On the evening of November 11, the Sippican Historical Society speakers series hosted a rare look at art that represented significant meaning to those with connections to World War I.
Marion resident and artist Ben Dunham gave a talk on WWI art created by J. Alphege Brewer, whose fame came from his delicate yet large-scale etchings of famous European cathedrals and historic buildings that were impacted by the war.
The event was held in the historic Marion Music Hall, where the perimeter of the space was surrounded by easels holding etchings and prints of etchings executed by Brewer and his family. As a prelude to Dunham’s talk, pianist Beverly Peduzzi set the mood with a mini-concert of music from the era.
Dunham has researched the Brewer family and their impact through their print-making business on people living through troubled events. As France experienced the horror of war and the destruction of its cherished buildings, the Brewers printed from etchings images of the beloved structures. These images were heavily reproduced in both Europe and the United States.
Brewer did not benefit from any type of copywrite law, thus, Dunham explained, copies of copies were mass produced including in the U.S. The global appetite of an image that would keep a connection between loved ones soldiering aboard and their families back home was immense.
Losses both of lives and culture as a direct result of war, a tone set by the large-scale pictorial display of Brewer’s works, reminded all of the sacrifices made. Yet the thread of remembrance has been taken even further as the SHS has drawn a correlation between Brewer’s work and that of the artist Charles Gibson and the writer Richard Davis.
Easily remembered for his famous “Gibson Girl” paintings, Gibson summered in Marion as did his friend Davis, who is remembered for his detailed articles on the German invasion of Belgium, while Gibson led the Division of Pictorial Publicity for the Committee on Public Information, a group created by President Wilson.
As for the Brewer presentation, Dunham described the intricate process of creating such works and the precision required. Delicate cravings in wax, lines drawn by the thousands miraculously coalesced into recognizable images. The most famous and therefore the one most likely to grace homes in the U.S. was that of the Rheims Cathedral.
Dunham is also a collector and has sought near and far to locate and purchase Brewer etchings and prints for his collection. He said many people have approached him over the years, telling their own stories of how a Brewer print came into a family’s possession.
One such story popped up as Dunham was preparing for his talk. He said that Tobey Burr told him there was a print tucked away in his family’s home. Dunham sees this as affirmation that Brewer’s work held great meaning to thousands both near and far from the battlefields and trenches of WWI.
The exhibit also included images of the Church of Notre Dame, Antwerp Cathedral, the Doge’s Palace to name a few of the 16 that stood awaiting viewing and reflection on the meaning of service and the role of culture.
The SHS’s WWI-themed exhibit is now on display at its headquarters on Front Street. To learn more, visit sippicanhistoricalsociety.org. You may also visit jalphegebrewer.info to learn more about Brewer and his family of printers as well as Dunham’s recently released book “The Elevated Art of J. Alphege Brewer.”
Sippican Historical Society
By Marilou Newell