he name of John DePol has for decades been linked to the art of wood-engraving. While DePol is best known for his engravings, his prodigious output also comprises etching with aquatint and dry- point, lithography, drybrush drawing, watercolor and oil painting. The rediscovery of DePol's etchings, of their significant place in the overall body of his work, led to the mounting of this exhibition at Fairleigh Dickinson University Library in Madison, New Jersey. In this selection of examples from his first printmaking period, we see that these etchings exhibit that very charm, texture, drama and personal vision which distinguish DePol's later wood-engravings. The pieces shown here are illustrative of the artist's early work, for it was in etching that DePol began his career, a career now spanning the full range of printmaking. This exhibition--opening on the threshold of 1997 and continuing through March 14, 1997--marks the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the artist's twelve-year etching period from 1935 to 1947, the year DePol would turn his attention to wood-engraving.
John was born September 16, 1913, in Greenwich Village, where he was raised, the eldest of three children of Theresa and Joseph DePol. His father's death, when John was still a boy, influenced his decision to leave high school early to help support the family--his mother, brother William, and sister Genevieve.
DePol worked as a securities runner on Wall Street and expected that there, beyond this beginning at picking up and delivering certificates of stocks and bonds bought and sold, lay an opportunity to make his fortune. He was employed but four weeks when the stock market crashed during the latter half of October 1929, and only then discovered his fortune merely in holding on to a job at a time when many were losing theirs in the ensuing depression. In the evening, DePol attended night school where he learned typing and shorthand which were to prove useful for later stenographic and secretarial positions he would hold both in civilian and military life, the first of these through a company promotion into a special investments department.
Remarkably, though, from an early age on and guided by his love of art, DePol devoted himself in his spare time to becoming a self-taught artist. He would record in sketches the streets, landmark buildings and waterfront scenes of Manhattan that caught his eye. He scrutinized gallery windows throughout the City, studying the etchings of various artists. Decades later he would recall how he was drawn, especially, to the masters:
Around the corner from where I was employed on the tenth floor at 25 Broad Street, on New Street, in the "42 Broadway" building, was a print shop, Assenheim's. In its window were prints, their displays often changed and which I never missed, of Rembrandt and Whistler, the Scotsmen James McBey, Muirhead Bone and Sir David Cameron, my favorites, and others. On one occasion there hung on the window's back wall a striking seascape by the American, Frederick Waugh. On my only walk into the shop I asked Mr. Assenheim how much it cost. He replied, "$300." My salary at the time was $15.00 a week.
Determined to teach himself etching, he pored over books on the subject at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library in Greenwich Village. Joseph Pennell's Etchers and Etching (1925) and Making an Etching (1932) by Levon West were two favorites he then acquired and still has. DePol was bent on learning all he could about the art and the printing process, well before trying his own hand at etching.
The procedure he developed originally was to roll a hard ball ground on the heated surface of a copper or zinc plate. Later, a liquid ground was found to be more convenient. DePol would draw on the plate with a needle, and, with nitric acid purchased from the local pharmacy, etch the exposed metal surface. The surface, then cleaned with a solvent, would be ready for printing.
On Easter (April 21) of 1935, John was in the backyard, painting nitric acid on his first plate, using feathers (he had persuaded his mother to take from a pillow) that were wedged into the split end of a broken clothespin. With it, he attempted to vary the bitings on the plate to achieve contrasts between elements in the distance and foreground of his illustration.
On the evening of April 28, 1935, DePol printed his first etching, passing the etched plate and paper between the rollers of a borrowed, manually operated clothes-wringer clamped onto a length of board held in place by a vise on a workshop bench. DePol noted in his journal:
I mixed ink and copper plate oil in equal parts on the top of an inverted cracker can. I heated the plate over a stand made of boxes and tin, using a blow torch which I had difficulty keeping lit. I mixed and applied the ink with a small wad of chamois, covering the plate entirely and rubbing in the ink thoroughly, then cleaning it off with a piece of old linen.
DePol had prepared the wringer rollers with two covers of red felt, through which he pressed the sandwiched piece of absorbent kid bristol board, the plate, the damp paper, then another sheet of bristol. Karl Schulz, an old friend, and brother William assisted John in turning the crank to produce ten impressions. The image was of his often-recurring theme: a composition of a pier, warning bell, river traffic and the Hoboken ferry slips. DePol continued to experiment and refine his art.
Not long after his first few printing trials with a clothes-wringer, DePol built his own intaglio press of miscellaneous metal parts salvaged from a scrap pile, fashioning rollers from two short pieces of discarded plumbing pipe. With this rudimentary press, he continued to work at home at his etching.
In March 1938, in search of a larger, stronger press, and for the monthly fee of twelve dollars and a one-time matriculation fee of five dollars, he enrolled for a brief period at the Art Students League in Manhattan in an evening class in etching and lithography with instructor George Picken. This gave DePol access to the League's great press which had been installed there by Joseph Pennell. Here he brought in his etched plates to print, and also created three lithographs: "Warning Bell, Hudson River," "Interior, Etching Class," and an untitled riverfront street scene. He became a League member and so could continue to use the large press without charge on Saturdays. This advantage was especially valuable in 1946-47 after he returned from military service overseas with a bundle of sketches from which he would make etchings, and print them at the League.
On January 1, 1943, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Force which would take him to Europe where he gathered new material in sketches to be transformed into etchings upon his return to the United States in 1946. Three of DePol's most important etchings can be said to trace his own journey: in New York, the "Station on the Ninth Avenue Elevated [67 k]"; in England, the "Bomb Hit near Piccadilly"; and the "Monastery, Parey-sous-Montfort [61K]" in Haute Vosges, France.
DePol's etchings are compelling in their artistry and their emotional tone. A scene from life in New York City is humorously portrayed in the "Station on the Ninth Avenue Elevated." This etching, made in 1942, was derived from a drawing originally done in 1938, explained in this way by the artist:
Pictured, in one of my earliest etchings, is the station at Houston Street. I lived several blocks away and, starting in the late '20s, regularly rode the "L" during the nickel fare days. I rode all of them, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 9th Avenue trains.
The etching, though, is a self-portrait. There I am on the left, drawing pad under my arm!
Later, DePol studied briefly at the College of Art in Belfast. This was occasioned while he was stationed with the U.S. Army Air Forces in Northern Ireland for a portion of the twenty-nine months he spent overseas in World War II. While there and under wartime conditions, he created a series of zinc plate lithographs (after creating his first one on stone) which he printed at the School of Technology in Belfast.
DePol captured in sketches the European towns, village streets, aerodromes and countrysides he encountered during his war years while stationed in Northern Ireland, England, France and Germany, and later, at home, transcribed them into etchings and wood-engravings.
Finally, the year 1945 brought the war to an end and John returned home to marry Thelma Roth. DePol went back to work on Wall Street as a statistical clerk but soon left the world of finance for a production assistant position with the small, quality printing firm of Lewis F. White Company on West 21st Street. There he read proof, kept the books and swept the floors, all the while absorbing something of commercial design principles and print shop practices.
At home, in Astoria in Queens, New York, he turned again to printmaking, rendering etchings from a number of his wartime sketches. Of particular interest among these is the 6 x 8-inch "Bomb Hit near Piccadilly, 1944-45," done in March of 1947. He did the drawing in three evenings. The image was drawn on a zinc plate with a well-sharpened sewing needle. The plate was rolled with hard ball ground and bitten with Dutch Mordant (a Rembrandt formula), then printed at the Art Students League.
"Bomb Hit" was derived from DePol's original sketch made at the scene late in 1944. The artist's annotations (as in the following from March 1947) offer background on the illustration and his method of work.
I thought this a particularly interesting scene, though a jumbled mass, the bomb hit having exposed the interior of one building which appeared to have been built in the 17th century. The site shows construction from that period to the present time. The tall, odd-roofed building in the background appears to be a theatre.
On one of my many trips to London from my station at Chipping Ongar, near Chelmsford, where I was stationed with the U.S. 8th and 9th Air Forces, I happened upon this scene. As I always carried a sketch pad with me, I surveyed the scene and then began drawing while standing on the sidewalk, my pad propped on a fence. Passersby stopped to watch; some cabbies from a nearby hackstand came over to rubberneck and criticize, one driver informing me that this was the site of Stone's Old Chop House.
After completing a detailed pencil sketch, I returned to the base and there went over the lines in pen and ink, my usual practice, though on occasion I might use watercolor or wash.
"Bomb Hit, Piccadilly" was reproduced in the September 25, 1966 edition of the New York Times Book Review.
Then, in France, despite the war, the artist rendered a stirring "Monastery, Parey-sous-Montfort, Haute Vosges," which evokes a hopeful mood. The following is how DePol remembered creating it:
This was one of the last etchings I made. It was 1947, the year I would begin wood engraving, an art I had little knowledge of at the time. Thelma and I lived in a furnished flat in Astoria in Queens, and I worked as a statistical clerk for an investment trust company in Wall Street. At home I drew on this plate and then went with it to my mother's apartment on 12th Street in New York where I stored my trays and bottles of nitric acid. There I would etch my plates and, on Saturdays, print them at the Art Students League. This etching was made from an original sketch drawn at the scene in 1945.
We arrived in Vittel, a former spa town now filled with vacant hotels, in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. We would spend two or three months here in the grey, bleak winter of 1944, in HQ 2nd Air Disarmament Wing. Major C. Volney Parker (the ex-banker from Chicago for whom I had worked in Northern Ireland) was the Wing's Chief of Intelligence. One day it was my task to borrow, from division headquarters, copies (then kept in a large safe in an old hotel the division occupied) of top secret plans for the invasion of southern Germany by combined American and French forces which was then in progress. From these plans the major formulated and dictated to me, a sergeant and ex-civilian stenographer, the plans and routes to be taken by the Wing and its six squadrons.
On an occasional day off I made several sketches of Vittel and neighboring towns. Some were made into etchings when I returned home, as was this monastery at nearby Parey-sous-Montfort. It was not functioning as a monastery, but part of it was a school; the elderly woman seen under the archway lived in an apartment next to it. I stood there, sketching, when presently the door opened and she came out, holding a chair. She walked slowly in my direction and, smiling when she reached me, silently offered me the chair. Smiling, I accepted it. A little later that afternoon, children, just let out of class, ran over, surrounded me, and watched me sketch. Soon I pulled some sticks of chewing gum from my pockets, broke them into small pieces and passed them around. Smiles replaced all language barriers.
A buddy, Staff Sergeant Leif Graae and I cycled the countryside to buy fresh eggs for the Major and ourselves. Along the way I gathered subjects for my art. On such an excursion, I visited Domjulien, scene of a later wood-engraving as was another, "GI Stove, Vittel," a view of my office in an old hotel. I made an etching of the monastery tower, the front view of which was the church. From a sketch of Gemmelaincourt I later made a watercolor. Then, one day, as I walked briskly along a tree-lined road, I became elated, for it was a bright, early spring day, it was in France, and, finally, the war seemed to be drawing to a close.
It is clear from these etchings (there are nearly 50 on exhibit at FDU), a number of which have been reproduced as illustrations in various publications, and from his wood-engravings, many of which illustrate the pages of limited edition books, that every work of art by John DePol is a labor of love.
Eleanor Friedl, November 1996
Back to the John DePol website