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Engraving

5. c 1750–c 1900

Source: Oxford University Press

By the mid-18th century pure engraving had largely been replaced by mixed etching–engraving techniques, the tonal engraving processes of mezzotint, roulette and stipple and the tonal etching processes of soft ground and aquatint. The word ‘engraving’ had come to mean any intaglio process, as opposed to ‘line-engraving’, which referred to burin-engraving. Paris remained the most important centre for line engraving, while London became important for mezzotint, stipple engraving and mixed intaglio prints.

(i) Pure and mixed reproductive engraving

Mixed techniques became popular in Paris and London, but pure line engraving continued to be practised by Charles Dupuis (1685–1742) and Nicholas-Gabriel Dupuis. In France engraving enjoyed official patronage, and many foreign engravers were attracted there. Georg Friedrich Schmidt (1712–75), who later worked in Berlin, and Jean-Georges Wille were among the most masterful burin-engravers of the 18th century. Wille’s disciplined technique involved the use of regularly spaced crosshatching filled with dots and flecks, and alternating dark and light lines.

In Britain printmaking was held in lower esteem than in France. British engravers were excluded from full membership in the Royal Academy on the grounds that engraving was completely devoid of the ‘intellectual qualities of invention and composition’. Engraving gained prominence, however, through the important genre of landscape. The leading landscape engravers were Francis Vivares and William Woollett, both of whom worked in mixed etching and engraving. Woollett’s distinctive method consisted of several etched bitings of preliminary wormlike lines, after which lines were cut with the burin. His dramatic landscape print Destruction of the Children of Niobe (1761; see 1980 exh. cat., no. 36) after Richard Wilson was commissioned by the publisher John Boydell, for whom it achieved great success as an export item to France. Woollett later turned to engraving history paintings. He was sought after by painters who wanted him to help make their reputations through his reproductions, for example his engraving after Benjamin West’s Death of Wolfe (1776; see 1983 exh. cat., no. 10). John Boydell was the most important English publisher at that time, and his many projects included the famous Shakespeare Gallery, a group of paintings of Shakespearean subjects. His intention was to make a profit from the sale of portfolios of engravings after these paintings, but they were not commercially successful.

Robert Strange, one of Britain’s greatest reproductive engravers after the Old Masters, had an international career in Edinburgh, Paris, London and Italy, where his technique was particularly influential. His method involved etching and then re-engraving the lines with a burin, achieving a controlled softness and light. Although most of his works were engraved after masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque, such as works by Raphael, Guercino and Guido Reni, his Apotheosis of the Princes Octavius and Alfred (1786; see 1980 exh. cat., no. 62), after Benjamin West, was an important engraving in the new Neo-classical style. His rigorous and delicate, silvery engraving style, capable of expressing nuances of light, was to prove well suited to the formal concerns of Neo-classical style. William Sharp also worked after Benjamin West, as well as van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and John Singleton Copley.

These new and large history prints, with their intricate networks of under-etching, engraved lines, dots and lozenge crosshatching, took many years to complete; for example, James Heath took over 11 years to engrave Copley’s Death of Major Peirson (1796). In North America engraving was still at an unsophisticated level, but engraved prints helped propagate revolutionary consciousness and popularized the iconography of federalism. Copley’s contemporary, the silversmith and patriot Paul Revere, engraved a print of the Boston Massacre (1770; Stauffer, no. 2675), which sought to spread outrage. After the Revolution (1775–83), engravers helped promote the ideals of the young republic through Neo-classical images and iconic portraits of George Washington (1732–99).

In Italy leading mid-18th-century reproductive engravers were Andrea Zucchi (?1675–1740), Anton Maria Zanetti (i) and Joseph Wagner (1706–80) in Venice, Giovanni Volpato in Rome and the Remondini workshop in Bassano. Joseph Wagner’s student Francesco Bartolozzi settled in Britain in 1764, where he specialized in stipple engraving and engraved after decorative Rococo and Neo-classical themes by Giovanni Battista Cipriani (for illustration see Bartolozzi, francesco) and Angelica Kauffman. He also worked in pure line, as in his Holy Family among the Ruins (1789), after Nicolas Poussin. Volpato’s student and son-in-law Raphael Morghen was perhaps Italy’s greatest reproductive engraver. His engravings after Old Masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Nicolas Poussin, have an extraordinary control and delicacy of technique, with an even texture and silvery grey tonality. Morghen taught at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and his prints came to the attention of Napoleon, who attempted to lure him to France to establish an academy of engraving.

(ii) Historical revival and William Blake

A historical print revival parallel to the Gothic Revival took place from c. 1800 in Britain, Germany and Italy, centred in Venice and Rome. A renewed interest in 15th- and early 16th-century prints resulted in the stylistic influence of artists from Dürer to Michelangelo affecting Romantic and Neo-classical art. At the same time many imitations and forgeries of 15th-century prints and niellos were made. Engraving enjoyed a brief association with Romanticism and original printmaking through the works of two visionary artists, James Barry and William Blake. James Barry is a unique figure in British printmaking for the scale, conception and execution of his original prints. His etchings of the 1770s and 1790s are deeply bitten and reinforced with burin work, and they evoke the sublime through a mystical romantic and heroic classical vision. william Blake, probably the most important engraver of the 19th century, transformed engraving into an original medium once again. He brought back pure line’s function as drawing, re-orientating engraving with a direction that had been abandoned since the 16th century. He was apprenticed (1771–8) as a reproductive engraver with James Basire I (1730–1802), for whom he drew and engraved Gothic monuments for Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (London, 1786) by Richard Gough. Blake’s experience with antiquarianism was formative, and the 16th-century prints he collected helped shape his vision and technique. The young Blake knew early 16th-century engravings and was much influenced by Michelangelo. He mastered conventional reproductive technique, including the use of etched worm-line backgrounds combined with burin work. Although he made his living etching and engraving after the designs of others, he also made prints after his own visionary and mystical designs. His personal engraving style is characterized by a rich tonal range built up of long strokes of varying weights that emphasize flowing form and contour, with the occasional use of minute lozenge crosshatching. Glad Day (1780; Binyon, no. 9) was the first of his prints to incorporate pure line drawing as independent contour against blank paper, creating a radiant and joyous figure. In 1810 he asserted that ‘Engraving is drawing on Copper and Nothing Else.’

After spending many years experimenting with relief and colour printing, the ageing William Blake took up engraving again in 1818, inspired, he said, by ‘Albrecht Dürer and the old Engravers’. John Linnell (ii) commissioned his major work in engraving, the 21 illustrations to the Book of Job (1825; Binyon, nos 105–26), including When the Morning Stars Sang Together startend. These illustrations are richly worked images set in sketchy drypoint linear borders, and their unorthodox, ‘unfinished’ format departs radically from contemporary practice. Blake went further with his use of the burin in seven unfinished engravings after his designs for Dante’s Inferno (1826; Binyon, nos 127–33). His work failed to have wide influence, but he was followed by a small group of younger artists who worked in a variety of print techniques. Two engravers were Edward Calvert, who made dark images inspired by Blake’s wood-engravings for The Pastorals of Virgil (London, 1821) of the physician Robert John Thornton (1768–1837) and by early Italian prints; and George Richmond, who made a few silvery engravings in which figure types and long burin cuts are reminiscent of the 16th-century Venetian Jacopo de’ Barbari.

(iii) Steel engraving

In the 1820s and 1830s the growing market for reproductive prints demanded increased speed and cheapness of production and promoted the invention of hundreds of new printing processes. Engraving and etching were challenged by the new, wide acceptance of Lithography, which could be autographic or reproductive and which could resemble pen, wash or crayon drawings or imitate engravings. Traditional engravers justified their laborious production on grounds of the sheer beauty of the engraved line, but they also began to use such time-saving devices as mechanical ruling combs. Around 1822 Thomas Goff Lupton introduced the steel plate, which was capable of printing an effectively unlimited edition of 20,000–30,000 impressions. The use of steel plates also affected engraving style and size of the image. The hardness permitted the cutting of thousands of tiny, closely laid lines that read as pale greys, their delicacy most effective in small prints. Hundreds of British steel engravers produced reproductions for fashionable annual albums of paintings. The steel printing plate also enabled the more rapid and tonally rich mezzotint to yield huge editions of large-scale works. By 1830 the painterly Mezzotint became a commercially viable and fashionable competitor of line-engraving.

Small-scale steel engraving was particularly suited to the reproduction of watercolour. J. M. W. Turner, who also etched preliminary original designs to be finished in mezzotint, closely directed an entire industry of reproductive engraving after his watercolours and paintings. ‘Turner engravings’ were actually etched landscapes with mechanically ruled engraved skies, which captured the most subtle tones and washes with a glossy sameness of finish. Many of these were printed on chiné collé, a receptive and luminous delicate tissue backed with a stronger sheet of paper. The large number of Turner’s engravers included James Basire II (1769–1822), Robert Brandard (1805–62), William Bernard Cooke (1778–1855), John Cousen, William Miller (1796–1882), John Pye, Charles Turner (1774–1857) and James Tibbetts Willmore (1800–1863).

Victorian engraving was the ultimate development of printmaking technique, in which both the painter’s and engraver’s personalities were subsumed by the technique. Pure engravers considered the rigorousness of their medium particularly suited to elevated subjects and heroic themes. Pure line-engravers such as James Henry Watt (1799–1867) continued to work for up to eight years on a single copper plate, such as his Christ Blessing the Little Children (1855; see 1973 exh. cat., no. 1) after Charles Lock Eastlake. Such ‘noble’ subjects as the classical nude became a speciality of line-engraving, such as George Thomas Doo’s engraving after William Etty’s Combat—Woman Pleading for the Vanquished: An Ideal Group (1848; see 1973 exh. cat., no. 11).

(iv) Engraving and the Etching Revival

In addition to the growth of lithography during the first half of the 19th century, etching was revived in the mid-19th century. These new printmakers made original works, not surrogates for paintings, and their use of the various media was often highly experimental in contrast to the traditional craftsmanship of professional engravers. French printers working with artists of the Etching Revival developed the process of steel-facing copperplates, which enabled fragile drypoints, as well as etchings and aquatints, to be printed in large editions, making possible the publication of original prints on a large commercial scale. The attitude of the artists of the Etching Revival towards burin-engraving was wittily expressed by the French artist Félix Buhot, who occasionally combined burin work with his etching, drypoint, roulette and aquatint. His etched frontispiece for L’Illustration nouvelle (Paris, 1877), the Burial of the Burin (Lavan and Adhémar, no. 88), depicted the demise of engraving as a burin being carried up to heaven by putti. Wiliam Strang, a Scottish printmaker of the Etching Revival, worked with mixed intaglio techniques. He invented a new type of burin that was turned back at the end, allowing the engraver to pull the tool with almost the freedom of the etching needle, yet maintain the line quality possible in engraving.

(v) Decline of reproductive engraving

Pure engraving was gradually replaced by mixed techniques, mezzotint and ultimately photogravure, which permitted rapid and accurate reproduction of art works even though it lacked beauty of surface. At the end of the 19th century British engravers were reduced to ruling engraved skies on etched plates, due to lack of other work. One branch of burin-engraving that remained viable was the Bookplate, associated with silversmithing and heraldic tradition, of which Charles William Sherborn (1831–1912) was one of the leading practitioners. Line-engravers also found employment for their swelling line and dot techniques in the new field of banknote, certificate and postage-stamp engraving, in which reproductive line-engraving style remains fossilized in the late 20th century. Security watermarks and engraving machines that generated geometric swirls were invented to discourage counterfeiting, leaving only the portraits, scenes and lettering for the banknote engraver to execute by hand. A method was devised for multiplying the original copper plates, which wore down quickly, by taking an impression on soft steel that in turn was impressed into other plates and hardened.

In France burin-engraving remained significant into the 20th century, due to official support by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Chalcographie du Louvre. Claude Ferdinand Galliard (1834–87), Alphonse François (1811–88) and Jules Jacquet (1841–1913) were among the leading reproductive engravers of the late 19th century. Also in France steel-engraving had prompted a change in taste away from the rich and colouristic engraving style produced by deep and broad cutting to one that was simpler and more highly finished in its range of greys. In Berlin an engraver associated with the Nazarenes was Friedrich-Edward Eichens (1804–77). Also in Berlin, Karl Stauffer-Bern engraved so delicately that his lines appear to dissolve into tone. Others, such as Friedrich Zimmermann (1826–87) of Dresden and Joseph Kohlschein (1841–1915) of Düsseldorf, continued to use a broader style for their reproductive works. A number of artists combined burin work with etching in original prints, such as Max Klinger in his series Brahms Fantasy (1894; Varnedoe and Streicher, nos 66–70). In Italy a few line-engravers continued to work, but there, as everywhere but France, by the first decade of the 20th century reproductive line-engraving had virtually disappeared.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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