David Lucas was a highly skilled mezzotint engraver who is known predominantly for his work with British landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837).
The practice of mezzotint dates back to the 17th-Century, and quickly became a popular means through which to disseminate artistic works to a wider audience. A plate is engraved with very fine lines which translate the image into an ink print. An incredibly skilful profession, Lucas was certainly a master of his craft.
Growing up the son of a farmer, it was by a fortunate meeting with Samuel William Reynolds (1773-1835), a popular mezzotint engraver, that Lucas was offered an apprenticeship. Luck grew into skill and Lucas was much praised when he first started printing his own works.
One of his first, of the Duke of Wellington, was noted for its ‘fine disposition of the lights and shadows.’ Lucas was beginning to carve for himself a reputation, garnering attention. The interest of one man in particular was piqued, and he would come to shape the course of Lucas’ career.
Landscape artist John Constable had been struggling for years to establish his style and the popularity of landscapes as a legitimate genre of art. Constable had a passion for painting nature as it was, without embellishment or dramatism. The beauty of nature, he believed, could speak for itself, and the artist was merely the communicator. This was a highly irregular opinion to have, and Constable’s art style with his bright colours and heavy paintwork unnerved the Academy and public alike. Constable needed something to increase interest in his work, something which could be published widely to easily promote his interest. Enter David Lucas.
‘English Landscape’ is a publication of 22 mezzotint prints of Constable’s works depicting the English countryside. Published in multiple editions, Lucas and Constable would work tirelessly to ensure the prints perfectly translated Constable’s work into a black and white format. Multitudinous correspondence between them hints that their relationship was a close one, Constable enquiring after Lucas’ family and sending his well wishes.
Indeed, perhaps the men had found an affinity for each other which assisted their working relationship. Both had grown up in the countryside, surrounded by rural views and verdant vistas. This might have been part of the reason Constable chose Lucas in the first place.
The work of converting Constable’s vivid scenes into a black and white print retaining such vivacity was a tricky one. Lucas’ skill cannot be understated. He was not merely a copier but a translator who had to understand and speak the same language as Constable.
Months and years of practice copies as they perfected the prints demonstrate the patience and tenacity Lucas possessed. Constable could also be a tricky customer at times. Being so particular, he was extremely harsh when things did not go to plan.
‘So deplorably deficient in all feeling is the present state of the plate that I can suggest nothing at all. To me it is utterly, utterly hopeless,’ Constable wrote to Lucas. When Lucas was successful, however, Constable was ecstatic with praise, ‘The print is a noble and beautiful thing; entirely improved and entirely made perfect.’ Such strong emotions surely highlight the importance of their mission, and the incredible quality of Lucas’ work is evident. The slippery substance of shadow and light Constable found so important are not lost in his prints. Rather, they form the substance of them.
Although ‘English Landscape’ did not sell particularly well when first published, Lucas would continue to work on re-publications after Constable’s death in 1837. With the loss of this long-time collaborator, Lucas did work for other artists such as Frederick Richard Lee, but he did not find the verve or stylism he had executed translating Constable’s work. Although the details are unclear, it seems Lucas struggled in the later years of his life, eventually dying in a workhouse in Fulham. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Despite this terribly sad end, Lucas’ engravings are a worthy legacy to his skilful career. His name is not forgotten in the appreciation which burgeoned in the late 19th-century for Constable’s work. His prints form as important a legacy as the original paintings, allowing us to understand the important role mezzotint engravers played in the dissemination and indeed in the reputation of art.
Lucas’ prints are now held in the collections of the V&A, alongside many of Constable’s original works.
Born in Geddington Chase, Northamptonshire.
Apprenticed in engraving under S.W. Reynolds.
Published his first mezzotints.
First became introduced to John Constable.
Publication of Constable’s ‘Various Subjects of English Landscape,’ with Mezzotints by Lucas.
Married Jane Smith.
Died in Fulham Union Workhouse. Buried in a pauper’s grave in Fulham Cemetery.