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Romancing the stone

A hushed, reverential air pervades the etchings of F. L. Griggs (1876-1938), setting them apart from all other prints made in this century. Other graphic artists may have drawn and etched medieval cathedrals, rustic English villages, and centuries-old farmhouses, but none was as concerned about capturing the spirit as well as the look of the Middle Ages as he.

He may, in fact, have overdone it a bit and made things a little more perfect than they actually were. But I for one don't mind. The world he re-created is so exquisitely designed and harmonious that I suspect it represents the ideal if not the reality of those who lived in England so very long ago.

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It obviously also meant a great deal to the artist. As Malcolm C. Salaman writes in a 1926 essay on Griggs, ''That is the England of his dreams, his ideals and his love, England as, with the eyes of his soul, he pictures her to have been before the Reformation and Henry VIII did their devastating work among the religious houses and, as Mr. Griggs believes, robbed the land and the people of so much beauty, grace and goodness.... And that is the England, single-hearted and faithful, expressing herself in beautiful buildings and loving craftsmanship, that he aspires, with an extraordinary unity of idea pervading his work, to reconstruct on his copper plates.''

Gothic cathedrals, in particular, moved him deeply. Like so many architectural etchers of his day - especially John Taylor Arms and Samuel Chamberlain - he believed they were the closest things to perfection civilization had so far produced. And so, these printmakers argued, what better and more important task could an artist perform than to translate these cathedrals sensitively and intelligently into etchings or engravings? Could mere self-expression or running around in circles trying to be ''original'' even begin to compare with seeing a loving interpretation of one of mankind's greatest masterpieces taking shape on a copper plate?

These artists did not see themselves as slavish imitators of individual buildings, but as devoted students of Gothic art as a whole. Their job, as they saw it, was to bring the great cathedrals to life in another medium, and so they viewed Notre Dame, Chartres, and Canterbury in much the same way actors view the plays of Shakespeare: as something already great needing to be given new life through individual interpretation.

Of course, nothing could be further from our own ''modern'' feelings about art - which probably explains why so many of the best architectural printmakers of the immediate past are almost forgotten. Ask anyone but a few print professionals or collectors for an opinion of Muirhead Bone, D. Y. Cameron, Joseph Pennell, or Louis Rosenberg, and the response will be a blank stare.

Griggs, I'm afraid, wouldn't fare any better. If anything, he is even less known than the above. His romantic attitude toward the past, and his insistence that art has been in decline since roughly 1400, are at odds with our current belief that sentiment has no place in art, and that modernist 20th-century painting, sculpture, and architecture represent the most significant advance in these fields since the days of Giotto.

The medieval ideal that Griggs worked so hard and lovingly to articulate seems almost as remote today as the ideals of ancient Sparta. We understand artists fashioning works to ballyhoo themselves or to establish their ''true'' identities, but we do not understand sculptors working on cathedrals high above Paris or London for years to create works invisible to all but God and the birds.

Griggs understood that spirit, and actually saw himself as a kindred soul to those medieval stone masons and architects. He felt so linked to them, in fact, that he began to invent scenes and cities of the Middle Ages based on the ruins and architectural fragments he had come upon on his travels. These imaginary works were so carefully researched and so sensitively related to actual 13th- and 14th-century building practices, however, that they appear every bit as authentic as the prints based on existing structures and places.

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Unfortunately, it is precisely this faithfulness to Gothic style and spirit that we cannot forgive today and that causes us to reject his prints as irrelevant to modern practices and ideals. In doing so, we also reject an extraordinary graphic sensibility, and a small body of etchings that in their own way are as lovely as the pastoral prints of William Blake and Samuel Palmer.

Viewed on their own terms, and not by the rules laid down by modernist theorists and teachers, Griggs's ''St. Botolph's, Boston,'' ''Palace Farm,'' ''The Ford,'' ''Linn Bridge,'' ''Potter's Row,'' and ''The Almonry'' must rank among the very finest ''traditional'' prints executed in this century. They are certainly superior to the architectural etchings of most of his contemporaries, and are at least equal to the very best graphic images of John Taylor Arms. That still may not put them into the category of major art, but it should at least remind us that artistic quality isn't limited to our modernist heroes.

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