-Erik Senseney

Every family has a relative with a claim to fame.  In my family this individual was my great grandfather from my father’s side, George Eyster Senseney (1874-1943).  George Eyster Senseney was a printmaker who won critical acclaim at the turn of the twentieth century for his etchings and color prints. George Eyster Senseney’s work is in many major collections including the Smithsonian, The Clark Art Institute, and The Chicago Institute of Art. It was his influence (I have been staring at his prints since I was a child) that inspired me take up printmaking for myself.
In December of 2008, I was perusing the online store Ebay.  I entered my family name in the search engine hoping to find something interesting to give as a gift for the upcoming holiday.   Ebay is a reliable source for antiques, and books by the author Dan Senseney, but had never yielded any of my great-grandfather’s art.  On this particular day, I found something I had never seen on Ebay before.
After entering the name “Senseney” in the search engine, up popped the familiar Ebay store listings of street signs and clock faces that certain sellers offer which will apply any family’s name to their products, and one new listing.  It offered a copper etching plate for sale.  The seller offered a George Eyster Senseney copper plate with a landscape etching in decent condition.  From the picture in the listing, I could see that the plate was slightly discolored and seemed to have been poorly cleaned after its last printing, but otherwise was free of damage.
The scene on the plate was a vaguely familiar image of a grassy hill with several bushes and a small stand of birch trees, which was probably etched around 1906.  George Eyster Senseney was greatly influenced by the Hudson River School; and as a result, chose serene New England landscapes as his subjects.  This work closely matched a similar image from the family collection that I had just framed.   Unfortunately, the price for this plate was well outside of my limited budget.
I clicked on the seller’s ebay page to find the details of the sale.  The plate’s size was listed at fourteen by sixteen inches and the seller had an excellent reputation, but the price of the plate was $1200 listed as a “buy it now, or best offer.”  From the bid history, I could surmise that the seller had already received a low offer and rejected it.  Undeterred, I offered the seller $350.00 for the hundred-year-old copper etching plate.
The sellers have forty-eight hours to respond to bids under the “buy it now” price.  In the interim, I called a good friend who shares my love of antiques.  I explained the particulars of the sale and the unlikelihood of finding my great-grandfather’s hundred-year-old etching plates ever again.
My friend, Rene Wendell of Ashley Falls, Massachusetts offered one simple bit of advice.   He said, “If you don’t figure a way out to get it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Rene was right.  As an avid "antiquer," I have passed on several attractive deals and I think about them occasionally with regret.  None of those missed opportunities had a personal connection like this.  I decided that I would do whatever it took to acquire this plate.  I waited patiently for the seller to respond.
It came the next day, and not surprisingly was a simple decline to my offer.  I decided to explain my relationship to the seller, and see if that would sway her in my direction as the current price for the plate at  $1200.00 was well beyond my ability to afford.  I queried her through Ebay customer information tool.  I told her that I was direct descendant of George Eyster Senseney, and that I wanted to add this plate to the family collection of his art and personal effects.  Her reply was quick in coming and contained information that astounded me.
The seller was Ms. Lin Chen, an art dealer from Minneapolis.  She found my familial connection compelling and asked if I would be interested in purchasing any of her other George Eyster Senseney plates.  She informed me that she had three plates in total and that one of the plates was double-sided.  She included pictures of the plates and told me to take my time considering the purchase.
This was one of those times that happen once in your life if you are lucky.  It also will happen when you are least able to afford to take advantage of the opportunity.  Financially, it was one of the worst times in my life and I could barely afford to purchase the initial plate that I had put an offer on, let alone two more.  I responded that I was very interested in her offer and that I would let her know by the first of the year.  I turned away from the computer and considered my options. 
Thirty-six hundred dollars for antiques is a lot of money to me and to everyone in my family, so acquiring the plates seemed unlikely.  I don’t have a rich uncle, or a grandparent with deep pockets.  Credit card debt was an option at the time, but even as a last resort, it was less than palatable.  The price was just too much.  As a rule of thumb, I could expect to pay at least seventy five percent of the asking price making a realistic price of $2700.00 for the three plates.
I agonized for the next few weeks taking my story to every relative that I could think of.  I received a sympathetic ear, but the magic appearance of the required funds never happened.  The day after the New Year, I sent an apologetic e-mail to Ms. Chen explaining my disappointing lack of funds and professed that I couldn’t produce an offer that wouldn’t insult her.  Again, I shut off the computer accepting that I was without options and tried to let the opportunity go.
A few days after the New Year, I was surprised to see an e-mail from Ms. Chen in my inbox.  I reluctantly opened it, still feeling guilty for leading her on.  The message was as simple as it was surprising:
Erik, I want these plates to go back to your family. 
$1600 for all three delivered.                            
Let’s do this.  -Lin.
This was a serious development.  I also surmised that it was a serious cut into Ms. Chen’s profit margin.  I replied immeaditely, telling Ms. Chen that I would contact the other members in my family and get back to her by the end of the week.  In reality, 1,600 dollars was as much out of reach as 3600 dollars was, so my quandary was exacerbated and prolonged.  I called my friend Rene Wendell again.  He advised that I had to do “whatever it took” to get the plates reunited with the family.  I agreed.  After a few excited phone calls, the plates seemed out of reach until I called my father.
My father is William Senseney.  He is one of New England’s foremost blacksmiths and George Eyster Senseney was his grandfather.  He never met George Eyster Senseney, but thanks to my dad, most of the family’s art has survived in excellent condition.  He kept very good care of the family’s collection, and has found inspiration in George Eyster’s art many times during his career.  He agreed to help me pay.  We sent separate checks to Ms. Chen.  Two weeks later a large heavy box arrived at my door.
I took the package, unopened, to Norwalk, Connecticut’s Center for Contemporary Printmaking (CCP).  The master printmaker at CCP, Anthony Kirk, is a personal friend, and my teacher.  He helped me clean and restore the plates to a printable condition.  After cleaning and preparing the three plates, I realized that they were in better condition than I could have imagined.  The four images contained on three plates represent a cross section of George Eyster Senseney’s career as a printmaker.
The first plate was the plate from the original listing.  It was of a scene with a small stand of birch trees, and it was in excellent shape requiring only a light cleaning.  The second plate was a rare manufactured British plate and had been steel faced.  It was in very good shape despite the propensity for oxidation.  It had a similar composition as the first plate, but was even more beautiful as it has a waxing moon peaking out from behind a cloud bank.  This is a trademark composition of George Eyster Senseney, who used the colored inks to do scenes of transitory light from dawn, dusk and the night hours.  His prints are unique in this way as they often portray a fleeting moment where the fading sunlight adds vivid colors to the landscape.
The third plate was double sided.  On one side was image of irises.  It was a punch print; a technique where the image is hammered into a plate using only dimples, not unlike the pointillism of Seurat.  This stippling process produces an image created with a punch and a hammer.  On the other side of the plate was one of George Eyster Senseney’s bucolic French farmyard scenes.  He had spent several years at the turn of the twentieth-century working in France where he had a modest amount of success hob-knobbing with the famous artists who were his contemporaries.
The farmyard scene on the back side of the third plate is of a small farm near a river in rural France. It is highly detailed and uses several etching techniques to create the image of a woman working on a farm during an oncoming storm.  Although none are known to exist, the color version of this print that he undoubtedly made of this plate would be glorious in its color and tone.  We have a sister print in the families collection made by George Eyster Senseney (perhaps, sketched on the same day) from a different vantage point of the same farm.  We also have the plate from this image, making this acquisition particularly meaningful.
All three plates and four images have been cleaned and printed.  The resulting prints were a surprise at the moment of reveal.  The one hundred year old plates produce vibrant images.  I could start now and begin to practice color print making and still never hope to achieve my great-grandfather’s level of expertise, but even in the simple monochromatic method that I use to print, the plates shine despite the age of the etching plates.
The three plates took a century to find their way back to the family collection.  I often wonder how they survived.  The two world wars were particularly hard on metal plates.   It’s likely that these three plates remained tucked away in someone's attic.  As scrap, the copper alone is worth a pretty penny; a fact that I find less than comforting.  Perhaps, it was destiny that led me to reunite the remaining images of my great-grandfather, or maybe the spirit of George Eyster himself watched over his plates until an interested ancestor came along.  Whatever the case, it took some good luck and kindness from Ms. Chen and my father to make it happen, as well as a little help from my friends.


This website was created by Erik Senseney and James Mellor as a platform to aid in the preservation of the works of George Eyster Senseney. It is the Senseney family's dream to be able to display his art in galleries worldwide as his contributions to the art community and print industry are immeasurable.

Erik is the great grandson of George Eyster Senseney and is a printmaker, photographer and artist. His work can be viewed at www.eriksenseney.com.

James is the husband of the great granddaughter of George Eyster Senseney and is a photographer, artist and web designer. His work can be viewed at www.mellorstudio.com.