As part of my Art History print module,we were asked to explore the collection at the University of Aberystwyth’s museum, there I found with the help of my lecturer, some beautiful works by Nathaniel Sparks. The aim of the module was to create an essay detailing the history, artist background and effect art movements had on the piece. To do this it entailed me researching more about the artist, using a website set up by close family friends and a book also written by them about Nathaniel Sparks, I was able to find out a lot of what I needed for the essay.
Adam by Nathaniel Sparks is an extremely exquisite piece in my opinion, the level of skill displayed is phenomenal. What interested me the most about the piece was the subject matter, especially considering it was created in 1931. As you can see below it features death visiting Adam in a woodland scene, death is represented as a skeleton holding an hour glass and wearing a cloak, a sword, and a crown.The piece features a densely scored background, outlines around areas such as the leaves have been left with clear open frameworks, and the rest of the expanse of the plate’s background has been carefully cross hatched, over pre- engraved leaves to create the depth and the illusion of shadow in selective parts of the engraving. The middle ground is thin in terms of line, the marks that do exist are delicate and not particularly close together, stippling also makes up large portions of the figural form.
Symbols of interest that are presented within Adam are alpha and omega signs that relate to religious theme of ruin and regeneration; ‘I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last’ is scribed in the book of Revelations as being spoken by God. The symbols occur on the livery collar of the skeleton that is a representation of death, also issuing the idea of the events set in motion by Adam and Eves fall and the religious subject that runs through this piece. The crown is also another point of interest, Sparks has inscribed the rim with ‘Quia pulvis Es’, the intricacy and detail behind this minute cursive is a testament to the artist’s technical ability and attention to detail within his work, a representation of how attentive he was to each part of his art. The rest of this proverb is ‘et in pulverem reverteris’, together the translation reads ‘Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return’. Bearing this message on the crown may be a reference to the forehead as a seat of pride, the words upon it a reminder of the mortality and upcoming judgment that Adam experiences after the fall. Celia Barclay writes in her book,‘ Nathaniel’s wartime experience had done nothing to broaden his horizons…It would take time to return to the meticulous work of an engraver’ ; when this piece was created, Sparks had already experienced World War one, his printing career had been cruelly halted and he had been reduced to working in the munition factories, the solemn nature behind Adam could be representative of his sorrow at the years his mundane job during the war, had taken from him and Sparks’s awareness that he was advancing in age with little time left to create a lasting legacy of his artwork.
It is most widely known for its association as a memorial plate to Sparks’s cousin Henry Hardy, as seen by the inscription on a tile on the lower left hand corner of the piece ‘ To H.H, N.S Sculp’ .Henry Hardy’s brother was Thomas Hardy the well-known novelist and poet, although Thomas died in 1928 just nine months before Henry, Sparks only dedicated his engraving to Henry. Sparks was born in Bristol in 1880 and the connection to his family and background that can be seen in the Adam memoriam, runs through the majority of Sparks’s pieces, his main body of works being landscapes, townscapes and architectural studies.
When Britain was cut off during the war the result of it was a dislocation in printmaking continuity. Although modernism had already begun to gain momentum in Britain, it was inaccessible for most art collectors, therefore the artwork of existing printmakers were of value. This led to an interest in the art of the ‘Old Masters’ whose study was widely embraced and putative, this is likely because the reassurance of studying what they were aware of created a kind of stability for these artists.The arrival of printing, together with the copious supply and range of affordable paper created the reproducible image by machine which became abundant and arguably a fundamental factor through the Renaissance. Whilst painters of the time translated the canonical sculptures of ancient times onto paper, canvas or other two dimensional expanses with coloured pigments, Dürer, who is considered by many to be one of greatest German Renaissance artists, rendered his delineations through networks of engraved marks that were carefully laid in order to portray the form in a sculptural manner. This is of historical value when considering Sparks’s Adam, as the image of Adam is a reversed and nearly identical depiction of Dürer’s 1504 engraving Adam and Eve. Yet Dürer too used inspiration for his engraving from another piece of art, his representation is reminiscent of the Hellenistic Apollo Belvedere which was exhumed in Italy late in the fifteenth century, although there are no surviving engravings made of the sculpture at that time that he could have used as reference it is likely he would have seen it.As a product of the print revival, the sombre tone and motif of Adam was also a result, with artists looking back upon past styles and creators for stimulus, similar themes were going to merge into their work at some point.
The effects of the print revival, his personal life, geographical environment among other aspects have all played a role in creating Nathaniel Sparks’s work, his artwork will continue to be as prints always have been; a mean of interpersonal communication and dissemination of knowledge that will benefit in some way, those that come after him such as myself. If any viewers would like to know more about the works of Nathaniel Sparks, the text below will take you to the website which also includes the link to the book written by Celia Barclay was extremely useful to me. I have also included other links to websites I have used in my essay.
The image taken is a primary photo from the Aberystwyth University Collections.
Barclay, Celia. Nathaniel Sparks: memoirs of Thomas Hardy’s cousin, the engraver. London: Cock Inn, 1994.pp.74.