“The work of Mr. James Bann as an artist and wood-engraver is too well known for anything that I may say to have any power to add to his high reputation.”
Author unknown, from The Inland Printer, Volume XXXVI, October 1905 – March 1906.
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Percy Bysshe Shelley
“History is a damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss.”
W. Stull Holt
Apart from the introductory quotation and a later acknowledgment of the donation of fourteen of his wood engravings to the Smithsonian Institution by a family member in 1942, James Bann now lies in the Holt Abyss. In pursuit of this once highly regarded wood engraver who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, visits to search engines, art dealer websites, and pricing guides produced not a whisper of additional information.
My interest in the work of James Bann began because I happen to possess the wood engraving shown here. Titled "A Man of Siebenburgen" (after Van Dyck), it was published as the frontispiece for the October, 1928 issue of The Print Connoisseur, a quarterly journal for print enthusiasts that ran from 1920 to 1932, when the cumulative effects of twelve years of unremittingly bad writing and the onset of the Great Depression brought about its demise. Curiously, there is no accompanying article about James Bann in this issue - or in any other issue throughout the entire run of The Print Connoisseur, for that matter - that might be mined for clues.
It turns out that the mystery of James Bann is more the rule than the exception. We can only guess how many very talented and popular artists of their day have vanished without a trace. Were they the victims of changing tastes, or "also-rans" in the always intense competition for the love and money of the art-buying public? The seemingly encyclopedic three-volume Who Was Who In American Art – with 3,274 densely packed pages of listings - consists mostly of one- or two-line entries, which sagely inform you that artist X was once registered to vote in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1924. Poor James Bann is not even present in these ranks.
The link to James Bann is the slenderest of threads, but a thread that can be grasped and followed. Perhaps a letter of inquiry to museums and libraries in the Cincinnati area - or to the Smithsonian Institution - might bear fruit. This actually happened in the case of the letter I mailed into the abyss, as it were, in my pursuit of James Reid a few years ago.
Now, a call for action. I propose a new incarnation of The Baker Street Irregulars; not the hierarchical gang of street urchins reporting to Wiggins who in turn reported to Holmes, but a free-form pack of curious anarchists, each operating in his or her own self interest.
With a looming deadline of December 31, 2014 as your goad, whoever first cracks the case by providing good biographical detail and references to collections of his work gets the engraving (signed in the block), matted and ready for framing, postpaid. I'll then post our collective results here for everyone's benefit. Perhaps the victorious scholar will post an article to Wikipedia, just like the one I plan to do for James Reid some day. Write to me at email@example.com.