somes clean out of instinct, intuition and sheer physical action. Once the instinct and the intuition gets into the brush-tip, the picture happens…”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been banned in 1928 and so painting offered an escape from the frustrations of the literary world. Or so he thought. His first exhibition at the Warren Gallery in June 1929 was swiftly closed on grounds of indecency with thirteen of his paintings placed in a prison cell (all of the seized paintings depicted public hair). Outraged by the latest bout of censorship he began work on the aptly named poetry series ‘Nettles’ which included the line: ‘Virginal, pure policeman came/ and hid their faces for very shame’.
Lawrence had been too ill to leave Italy to attend the exhibition in June 1929. Instead he sent Frieda on his behalf. This means that the portrait by Raynor must have been sketched during his last visit to the UK although I am not sure when. When the two did meet, I wonder how Lawrence would have viewed Rayner’s success, given the financial difficulties he had experienced throughout his own career while Rayner was at his peak. But the subsequent Wall Street Crash put an end to the etchings market and Rayner spent the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s trying to sell his prints door to door. After being injured during the London Blitz, Raynor became more reclusive. He passed away in 1957, a few years before the Chatterley ban was lifted.
Both had a few things in common, though some of these connections are only apparent in retrospect. There was Australia, self-imposed exile, and art. Both were turned down for military service for WWI and WWII respectively. Both produced a phenomenal output of work yet struggled with poverty, with neither getting the recognition they deserved during their short lives. We know from the memoirs of Dorothy Brett and Knud Merrild that Lawrence was highly critical of their work and always had an opinion on how their art could be improved. So what would he have made of Raynor’s etching? Needless to say he would have found fault.
- Etching:Definition of etching by Merriam-Webster (Merriam-webster.com)
- Etching from the MMA Timeline of Art History (metmuseum.org)
- MOMA information on printing techniques and examples of prints (moma.org)
- Etching revival Twitter account (com)
- The Print Australia Reference Library Catalogue (com)
- Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers (co.uk)
- Hewitt Henry Raynor website (co.uk)
- The Artist’s Studio: What Is Etching? com.au
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this phenomenal writer. How do we capture the censorship of his art? Do we need a slideshow of the various portraits that were made of him during his life? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.