Artist Louis Orr’s detailed depictions of North Carolina landmarks are now a mostly forgotten footnote in the history of our state. But those who recognize his timeless style often find it in unexpected places.
Good thing it was Jackie Humphrey scavenging around the dusty lower stacks, hunting for forgotten treasures like Indiana Jones with a shoulder-length bob. Anyone else, and one of the city’s greatest art collections might have been lost forever.
It was 1998, just before the Greensboro Public Library opened its new main branch downtown. A lot of walls were going up in that nearly 100,000-square-foot building, and the library couldn’t leave them blank. So the director sent Humphrey, a member of the Greensboro Library Arts Commission and an art critic for the Greensboro News & Record, into the bowels of the soon-to-be old branch to look for objets d’art.
That’s when she saw them: “dirty, filthy, dusty things in little tiny black frames,” sitting in a grimy cardboard box on the floor, she says. She thumbed through the prints, all capturing North Carolina landmarks. Immediately, she recognized the faithful realism and attention to detail. Jackie Humphrey had discovered Louis Orr’s North Carolina etchings. A complete set, no less.
In one of his two etchings featuring the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Louis Orr portrayed the iconic Old Well and Old East residence hall, the first state university building in the country. Photography courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Art
Artist Louis Orr. Photography courtesy of AYCOCK BROWN PAPERS, OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER, MANTEO, NC
Created between 1939 and 1951, the 51-piece series was born of Orr’s friendship with Robert Lee Humber Jr., a Pitt County native and one of the state’s larger-than-life personalities. Humber convinced the world-renowned Orr to sketch historic North Carolina sites from Asheville to Edenton, burn those sketches onto copper plates, then price the resulting prints low enough “to permit their acquisition by schools, colleges, public libraries, and institutions with limited resources, as well as individuals with moderate means,” Humber wrote.
Try $10 a pop, created by a man whose etchings are spoken about in the same breath as Rembrandt’s. Is it any wonder that customers gobbled up 8,000 prints, including 91 complete sets of 51?
“They’re so good, they make you want to go visit those places,” Humphrey says.
• • •
The story begins in the 1930s. In Paris, of all places. That’s where we find the Connecticut-born Orr, who was considered the world’s greatest living practitioner of his craft. Etchings were (and still are) uncommon, made through a complex process in which an artist’s sketch is burned into copper plates with acid. Orr was using the process to capture bridges, ornate cathedrals, and Gothic-style buildings up and down the Seine.
Humber, too, was an expatriate in Paris — a Renaissance man with a never-ending supply of big ideas (like the North Carolina Museum of Art, which he cofounded). He earned a degree at Oxford, then worked as a legal representative for an American oil company in Paris and immersed himself in the local arts scene. That led him to Orr’s work and, eventually, Orr himself.
Orr’s etching of Grandfather Mountain … photograph by North Carolina Museum of Art
… and his inspiration. photograph by Tommy White
Did Humber’s idea evolve out of his friendship with Orr? Or did Humber befriend Orr to lay the groundwork for his audacious request? That point has been lost to history.
We do know that Orr nixed Humber’s pitch multiple times, calling it a losing proposition financially. Humber was determined that the series would be “a cultural undertaking and not a commercial enterprise.” Orr wasn’t so sure, being the rare critical darling who enjoyed commercial success in his lifetime: His 1917 triptych of Reims Cathedral in Paris sold for $450, roughly $11,000 today.
Undeterred, Humber lobbied the Works Progress Administration for support, but Orr was too well-known to qualify for public dollars. In 1939, Humber offered to subsidize the project himself, for an amount that was never made public. Orr relented on one condition: sell each print for $50, with buyers getting four others for free. “It was only in this manner that he was able to reconcile himself … to the proposed sale price,” Humber wrote.
The first order of business was settling on sites. Orr picked famous landmarks — the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Grandfather Mountain, Biltmore House — along with lesser-known sites like the Belo House in Winston-Salem. He never spelled out his selection criteria — like why he chose Davidson County’s Greek Revival courthouse over the older Federal-style structure in Perquimans County. Or seven locations in New Bern and none from the state’s third most populous county, Guilford. Or two angles of Orton Plantation in Brunswick County and zero of the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, with its rare Spanish Renaissance-style architecture.
Orr’s etching of the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Photography courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Art
.. and his inspiration. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Humber may have left behind a clue, writing that he “submitted” 75 sites for Orr’s consideration, and that he and Orr “mutually agreed upon” the final 51, 32 of which depict landmarks from Raleigh eastward. Did Humber’s political ambitions influence the preponderance of eastern landmarks? Did Orr feel pressure — real or imagined — to select sites near his patron’s hometown of Greenville?
However they were chosen, Orr returned to each site with sketch pad and pencil in hand for preliminary drawings. He completed the final sketches in Hartford, Connecticut, then sent them to a world-renowned printer in New York.
By 1951, Orr had finished 50 etchings of roughly 13 by 16 inches, plus a 20-by-16.5-inch examination of the State Capitol. Humber was thrilled, declaring that the series “embraces the architectural splendor of North Carolina in all its phases.”
• • •
The project was, of course, a success both culturally and commercially. It’s unclear how much money Orr made between sales and Humber’s subsidy, but the etchings have appreciated greatly. In 2013, a complete set fetched $22,000 at an auction, and in 2022, the Humber family sold dozens of Orr’s initial sketches, a few etchings, and a complete set of plates for more than $120,000.
It’s also impossible to find a definitive list of libraries and colleges that still own prints and display them publicly. The Greensboro Public Library, which had nothing but blank walls to fill when the “new” branch opened 25 years ago, chose to exhibit the collection together. That meant corralling the etchings in a boardroom on the second floor, behind the administrative wing’s locked double doors. Today, 52 prints encircle the space. (One is a duplicate of Tryon Palace in New Bern.) Institutions that bought just a handful may be able to display them more prominently.
When Orr completed his etching of Tryon Palace in 1950, reconstruction of the mansion — which burned in 1790 — had not yet begun, so the artist worked from an older picture. Photography courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Art
Suffice it to say that one of Orr’s North Carolina etchings is never too far from where you’re standing on Tar Heel soil. The Durham County Library keeps its 42 in a box in the North Carolina Room. East Carolina University stores its 48 in a vault inside Joyner Library. Even the NC Bar Association owns three.
Humphrey’s late husband, Hugh, bought half a dozen sometime between 1959 and 1961, when he and Humber served together in the state legislature. The prints hang in Humphrey’s guest room, a reminder of her discovery a quarter-century ago. So many mysteries remain: Did the library buy the collection, or was it donated? Were any of the prints ever on display, or had they been in the basement the whole time?
“It was a complete set,” Humphrey says now, still incredulous 25 years later. “That’s what made them so extraordinary. Other people would have one or two of his, but [the fact] that we had a complete set raised the value tremendously.”
Humber, too, would be pleased that the series he inspired is hanging around seven decades later. “It may be said that Orr does not make a drawing of a building,” Humber wrote, “but a portrait, and endows it with personality and enduring life.”
The Greensboro Public Library’s Orr etchings can be viewed by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, call (336) 373-2471. Locations for landmarks featured in Louis Orr’s etchings can be found here.
Get our most popular weekly newsletter: This is NC