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What about those York County “Davis Gray” watercolor prints?

January 7, 1976 York Daily Record ad
January 7, 1976 York Daily Record ad

You see the ubiquitous prints of York County sites at antique and collectible malls and shops, as well as on walls of homes. York County Heritage Trust has some examples in their collections. I vaguely remembered a connection with a York Bank promotion, but I was curious about how many different local scenes were produced and who Davis Gray was.

Thanks to the newspaper microfilm at York County Heritage Trust, I located the particulars of the original York Bank offering of eight different scenes. After a quick Google search, I was surprised to find out there were more scenes of York County and Adams County sites (24 in all) produced than I imagined, and even more surprised to find that the Gray’s Watercolors company is still in business, selling these prints and thousands more of views all over the United States.

The initial York County print of the Plough Tavern and Gates House in winter
The initial York County print of the Plough Tavern and Gates House in winter

Here is my recent York Sunday News column about the prints:

York County watercolor print series popular in ’76

You have probably seen examples from the series of prints of York County scenes that were offered as the York Bank Bicentennial Art Collection in 1976. They often turn up at public sales and antique malls. You might even have some hanging on your walls.

The eight views included in the York Bank promotion were the Anthony Wayne House, Bentzel’s Mill Covered Bridge, Bobb Log House, Codorus Furnace, Federal Period Town Houses on East Market Street, Old Guinston Church, Plough Tavern and Gates House in winter and York County Provincial Courthouse. They were depicted as the artist thought they would have looked at various dates from 1775 to 1850.

An advertisement in the January 7, 1976 York Daily Record said “Once you see them, you’ll want to own these original handpainted watercolor prints in the York Bank’s Bicentennial Art Collection.” The winter scene of the Gates House and Plough Tavern was offered “FREE with deposit of $76 or more in a new or existing York Bank Savings Account.” The other seven were $5.95 each whenever you deposited an additional $76. The free print was offed for two months; then the ad appeared with a banner proclaiming “FREE PRINT OFFER ENDS MARCH 12, 1976.” You could, however, add to your collection after that, buying any of the eight prints for $5.95, about $25 in today’s money, each time you deposited another $76. Hardwood frames were available for “a reasonable cost.” That $76 would equal around $325 today, so collecting all the prints would have meant substantial additions to your savings account.

The company, Gray’s Watercolors, explained on a label on the back of each York scene that it was an original print created by an award winning artist at Gray’s Watercolor Studios in Ringoes, New Jersey. They likened the process to that used for Currier & Ives prints. “A team of artisans, working under the original artist’s close supervision, then applied the watercolors to each print by hand.”

The label on the back of the prints does not explain, unlike the company’s present website, that the process, called pochoir, was accomplished by colorists using a series of stencils, with some hand detailing. Watercolor artist Paul McConaughy started the company in 1965 as The College Watercolor Group. He developed a fairly inexpensive way to produce watercolor prints and found that the first ones, campus scenes of his alma mater, Cornell, sold much better than expected after being advertised in an alumni magazine.

An artist created an original watercolor to start the process. Then black and white images were printed on watercolor paper. The hand painting of one color at a time was initially done assembly-line style at a revolving table. As the business grew and more copy artists were employed, the procedure was changed to the prints being laid out on long tables with the artists on movable chairs.

The venture became successful, with advertisements in alumni magazines and direct sales to colleges for fund-raising gifts. They next marketed to financial institutions, spreading as banks became more aggressive in offering premiums to customers.

As production grew, McConaughy adopted the pochoir stencil system in the late 1960s to facilitate the coloring process. About the same time a third original artist joined founder McConaughy and artist Paul Andrews. His name was E.B. Walden, but he signed his paintings Davis Gray, said to be a play on a watercolor hue, Davy’s Gray. Although staff artists who created some of the originals used other “brush names” the York Bank prints were “signed” Davis Gray, as were many others in their catalog.

The Gray’s Watercolors website says that even though the pochoir process was refined to produce even better reproductions over the years, it has been retired, and since the turn of the 21st century they have been colored by a laser process. More than 4,000 scenes were created over the years and many are still available through their website, now produced as laser prints, but with some subjects still in stock as pochoir watercolors for a higher price.

At least 20 other York and Adams county scenes, besides the original York Bank eight, are currently offered by Gray’s as laser prints. Most of the images were originally created some time ago, old enough to turn up at antique malls, eBay and public sales as pochoir watercolored prints. Quite a few cluster around the Hanover area, leading me to wonder if a Hanover based bank may have had their own promotion, perhaps also in the latter part of the 20th century.

There might be others for the area, as the click-on lists are a bit confusing. Most of the York County sites are under York, except that I found Old Guinston Church under Brogue and Friends’ Meeting House under Wellsville, and also Great Conewago Presbyterian Church in Adams County under Hunterstown. The other four Adams County prints (Dobbin House; Gettysburg College, Old Dorm; Hoffman Home for Youth, Leiphart Chapel and Russell’s Tavern) are listed under Gettysburg, even though only two are actually in the borough.

The prints inventoried under York are not all in the city. Besides the eight that York Bank offered, others are Bonham House, Friends’ Meeting House [York], Golden Plough Tavern [rear] Plough Tavern [front, summer] and York County Farm Scene. The ten Hanover area views are Center Square; Conewago Chapel, Edgegrove; Covered Bridge below Conewago Chapel; Eichelberger High School; Farmers’ Market; Frederick Street; Hanover Center Square; Horse Farm near Hanover; Lake Marburg; Codorus State Park and Neas House. These are depicted with dates from 1775 up to 1955 for Hanover Center Square. The Codorus State Park print is not dated, but the park did not open until 1970.

As far as I know, all the pre-laser prints were 8 x 10 inches, matted to 11 x 14 inches, but the laser ones are also available as 11 x 14 prints. The current prices seem reasonable, but shopping around for old ones can score you the older prints for a better price. Good luck with your collection.