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Richard Earlom

(1743–1822, London)

David and Abishag. Mezzotint engraving after Adriaen van der Werff. 62.9 x 45.8 cm. 1779. Wessely 57 I (of II).

“Stunning!” is the first word that springs to mind at the sight of this mezzotint engraving after a painting by Adriaen van der Werff, and indeed the print is rightly counted among Richard Earlom’s masterpieces. The tonal values, which the artist has conjured up here with the aid of a chopper and a scraper from the blank metal plate, are of the utmost subtlety, as is the astonishingly vivid and almost tactile treatment of the heavy velvet curtains and costly materials. A gentle light illuminates the naked torsos of King David and the young serving maid Abishag, emphasizing the softness of her skin. The Old Testament scene illustrates an episode from the First Book of Kings 1,1–4: “Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, ‘Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.’ So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunnamite, and brought her to the king. And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.”

Earlom’s talents as a draughtsman were revealed at a very early age. After meeting the London publisher John Boydell in 1763 he subsequently became the unsurpassed master of English mezzotint engraving. Earlom’s most important prints arose in connection with the cycle of reproductive engravings after the paintings in the gallery at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, which Boydell published between 1774 and 1788. The gallery contained a legendary collection of paintings by Old Masters that was founded by Sir Robert Walpole and acquired by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1779. The present print, which was executed in the same year after the Rotterdam master Adriaen van der Werff, also belongs to this series and shows the artist at the height of his technical powers.

A superb, velvety black and luminous impression with even mar­gins around the platemark, respectively trimmed to the platemark below. Before all letters. Minimal foxing, slight signs of ageing, otherwise in excellent condition.

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