Johnston County’s hidden treasure is now on display.
Hanging on walls at the back entrance of the Smithfield library, the intricate etchings detail scenes from North Carolina’s past. The library bought the full set of 51 etchings in the 1960s for about $3,000. Created by Louis Orr, a famed artist, the etchings went into storage because the library had no money to frame them. They are now valued at more than $60,000.
In etching, an artist uses a needle to draw an image onto a metal plate. The plate is then placed in an acid bath, which eats away at the scratches to create deeper grooves. The plates are then used to create prints of the drawing. An etching can become valuable because the plates last for a limited number of prints.
Orr’s North Carolina set ranges from the Old Well in Chapel Hill to the Wright Brother’s Memorial at Kitty Hawk to Grandfather Mountain. The etchings are extremely detailed; for instance, the etching of the Old Well shows the trees’ shadows falling onto the well’s columns.
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“They are very excellent artwork,” said John Hobart, who helped raise the money to have the etchings framed. “They are a reflection of our cultural heritage as North Carolinians, and they connect us with our history.”
In the 1960s, after finishing the building that merged the county and Smithfield libraries, the library had about $3,000 left over, said Wallace Ashley Jr., who was on the board at the time. Robert Lee Humber, who underwrote the etching projects, approached the board and convinced the library to buy a complete set of the etchings.
Humber was well-known at the time. A North Carolina native, he founded the N.C. Museum of Art and lived in Paris for years as an international lawyer. He later helped found the United Nations.
Humber spent years trying to convince Orr to travel to North Carolina to create 50 etchings of sites across the state and a 51st, larger etching of the State Capitol. Humber’s goal was to make the etchings available to all citizens of the state, so he spent his own money to offset the cost of buying the works and made sure many libraries acquired the sets.
Orr worked on the project for 12 years, starting in 1939. He spent about a year traveling North Carolina and drawing its historic sites. He then spent years creating the plates and printing the images, finishing the commission in 1951.
Humber later wrote that, in 1940, Orr was one of only two Americans with artwork featured in the Louvre. “The director of a leading museum in the East recently remarked to me,” Humber wrote, “that the three greatest etchers of all times were Rembrandt in the seventeenth century, Piranesi in the eighteenth, and Louis Orr in the twentieth.”
After the Johnston County library bought the etchings, it stored them. The pieces lay packed away, forgotten, until The News & Observer published an article about the etchings around two years ago. Ashley said he suddenly remembered the library had bought a set of the the etchings. A group of people then came together and raised about $9,000 to have the etchings framed; the etchings needed a costly kind of glass and framing method to preserve them.
The library put 29 etchings on display Oct. 22. It will rotate them so that all go on display.
Margaret Marshall, the library’s director, said leaving the etchings in storage for so long had actually worked out well. She said many etchings on display in other libraries are no longer in good shape. The method to frame the paper while preserving it was developed only recently.
Charlene Newsom, owner of Gallery C in Raleigh, deals in Louis Orr etchings and valued the library’s set. She said only about 150 etchings were made from Orr’s plates.
“A lot of years have passed,” Newsom said. “We don’t know how many are even around today. So they really are a rare thing to see in today’s world. So for them to be exhibited at the library, that’s a great opportunity for people to go see something important that’s about North Carolina’s history.”
Newsom said Humber went to “extraordinary lengths” to get Orr to make the set. “It’s a way of preserving your heritage and preserving your history,” she said.