J. Alphege Brewer (1881-1946)
James Alphege Brewer was born July 24, 1881, in the Kensington section of London, England. He was the son of Henry W. Brewer, noted artist of historical architecture and prominent convert to the Catholic Church, and the grandson of John Sherren Brewer, Jr., “the brilliant editor of the Calendar of Letters of Henry VIII.” His great uncle was E. Cobham Brewer, the polymath who compiled Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and authored numerous other important reference works. Among his older siblings were the artist Henry C. Brewer and the organist and writer John Francis Brewer.
James attended St. Charles Catholic College in Kensington before studying at the Westminster School of Art, where his brother Henry also trained. Other graduates of the Westminster School of Art included Aubrey Beardsley, “Jack” Butler Yeats (brother of poet W. B. Yeats), and, at the same time as James, Dorelia McNeill, the common law wife of Augustus John.
On July 23, 1910, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on High Street in Ealing, Brewer married Florence Emma Lucas, an accomplished painter in oil and watercolor. He was not quite 29 and she was almost 41. Her great uncle was the engraver David Lucas, who collaborated with John Constable on a series of mezzotint reproductions of his paintings, and her father was the landscape artist George Lucas. "Florrie" and "Major" made their home at 106 Avenue Road in Acton, a suburb to the west of London, occupying a residence that had been in the Lucas family for almost 35 years. Except for the duration of WWII, when they relocated to High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, they lived their entire married lives in Acton, using the studio at the back of the property for the production of Brewer’s etchings. Two brothers of Florence, Edwin and George Lucas, assisted Brewer in the engraving of the plates. While many sources say that Brewer lived in Paris for most of his working career, this is doubtful. If he resided on the Continent, it might have been at a summer base used to collect new sketches. Throughout their married lives James and Florence were regularly listed in the London Electoral registers. The couple had no children.
In 1916, Brewer submitted a statement in support of his request for exemption from serving in World War I. In it, we have a snapshot of his personal situation and business methods:
The business is my own and entirely depends on me as I alone can make the plates and superintend the printing.
It has taken me 18 years to learn the work, and the work I am now doing I have invented myself and all my money is sunk into it.
I have a wife and two sisters-in-law to support, one 43 (who is very delicate and suffers acutely from lumbago and is incapable of earning her own living [probably Lily Lucas], and the other 35 [Letitia Lucas], a widow of Mr. Raleigh, who died of consumption while on Home service. I also give 15/- per week towards the maintenance of my mother, aunt, and two sisters.
The work of 8 persons besides myself is dependent on the business, one with a wife and two children.
The work is chiefly sold in America and brought into England this year over £3000 [$300,000 in today's dollars] and is superseding the color printing which they used to get from Germany and Vienna.
I have between three and four hundred pounds worth of stock and orders in hand that will cover 2/3 of it and about £250 worth of debts to pay.
If the work is stopped, my business will be ruined and I will lose the American connection which has taken so much time and money to get together; also, those who assist me will be thrown out of employment.
Brewer was not exaggerating the importance of his business to the family finances. A simple calculation of the editions he was known to have produced in 1915, the year before he made this statement, shows that they could have brought in gross revenue (before expenses) of over $2 million in today's currency (though not all authorized impressions were sold in the same year). After the war, when the pound was worth less and he produced fewer large etchings, his potential revenue leveled off at about half that.
Like many artists whose work supported family members, Brewer paid close attention to identifying subjects with a ready market. This explains in part the many Continental and English cathedral exteriors and interiors—Milan, Rouen, Canterbury, Toledo, St. Paul's—as well as multiple views of various colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and other scenes of interest to tourists and readers
of literature (but remarkably, almost never medieval ruins), including a large, atmospheric “Where Shakespeare Sleeps,” a view of Stratford-on-Avon signed by both James and his brother Henry. His "Liverpool Cathedral (Choir looking East)" was published in 1924 to honor the consecration of the cathedral in the presence of George V. Views of the West Front of Westminster Abbey and its interior, with coronation chair in place, were issued in 1937 in connection with the crowning of George VI. (The one exception to this general rule of thumb is "Into the Light," an experiment in religious ecstasy.)
Sojourns in the south—trips to northern Italy and Venice—resulted in not only his usual evocative etchings of churches, palaces, and canals, but also wonderful, sunlit and airy views of Lake Como and Lake Lugano. These were echoed in a number of scenes from lakes in Scotland, including Loch Katrine (made famous in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake) and Loch Lomond, celebrated in the song “The Bonny Banks o’ Loch Lomond.” In 1932, the Ealing Arts Club listed in their exhibition catalog an aquatint etching of the Taj Mahal (also hung at the Royal Cambrian Academy exhibit that same year), but other than this one example, there is no trail of etchings to indicate such peripatetic travels. Brewer may have based this etching on a photograph or perhaps a sketch or painting done by his brother Henry, whose travels included Spain and North Africa and seem to have extended at least to Cairo and Jerusalem.
Brewer exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour (RI), at the Paris Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and in the shows of the Royal Cambrian Academy (RCA). He became an associate of the Royal Cambrian Academy in 1929 and a full member in the last two years of his life. He was also a member of the Hampstead Society of Artists, the Society of Graphic Art, and the Ealing Arts Club, where he was first honorary art secretary and then honorary art chairman. Florence was vice-president. Club members were once invited to a cherry picking party at the Brewer home.
The artist had some philosophical views about the nature of art and science. In a debate about modernism at the Ealing Arts Club in November 1928, he said he doubted whether there was "any brew under the scum of the modern movement." In April 1940, he spoke in a debate at St. Andrew's church hall as to whether science had served the best interest of man. An account said he was the first to speak from the audience and that his delivery was “breezy.” It did not say on which side he spoke. In October 1943, he was at a debate about whether art should be influenced by external events. In two etchings of cathedrals done at the beginning of WWI, French flags are flying from their towers, possibly as a show of resistance. Two others, one of the Cloth Hall in Ypres and one of the interior of the Church of Notre Dame in Dinant, were reproduced in the December 1915 issue of the New York political magazine The Outlook with the comment: "These etchings were made shortly before the war [both were published in 1915], and are worthy monuments of magnificent edifices, which are now partly or wholly in ruins." So it is likely that Brewer spoke in favor of the proposition.
Yet, if Brewer's first big success as a young artist came with etchings of buildings damaged during WWI, as an older artist, during WWII, his approach was just the opposite. He turned away from the war and focused on scenes of natural and almost spiritual beauty. Beginning in 1939, if we are guided by what he exhibited, Brewer began to produce woodcuts of mountain views and pastoral vistas, done with fresh colors and bold compositions. These are so different in effect from his architectural etchings that many people have trouble relating the two as the work of one artist. They appear to represent the swan song of British interest in making woodcuts.
Brewer died February 4, 1946. An obituary in the next newsletter of the Ealing Arts Club described his demeanor at their annual general meeting as “overflowing with kindliness, fun and enthusiasm as always.” It noted his fondness for music and attending the cinema, and continued:
His nature was too big for pettiness or jealousy, and nothing pleased him more than to give high praise to a brother artist. He often alluded to the “Brewer temper,” and it was as honest and whole-hearted as all his other qualities. Unkindness to another, calumny against the Club he cared for so much, called it forth, but most of all did eccentricity and distortion in the sacred name of Art arouse his fiercest indignation.
It was the "Brewer temper" that won him the nickname "Major" as a child. His outbursts reminded his father of an irritable chimpanzee by that name in the London Zoo. A mid-career sales booklet promoting his etchings confirmed (possibly in his own words, certainly with his approval) his feelings about "eccentricity and distortion":
His success shows clearly that the public still prefers beauty in art; the cult of the ugly has never influenced him. He recognised its utter unimportance and has proved that it is possible to combine work of the highest class, work good enough to appeal to the collector, with a treatment and choice of subject that can be understood by the average man.
His obituary in the Acton Gazette said that on the last full day of his life he was practicing a song to be sung at a future social gathering of the Ealing Arts Club. According to a member of the Brewer family, the next day “he went ‘across the road’ to see the doctor, came home, and at some point on the same day, sat in a chair and died." He was 64.
A family photo of Brewer later in life.
J. Alphege Brewer with his "The Cathedral of St. Gudule.... Brussels, Belgium" (1914) on the easel
(see image on the TECHNIQUES page).
The Brewers on a special occasion.
"Where Shakespeare Sleeps (Stratford-upon-Avon),"
a 1921 etching by James Alphege Brewer and his brother Henry C. Brewer.
"The Taj Mahal, India" an aquatint exhibited at the Ealing Arts Club and the Royal Cambrian Academy in 1932.