Pye, John (1782-1874) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 47
Pye, John (1782-1874)

by Freeman Marius O'Donoghue
Contains subarticle Charles Pye (1777–1864).

PYE, JOHN (1782–1874), landscape engraver, second son of Charles Pye of Birmingham, was born there on 7 Nov. 1782; his mother was a daughter of John Radclyffe, also of Birmingham, and aunt of William Radclyffe [q. v.], the engraver. Charles Pye, in the expectation of succeeding to a fortune, had indulged a taste for literature and numismatics, and when his prospects were destroyed as the result of a lawsuit he had recourse to his pen to maintain his family. He published an account of Birmingham, a geographical dictionary, and several series of plates of provincial coins and tokens engraved by himself, with the assistance of his son John. The latter was removed from school when still a child, and received his first instruction in engraving from his father; later he was a pupil of Joseph Barber, a well-known Birmingham teacher, and was then apprenticed to a plate-engraver named Tolley. In 1801 he came to London with his cousin, William Radclyffe, and became a paid assistant of James Heath (1757–1834) [q. v.], to whom his elder brother was articled, and by whom he was employed on works of natural history and in engraving the backgrounds of book illustrations. In 1805 Pye was entrusted by Heath with the execution of a plate of Inverary Castle, from a drawing by J. M. W. Turner [q. v.], and thus first came under the influence of that painter's genius. In 1810 John Britton [q. v.], who was then publishing his work, ‘The Fine Arts of the English School,’ commissioned Pye to engrave for it Turner's picture, ‘Pope's Villa at Twickenham,’ and the plate was so warmly approved of by the painter that from that time Pye became his favourite engraver. Pye's plates after Turner include ‘High Street, Oxford’ (figures by C. Heath), 1812; ‘View of Oxford from the Abingdon Road’ (figures by C. Heath), 1818; ‘The Rialto, Venice,’ ‘La Riccia,’ and ‘Lake of Nemi’ (for Hakewill's ‘Tour in Italy,’ 1818); ‘Junction of the Greta and Tees,’ ‘Wycliffe, near Rokeby,’ and ‘Hardraw Fall’ (for Whitaker's ‘Richmondshire,’ 1823); ‘Temple of Jupiter in the Island of Ægina,’ 1827; ‘Tivoli’ and ‘Pæstum’ (for Rogers's ‘Italy,’ 1830); and ‘Ehrenbreitstein,’ 1845. These remarkable works, in which for the first time the effects of light and atmosphere were adequately rendered, placed Pye at the head of his profession, and entitle him to be regarded as the founder of the modern school of landscape engraving. Among his other large plates are ‘Cliefden on the Thames,’ after J. Glover, 1816; ‘All that remains of the Glory of William Smith,’ after E. Landseer, 1836; ‘Light Breeze off Dover,’ after A. W. Callcott, 1839; and ‘Temple of the Sun, Baalbec,’ after D. Roberts, 1849.

Throughout his career Pye was largely engaged upon illustrations to the then popular annuals and pocket-books, and of these the ‘Ehrenbreitstein,’ after Turner (in the ‘Literary Souvenir,’ 1828), and ‘The Sunset,’ after G. Barret (in the ‘Amulet’), are the best examples. He engraved the entire series of headpieces from drawings by W. Havell, S. Prout, G. Cuitt, and others, which appeared in the ‘Royal Repository, or Picturesque Pocket Diary,’ 1817–39; ‘Le Souvenir, or Pocket Tablet,’ 1822–43; and ‘Peacock's Polite Repository,’ 1813–58; of these a complete set of impressions, formed by Pye himself, was presented by his daughter to the British Museum in 1882. In 1830, at the request of John Sheepshanks [q. v.], Pye undertook the publication of a series of fine engravings from pictures in the National Gallery, and in the course of the following ten years twenty-nine were issued, of which three, after Claude and Poussin, were by Pye himself, but the work was then discontinued. Pye finally retired from the exercise of his profession in 1858. His complete mastery of the principles of chiaroscuro in the translation of colour into black and white caused his services to be always much in request for correcting the plates of other engravers, and, after his retirement, he gave such help gratuitously.

Pye was the most energetic of the founders of the Artists' Annuity Fund, and mainly through his exertions and those of his friend William Mulready [q. v.] it was subsequently placed on a firm footing, and in 1827 received a royal charter; in recognition of his services he was presented with a silver vase and an address by the members of the fund in May 1830.

Pye spent much of his time in France, where, in 1862, he was elected a corresponding member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts; he had already, in 1846, received a gold medal from the French government, and he was also an honorary member of the Petersburg Academy of Arts. But he never sought or received honours from the Royal Academy, to which body he was bitterly hostile, in consequence of its refusal to recognise the claims of engravers to equal treatment with painters and sculptors; he was one of the spokesmen of his profession before a select committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into that subject in 1836, and also took a leading part in the controversy with his pen. In 1845 he published his well-known ‘Patronage of British Art,’ a work full of valuable information, in which he formulated with great ability and acrimony his charges against the academy and his demands for its reformation, and in 1851 he renewed the attack in a pamphlet entitled ‘A Glance at the Rise and Constitution of the Royal Academy of London;’ some of the changes he advocated he lived to see carried out.

Pye formed a very fine collection of impressions of Turner's ‘Liber Studiorum,’ which is now in the print-room of the British Museum; his notes on the subject, edited by Mr. J. L. Roget, were published in 1879.

Pye married, in 1808, Mary, daughter of Samuel Middiman [q. v.], the landscape engraver by whom he was assisted in the preliminary stages of some of his plates, and had an only child Mary, who survived him. He died at his residence, 17 Gloucester Terrace, Regent's Park, on 6 Feb. 1874.

Charles Pye (1777–1864), elder brother of John, was a pupil of James Heath, and became a good engraver in the line manner, chiefly of small book illustrations. Examples of his work are found in Inchbald's ‘British Theatre;’ Walker's ‘Effigies Poeticæ,’ 1822; and ‘Physiognomical Portraits,’ 1824. His larger plates include a view of Brereton Hall, after P. de Wint, 1818; a portrait of Robert Owen, after M. Heming, 1823; and a Holy Family, after Michael Angelo, 1825. During the latter part of his life he resided at Leamington, and he died there on 14 Dec. 1864.

[Cat. of Exhibition of Works of Birmingham Engravers, 1877; Men of the Time, 1872; Athenæum, 14 Feb. 1874; Vapereau's Dict. des Contemporains; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; private information.]

F. M. O'D.