No. 39 Bertha Evelyn Jaques

 

When Zorn visited Chicago in 1900, he found himself possessed of a great desire to print from a copper plate he had scratched on the train from Washington — a portrait of Senator “Billy” Mason. He was told there was no etcher’s press in Chicago. But somebody happened to remember that there was the wife of a doctor on the south side who wrote poetry sometimes, and sometimes not only made etchings but demonstrated the process before women’s clubs, as eager then as now for anything to give them a new “cultural” sensation.

 

So Zorn’s informant found the name of Dr. W.K. Jaques in the telephone book and his address looked to be about the vicinity where the young woman etcher was known to reside. Bertha E. Jaques answered the phone, would be delighted to put her poor equipment at the disposal of the great Mr. Zorn.

 

Zorn took with him not only the Senator Mason plate but another he had made, known later to fame as “The Lady at the Piano.”

“One plate was a portrait of a man well known in Washington, which Zorn had sketched on the train,” Mrs. Jaques wrote 20 years later in the Christian Science Monitor, not only concealing “Billy” Mason’s name for a reason that will appear a bit later, but also modestly omitting to mention that the owner of the press put at Zorn’s disposal was herself.

 

“The first proof,” she proceeds, “revealed sundry collections of small dots known to etchers as ‘foul biting.’ When happily placed, artists use these accidents to advantage but in this proof they appeared on the man’s shirt front and his nose. The printer, a careful person, expostulated with Zorn, who was a careless person, and finally the good-natured man exclaimed, ‘Well, madam, in deference to you I will give the senator a clean shirt but,’ he added, chuckling, ‘I never saw him wear one.’ Whereat the marks of foul biting were removed from shirt and nose, and the man was immortalized.”

 

This “careless person” Zorn came near giving “the printer” heart failure a little later with his other plate. “The Lade at the Piano” didn’t suit him when the first proof was pulled, and he proceeded to model her some more about the arms and shoulders, humming carelessly and turning his burin this way and that with perfect ease.

 

Zorn happened to glance at the face of the printer, who followed his movements with utmost apprehension, forgetting it was Zorn who worked and remembering only that it was a play by Zorn likely to be spoiled. Throwing back his broad, square head, the etcher laughed heartily and inquired, “You think I work like a carpenter?”

 

If Mrs. Jaques was critical, Zorn was no less so. Great pressure is required to print from an etched plate and, while presses are constructed on mechanical principles that multiply many fold any muscular exertion on the part of the printer, the pulling of the lever is still a man’s job. Zorn insisted his muscles were better able than hers to do the physical work — he couldn’t bear to see a woman working while he looked on. But the doctor’s wife reminded him that it was “her press” (much as you, madam, sitting at the wheel would say these days, “This is my car.”) And so the first proofs of “Senator ‘Billy’ Mason” and “The Lady at the Piano” were her handiwork.

 

Mrs. Jaques had begun etching six years earlier than Zorn’s visit, in 1894, following a great interest she had taken in prints exhibited at the Columbian Fair. Her husband, whom she married in 1889, was not only a surgeon but an active inventor of mechanical appliances, descended from a long line of inventors.

 

He had been sympathetic toward the poetry written by his wife, who had done secretarial and reporting work on newspapers and magazines before their marriage. But it was not until he found her sketching one day, in a pensive mood, following a domestic sorrow, that he manifested a lively and explosive interest. He provided her with colors and brushes and books of instruction, including Lalanne and Hamerton.

 

Lalanne, of course, recalled the prints she had seen at the Fair and suggested the art of etching. But there were no tools to be had then in Chicago. This didn’t stump the inventive doctor. He bought a plate of kettle copper at a hardware store. From Surgical instruments, he shaped tools of the etcher’s trade, and soon Bertha Jaques had everything to work with except a press. Inventor Jaques thought a clothes wringer might be made to serve but, tinker as he might, the wringer wouldn’t exert enough pressure to print. Nor could three persons standing on a plate make it impress itself on a square of printing paper. Eventually, in 1897, they bought in Milwaukee a second-hand printing press which Dr. Jaques altered and geared so that it would do the work.

 

Mrs. Jaques continued to experiment with her plates, under instruction from the books, and by 1903, three years after the visit of Zorn (which had made a vivid impression on her, never erased to this day) she had eleven plates ready to exhibit. She sent them to the 1903 jury at the Art Institute, choosing the annual show of Chicago artists. To her surprise, they all were accepted and hung as a group. Mrs. Potter Palmer bought seven of them, and scattered customers bought nine more impressions.

 

Up to this time, Mrs. Jaques had been teaching herself. Now she became a bit self-conscious and thought she should have some formal training at an art school. So she enrolled at the Art Institute, where she worked industriously two days a week for two months. Then she decided she liked her own way of working better than the ways of her instructors, and so her “college” career ended. But in 1929, Lawrence College at Appleton, Wis., surveying her life’s work up to that time, bestowed upon her the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts!

 

Following the unique distinction of the exhibition of her eleven etchings at the Art Institute in 1903, Mrs. Jaques became the center of a little group that began “pioneering” the art in Chicago.

 

One hot night in August 1900, she and three of these friends assembled on the roof of her home, 4316 Greenwood Avenue, where she has always had her studio and her husband has always had his consulting room and his laboratory. Her three friends were Earl. H. Reed (now dead), Otto J. Schneider, and Ralph Pearson (Pearson has since gone East and has become quite an authority on art).

 

Mrs. Jaques, the poet, read to them a little prose rhapsody she had composed, “The Needle Club” — not an embroidery needle but the sterner needle of the etcher. It was an imaginary club whose “largest membership consists of needles long since rusted by inactivity down through the years to needles still recording their impressions on copper.”

 

Inspired by Mrs. Jaques’ fantasy and by the full moon of that August night, Pearson remarked, “What’s the matter with starting a live needle club instead of a dead one?” And so was born the idea of the Chicago Society of Etchers.

 

Twenty artists were called together, most of them painters, but willing to try the needle. Earl Reed was elected president; Thomas Wood Stevens, afterward to make his mark in the world of drama, vice-president; and Mrs. Jaques, secretary and treasurer, a job she has held ever since.

 

Nor has she held the job nominally or perfunctorily. She has been the guiding spirit from that August night until today of the society that brought etching to the active consciousness not only of Chicago but of all America.

 

It extended its scope to become international. One of its members is a Hindu living in Calcutta. On its 25th anniversary (dated from the first show at the Art Institute in February 1919), observed this year, there were 165 active and 300 associate members. Its scope embraces all states of the United States; Canada; Great Britain; France; Germany; Belgium; Sweden; Austria; Italy; Norway; Hawaii; China; Japan; India; and New Zealand.

 

Other cities establishing etching clubs have used the Chicago Society as pattern — Boston, Brooklyn, Toronto, Toledo, San Francisco, Pasadena, Dayton, Charleston S.C.

 

But great as has been the work of the Society, Mrs. Jaques’ personal influence has been perhaps even greater. Childless, she regards as “her boys” scores of artists who have sought her help and her advice, and these artists are even more sentimental about her as “mother.” One of them tells me the “scores” number in the neighborhood of 200.

 

After launching the Chicago Society of Etchers, Mrs. Jaques (in 1912) went traveling. She visited England, Scotland, Switzerland, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Egypt, and Japan on this and subsequent voyages. Unique souvenirs of her travels are bound volumes of her letters. Every day while gone, she wrote her husband an extensive diary of the day’s events, for she is as tireless a writer as she is an artist. These letters were saved, and afterward bound into books, profusely illustrated with sketches, souvenir postcards, clippings from newspapers and magazines, and everything else bearing on the day’s events. Being a good writer, Mrs. Jaques has here a treasure house of information of an age that is facing.

 

On her trip to England, Mrs. Jaques encountered another adventure she treasures alongside Zorn’s visit. This time she was the visitor — to the studio of Sir Frank Short. She saw Short print, and she herself was given use of his press. Sir Frank complimented her on a plate of hers, “The Palazzo Minnelli, Venice” — the only Venetian picture he could remember with chimneys shown.

 

In all, Mrs. Jaques has made 419 plates. Eighty-nine are of plant life, which has become her hobby. Her treatment of plants has the simplicity of the Japanese, as reviewers have frequently pointed out. A New York artist has hung an arrangement of wild grapes of hers in his Hiroshige collection — the most delicate compliment, she feels, ever paid her. A show of her plant etchings at the Smithsonian Institution in 1930 made them nationally known.

 

Mrs. Jaques was born in the village of Covington, O., on the Stillwater river. The most vivid memory of her childhood was being kept after school one rainy afternoon to put on the blackboard the drawing lesson for the class next morning. Her seatmate and chum started home without her. As this girl was crossing the swollen Stillwater, the bridge broke and was carried away. She was drowned.

 

A year in Indianapolis followed Bertha Evelyn’s school days in Covington. Then her father died, and it became necessary for her to work to support her invalid mother. It was after her mother’s death, in turn, that she married Dr. Jaques.

 

Her Boston grandparents, who “bequeathed her nothing but a New England conscience,” were descendants of Capt. Jonathan Wilde.

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