The Tempest – Review of a Rare 19th Century Engraving by C W Sharpe

A wonderful rendering of the first act (Scene 2) of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, when Prospero beckons Caliban, the son of the witch, Sycorax, and claims he is corrupt having tried to rape his daughter, Miranda. Prospero threatens and cajoles Caliban’s obedience, but Caliban’s presence makes Miranda uneasy.

This delicious 19th century engraving by C. W. Sharpe was found in a backwoods antique store hidden in-between pages of old newspapers and family heirlooms which often prove to be excellent hunting grounds for discovering rare fine art prints.

I haven’t read The Tempest since high school and it was with delight that I reacquainted myself with the Bard’s final work (written solely by him in 1610-11) about betrayal, romance, exotic, super-human characters and a happy ending (what else could you ask for?).

Here’s a summary of The Tempest:

Alonso (the King of Naples), his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, Antonio’s counselor Gonzalo, and Antonio (brother of Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan) are on a ship with sailors caught in a tempest at sea. The storm scares all of the nobleman to abandon ship, fearing it split in half. When the storm subsides, the exiled Duke Prospero and his daughter Miranda appear on the island they have inhabited for 12 years. Miranda tells him she saw the ship crack in the storm, but Prospero calms her, explaining it was a magical illusion he created. He explains he was once Duke of Milan, but his brother Antonio took over when he began deeply studying literature, eventually teaming with Alonso to banish Prospero and Miranda and abandon them at sea, where they luckily landed on the island and survived since Gonzalo had given Prospero money, clothes, and his sorcerer books in the boat. Now, he explains, his enemies have sailed by, so he created the tempest to shipwreck them. He causes her to sleep and calls his spirit Ariel to come. Ariel verifies that the nobles are safe on the island, while their ship is deep in a hidden harbor with the crew asleep; further, the remainder of the fleet has returned to Naples believing Alonso is dead. We learn that Prospero rescued Ariel from the “foul witch” Sycorax and will free Ariel himself when his plans for the nobles are complete. Sycorax had imprisoned Ariel in a tree for refusing to do her evil, then, after her death, Prospero freed him. She also had a deformed son, Caliban, whom Prospero commands as his slave (Note that Caliban anagrams from a slightly misspelled canibal). Hidden, Ariel sings a song and scares Alonso’s son Ferdinand as he wanders around the island, eventually meeting Prospero and Miranda. Both Miranda and Ferdinand immediately fall in love, but Prospero (although approving) pretends to be gruff and critical toward Ferdinand.

In another part of the island, Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, and the lords Adrian and Francisco are wandering. Alonso fears Ferdinand is dead, but Gonzalo assures him he may be living, since they are living. Ariel causes all to sleep, except Sebastian and Antonio. Then, Antonio convinces Sebastian to kill Alonso, so Sebastian will become heir to Naples’ throne. Prospero, though, has Ariel awaken Gonzalo to warn Alonso. Elsewhere, Caliban is gathering wood when the jester Trinculo, then the drunkard Stephano (both from the ship) come upon them. Caliban takes Stephano to be a god (the Man in the Moon), and vows to serve him.

At Prospero’s cave, Miranda meets Ferdinand carrying logs for her father. Here they exchange their love for one another and vow to be married. Prospero, watching in secret, approves. Elsewhere, Caliban convinces Stephano to kill Prospero and seize Miranda so they can be king and queen. Ariel, though, overhears and will warn Prospero. Alonso and others are wandering when Ariel and other spirits bring in a table of food. Before they can eat, Ariel appears and takes the food away, then informs Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio that it is their evilness toward Prospero that has caused their current sorrows (shipwreck, loss of Ferdinand, etc.).

At the cave, Prospero presents Miranda to Ferdinand, though instructing him not to “break her virgin-knot” until after they are properly married. He celebrates by presenting them with a show by the spirits Iris, Ceres, and Juno. However, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo show up to kill Prospero. He, however, creates a distraction with extravagant garments, then sends the fairies after them like hounds hunting foxes.

In the final act, Prospero brings the nobles to his cell and reveals himself to them. He forgives Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian then reveals that Ferdinand is safe with Miranda. Alonso restores Prospero’s dukedom and Prospero promises to return all home safely to Italy. As for Caliban, he promises to mend his ways while Stephano and Trinculo repent for plotting to kill Prospero.

This excerpt from the introduction of The Tempest at enotes summarizes Shakespeare’s theatrical intention of the play:

No reading of The Tempest can do it justice: The play was composed by Shakespeare as a multi-sensory theater experience, with sound, and especially music, used to complement the sights of the play, and all of it interwoven by the author with lyrical textual passages that overflow with exotic images, trifling sounds, and a palpable lushness.

This richly detailed engraving is a joy to look at, and offers many clues about it’s origin for the amateur detective (all art collectors are amateur detectives). The image area measures 6-9/16″ x 5″ on a sheet of 7-13/16″ x 5-15/16″ heavy paper. There’s a half-inch tear above Prospero’s head (in the tree) that could easily be mended.

A big part of the treasure contained in these kind of finds is the amount of information included with the image. In this case, not only do we know who engraved the image (C.W. Sharpe), but we also know who designed it (M. Retzsch), who painted it (Henry Inman), and for whom it was created (The Columbian Magazine). There is also another name that appears to the right of the title-W. L. Ormsby, for which we’ll have to speculate.

C. W. Sharpe (1818 – 1899) was a British engraver who seemed to specialize in the rendering of aristocratic family scenes and Shakespearian plays. All of the works I found by him were done by steel plate engraving (versus the copper plate engraving used by his predecessors). Etching and engraving are printmaking techniques where the artist creates his/her design onto a metal plate. The plate is then inked and the reverse image is printed onto paper. The difference between the two techniques is for engravings, the artist uses a stylus to draw precisely onto the plate, and for etchings the artist sketches onto the plate and applies an acid bath to further deepen the original lines.

Research about this artist came up with conflicting information regarding his nationality (one noted art site listed him as an American), and he can also be confused with a Scottish artist of a similar name and time frame. I had to dig deep to find this stingy information from a Google Book Search (a wonderful resource for searching both modern and antiquarian books) located in The Dictionary of National Biography published by the Oxford University Press (Great Britain) in 1909;

…Eliza Sharpe was employed in making watercolour copies of pictures in the South Kensington Museum, her last work being a set of copies of Raphael’s cartoons. She died unmarried on 11 June 1874 at the residence of her nephew, Mr. C. W. Sharpe the engraver, at Burnham, Maidenhead…

Maidenhead is located in Berkshire, England, which is where I’m going to settle for Mr. Sharpe’s place of birth (or England in general).

The only work related to The Tempest by C.W. Sharpe I could find was a dreamy depiction of Ariel, the airy spirit of the island. I found it odd that no reference to the above engraving existed anywhere, until I realized it was a commissioned work based on a previous design. Sharpe engraved the scene according to an existing concept, so I have to assume it doesn’t show up in what paltry catalog raisonne I can find on him simply because it wasn’t entirely his own creation. As for the year of the engraving, things get a bit sticky.

The Columbian Magazine was founded by Mathew Carey (and others) in 1786 and lasted until 1792. That magazine and the American Museum were important early American publications. The Columbian Magazine was back into publication in the 1800’s with John Inman and Robert A. West as it’s editors (Israel Post, New York) . During my online research of the available Columbia Magazine editions I found mention of The Tempest but not a republication of the play, and no illustrations. Then, reviewing C. W. Sharpe’s most productive years, and the release of Charles Knight’s two-volume Imperial Edition of The Works of Shakespere (London: Virtue and Company, 1873-76) in which Sharpe engraved scenes from several plays, I tentatively set a date of 1875 for this work (until I find other evidence).

Friedrich August Moritz Retzsch (1779 – 1857), also known as M. Retzsch, was a German painter, draughtsman and etcher. His style of outline engraving was very popular in England and in 1828 he published his first work on Shakespeare, Umrisse zu Hamlet, a set of sixteen outline scenes. That was followed by outlines for seven more plays, including The Tempest, which was published in 1841. I believe this etching was based on an outline etching by Retzsch that would have existed for more than 30 years before it was utilized by C. W. Sharpe for The Columbian Magazine.

Henry Inman (1801 – 1846) was an American painter of portraits, including more than 30 Native American portraits of which nearly a dozen are in the collection of the White House. His son, Colonel Henry Inman (1837 – 1899), was a decorated Army officer in the old wild west, an associate of Colonel W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) and author of The Great Salt Lake Trail. This engraving lists Henry Inman as “Painted by” but I found no reference or museum record to validate that fact. This is the time when you wished you had at least one comprehensive book on every major artist that ever lived in your library (yeah, right), or at least access to them.

Waterman Lilly Ormsby (1809 – 1883), or W. L. Ormsby as it shows up to the right of the engraving title, is an interesting character. He invented several ruling-machines, transfer-presses, and other implements that are used in bank-note engraving, a machine for engraving on steel called the “grammagraph,” and one for splitting wood. He was a founder of the Continental bank-note company, which during the civil war and afterward executed a large amount of work for the United States government; and the peculiar design for a five-dollar bank-note was largely the result of Mr. Ormsby’s idea for the prevention of counterfeiting. It is claimed that he assisted Samuel F. B. Morse and Henry A. Munson in the invention of the Morse alphabet, and, aided by Mr. Munson, he transmitted messages at the first public exhibition of the telegraph in New York city.

Now, a long-time collector of fine prints would instinctively know what Mr. Ormsby’s moniker is doing there located in a seemingly random spot on this engraving, but since my experience in this medium is sorely limited, I went looking around for a clue, and I found one. Listed on page 35 of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition List of Prints, Books, Manuscripts, Etc., published in 1909, is an entry for an engraving by J. White for The Columbian Magazine that was originally printed by, you guessed it, W. L. Ormsby. So, from this information I can surmise that his signature is a printer’s mark, and that would explain the almost currency-like quality of the image when viewed close up.

I admire the exceptional mastery that was utilized in telling this story of Caliban, Miranda and Prospero. Even though your interests in literature may lie elsewhere, the sheer talent and skill required to create such euphoric artistry is enough to cause one to pause and wonder if there truly is such a thing as divine revelation.

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