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A historical question on engraving

Written on 11 June 2019

Regarding the history of engraving

It was great to have the opportunity to give a talk to the Hand Engravers Association of Great Britain on the history of engraving for print, especially as the talk was at the extraordinarily elegant headquarters of the Art Workers Guild

The general mythology of engraving for print used to be that it developed from engraving on armour – perhaps mud or blood sinking into the engraved lines was imprinted on a breastplate and sparked the interest of somebody less engaged in killing or running away. In fact engraved and coloured lines are the oldest known marks made by humans on portable objects, ostrich egg shells, from several thousand years ago. Engraved prints can be dated from about the 1430s, with the first book of a series of engraved prints appearing about 5 years before Gutenberg’s Bible, around 1450.

What has intrigued me for a long time is the rise and fall of engraving: it appeared at the same time as letterpress, and after 50 years of slow development and swift moves forward by the likes of practitioners such as Dürer and Van Leyden it overtook woodcut as the medium of choice for serious reproductive image-making by the early 16th century; Marc Antonio Raimondi initiated the practice of making engraved copies of paintings in the early 16th century, and by the end of the century engravers such as Hendrik Goltzius and books such as William Jaggard’s Nobilitas were extending the boundaries of the expressive powers of mark-making using engraving. The following century saw the almost impossibly intricate and detailed work of Abraham Bosse and Wenceslaus Hollar, and the extraordinary prints in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, followed in the 18th century by Hogarth’s translation of the observation of social life into delicate and nuanced prints. But how many twentieth century artists used engraving? Engraving mixed with other forms of intaglio printmaking is not uncommon, but engraving alone?

The story of engraving then is one of emergence in the late 15th century; from the mid 16th century it is everywhere, it reaches its apogee in the 17th century, becomes gradually debased in the 18th century and mechanised in the 19th century, and disappears in the 20th century. Joseph Fielding in 1844 laid the blame for engraving’s fall from grace on the process of steel-facing, which made much larger editions possible, steel being much harder than copper; this flooded the market and engraving quickly became common and unfashionable. Fielding also blame the line-ruling machine, which its inventor William Palmer had claimed in 1825 would be ‘of as much importance to engravers, and the advancement of their art, as the steam-engine is to the manufacturer’. But it looks very probable that rulers had been in use to produce parallel lines much earlier, as seen in the stiff and unforgiving images of London churches in Harrison’s History of London (1775). The expressive power of etching, the directness of lithography, and the artistry of Thomas Bewick’s wood engravings all played a part in the demise of engraving, but there seems to have been an almost deliberate removal of the craft – an advertisement for a table-top intaglio press dating from 1902 mentions ‘etching’ several times, but not ‘engraving’.

Among the unanswered questions surrounding engraving is how the printing process came about. Rolling mills date from surprisingly late – around 1500, long after the first intaglio prints. Ad Stijnman proposes that rolling pins were used first, and connected conceptually with machines used for pressing cloth for fulling purposes. Burnishing may also have been used. Stijnman notes that there is a marked improvement in engraved print quality about 1465, which indicates improvements to the working of the press, but Stijnman notes also the huge shortfall in research into intaglio printing history compared to letterpress history – which opens up a whole field in comparative printing history and theory, which have I touched on in a few lectures, and which is linked to the different socio-economic, and consequently aesthetic, values of wood and metal.

Improvements in paper quality may also have had an effect on improvements in print quality, and though Durer’s Nemesis print of 1499-1500 is breathtaking in terms of the modelling of form and the handling of texture (Erasmus said his cloth was cloth, his fur was fur), there is not immediately apparent the three-dimensionality of line which later smoother papers allowed. Paper for engraving print needs to be damp and thick, with a looseness that allows it to be pressed down into the engraved lines, but examination of the paper used in 1554-8 for printing Nicolas Beatrizet’s images in Aquatilium Animalium Historiæ by Salviano shows the presence of straw in the paper composition.

Where possible I have always tried to use practical application in my teaching – you need to have a go to see how it works. I have been trying to print an engraved image from a copper sheet this week, using a cast-iron screw press (also known as a nipping press – they were often used in Victorian offices, and occasionally for book-binding), with tissue paper instead of swansdown (fine felt) and finishing using two burnishers. The paper is 160 gsm cartridge paper, damped between water-sprayed blotting paper for 30 minutes. It presses down well, though the absence of ink, most of it being wiped off, means that you lose the holding power by which the ink attaches the paper to the surface. Burnishing begins with a flat teaspoon, and continues with a smooth steel etching burnisher. It’s very difficult to get the paper down into the grooves by this method, and is more successful with the shallower lines. But with practice, and variations it can be made to work.

More importantly it is frustrating, and frustration is a grand incentive for trying some thing different. Pressure is the key, and this is where we can learn from visual documentation of early relief printing. The earliest known image of a printing press (Lyons 1499) shows the press braced against the structure of the house with wooden beams set between the press and the ceiling, a design feature which continues through presses until the use of metal press structures in the early nineteenth century. The obvious reason for this is that it keeps the press stable, which in the metal press is achieved by the weight of the structure. Bracing the wooden press against the structure of the building also brings some of the weight of the building into play, neutralising the outward pressure of the screw on the frame. Why could you not do this with a rolling press, pushing down on the structure holding the screws and tightening them as required? Is it something to do with the fact that the relief pressman has to feel the pressure and know when it is correct, something which is more difficult to feel when turning the drive wheel of the rolling press? A project for a combination of engineer and printing history researcher.

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