An etched copper plate by American artist David Claypoole Johnston, produced for his Scraps series of satires. NB: The images below the image of the plate itself are recent impressions taken of the recto and verso.
Johnston (1797?-1865) was a multi-talented artist specializing in caricature and satire. Born and trained in Philadelphia, he moved to Boston in the 1820s and produced lithographs for the Pendletons before transitioning to self-publication. He is best known for his Scraps, a series of nine quarto pamphlets published in the 1830s-40s, each containing several plates bearing multiple comic sketches. Though his bread and butter medium was comic caricature, Johnston also produced a number of political satires, of which the virulently anti-slavery The House that Jeff Built is among the best known.
Offered here is the original etched copper plate for Scraps for 1830: No. 2, plate 4 (I made this identification by chance, after stumbling on an impression illustrated on the Antiquarian Society web site.) The plate features nine images, with the mood ranging in typical Johnston fashion from silliness to biting social commentary. In “Short Accommodation for a Long Gentleman” for example, a tall man lays in a much-too-short bed, his legs sticking out a window and chickens roosting thereon as he makes a dreadful pun: “What honest creatures country fowls are, here have they been roosting on my legs all night without making an irregular appropriation of a single corn.” By contrast, in “A Lame Title” a slave owner brings a runaway before an outraged judge:
Slaveowner: “The runaway rascal is my property. I bought and paid for him_Here’s an accurate description of the seams on his back which I gave him and a receipted bill of sale from his owner. What stronger evidence would you have?”
Judge: “A receipted bill of sale from his MAKER, sir.”
The verso bears an etching of a pastoral landscape, with a couple in the left foreground engaged either in courtship, argument or both. A quick look at the faces on the couple shows that the plate is unfinished. The size (8 3/8”h x 9 ¾”w at the neat line) suggests that it was intended for separate publication, but it is neither dated, titled, nor, most important, signed. It was almost certainly executed by an artist other than Johnston, as I find no record of his having worked in this genre.
Early engraved copper plates are rare survivals, as the copper was sufficiently valuable that the images were often burnished out and the plates reused or the plates melted down entirely. That said, the David Claypoole Johnston Family Collection at the American Antiquarian Society includes no fewer than six such plates, including four engraved for Scraps No. 7 by John F. Morin after drawings by Johnston. These may be viewed on the AAS web site.
Provenance and references
From the collection of Zita Books, New York City. Background on Johnston from Clarence Brigham, “David Claypoole Johnston: The American Cruikshank” (reprinted from the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society for April 1840) and Frank Weitenkampf, American Graphic Art, p. 251.
Minor soiling and discoloration. Image on verso partially defaced.