Book illustration: engraving and etching

Detail of the engraving process, from an engraved plate in Diderot's 'Encyclopédie' (Sp Coll Bn5-a.2)

Detail of the engraving process, from an engraved plate in Diderot’s ‘Encyclopédie’ (Sp Coll Bn5-a.2)

Have you ever noticed that the illustrations in some books (the kind with shiny full-page colour plates) are printed separately from the text and grouped together in the middle or at the end of the book? Irritating isn’t it? The text mentions an illustration and you have to trawl through the pages to try to find it. Well, while such modern colour plates are created using a type of lithography (a process I’ll discuss in a later blog), the term plate, and the practice of separating the image from the text, dates back to the heyday of intaglio printing, the subject of this, my second blog on the history of book illustration.

Deatil from a Sébastien Le Clerc engraving of a Charles Le Brun tapestry design from the 1679 'Tapisseries du Roy'. (Sp Coll S.M. 2042)

Deatil from a Sébastien Le Clerc engraving of a Charles Le Brun tapestry design from the 1679 ‘Tapisseries du Roy’. (Sp Coll S.M. 2042)

Intaglio printing – from the Italian intagliare, to engrave or incise – was the dominant method of book illustration from the late 1500s to the early 1800s. It was the cutting-edge graphic technique of its day: the clarity, definition and tone achievable with intaglio printing were almost impossible to match with any other mechanical method. As a result, it ousted the woodcut as the preferred form of book illustration.

Intaglio encompasses a variety of different techniques including engraving, etching, stipple, aquatint and mezzotint. While each of these techniques implies a different method of making impressions in the metal (usually copper) plate, they all share the same basic principle: an image is transferred to paper, under pressure, from the incised ink-bearing grooves of a metal plate. The earliest intaglio printing technique, engraving, (often called copperplate engraving) was probably invented (in terms of printing onto paper, at least) in the 1430s. It requires a chisel-like tool called a burin to cut ink-holding lines into a copper plate. A print is then created by inking the plate so that the engraved lines are filled; excess ink is removed from the surface and finally the plate, covered with dampened paper, is run through the press.

Detail of an intaglio rolling press, from a plate in Diderot’s ‘Encyclopédie’ (Sp Coll Bn5-a.4)

Detail of an intaglio rolling press, from a plate in Diderot’s ‘Encyclopédie’ (Sp Coll Bn5-a.4)

Despite its relatively early invention, the use of engraving for book illustration was not widespread until the early to mid 1500s. This was primarily a matter of economics. Since considerably greater pressure was required to draw the ink out from the recessed lines than was required to take an impression from a woodcut, a different type of press – the mangle-like rolling press – was required. The need for specialist equipment and a separate printing process initially deterred many printers from using plates. Some however attempted to print the letterpress text and the engraved plates on the same page, a technique that required a two-stage printing on different presses. Others had the illustrations printed separately and pasted in. Neither method became particulalrly popular due to the time and cost involved; most book printers simply persisted with woodcuts.

Engraving by Jeronimus Wierix of a Peter van der Borcht design from Benito Arias Montano's 1572 'Humanae salutis monumenta' (Sp Coll S.M. 770)

Engraving by Jeronimus Wierix of a Peter van der Borcht design from Benito Arias Montano’s 1572 ‘Humanae salutis monumenta’ (Sp Coll S.M. 770)

Yet despite largely being rejected for book illustration at first, engraving did gain popularity. Throughout the 16th century cities like Antwerp became important centres for print-making and print-selling. Skilled engravers like the Wierix brothers (some of publisher Christoper Plantin’s most highly-paid employees!) produced beautiful prints of paintings by important artists which were sold throughout Europe by a network of prolific print-sellers.

As engravers became more and more skilled the visual effects achievable, where cross-hatching and deep-swelling lines could be used to create tone, made engraving an increasingly attractive proposition for illustration. As a result intaglio plates began to creep into books, often in the form of engraved title pages or frontispieces. There was one obvious drawback to this development however: regardless of any aesthetic benefits of choosing engravings over cuts, their inclusion usually took the form of individual plates bound into the volume rather than images directly incorporated into the text. This divorce of image from text is something that, for practical/technical reasons, we still see (and are irritated by!) in many books to this day.

One crucial factor still slowed the advance of the intaglio book illustration – the length of time it took to engrave a plate. The solution was etching. In etching, a process invented in the early 1500s, the incised metal lines in the plate are produced not by a burin, but by the work of acid. A metal plate is heated and covered entirely with an acid-resistant ground (usually a mix of wax and resin). The etcher then uses a needle to draw a design through the ground directly onto the plate. When the plate is subsequently covered in acid, only the exposed lines are eaten (or etched) away. The etched plate is then printed in exactly the same way as an engraved one. By letting acid do the work of the engraver, plates could be produced far more quickly.

Detail from a Romeyn de Hooghe etching from Frans van Hoogstraten's 1668 'Het voorhof der ziele' (Sp Coll S.M. 597)

Detail from a Romeyn de Hooghe etching from Frans van Hoogstraten’s 1668 ‘Het voorhof der ziele’ (Sp Coll S.M. 597)

Etching initially allowed artists to emulate, at greater speed, the lines and patterns adopted by engravers. However, since it afforded artists far more freedom in the kind of line produced – more like sketching with pencil on paper than carving grooves into metal – it quickly became popular with artists for individual prints. Book illustrations produced by etching alone were more unusual. More often than not engraving and etching came to be used together since the processes were complementary: the backgrounds, foliage, skies etc came to be the preserve of the etcher; the foreground, human subjects and detail, the job of the engraver. The further development of tone-engraving and tone-etching techniques (like stipple, aquatint and mezzotint which I’ll talk about in a later blog) took this ‘mixed’ approach to a new level and the mixed technique became on of the most important forms of book illustration during the 18th century.

Intaglio book illustration gradually lost favour during the 1800s. Printed-plates had long been one of the most expensive parts of book production since they took skilled work outsourced to specialised printers to produce. The development of mechanised printing saw print runs increase in size, bringing down the unit cost of books and making the addition of specially printed plates less affordable for publishers. Steel-engraved plates and electrotyped-facsimile plates were two innovations that bought some time for the intaglio (by allowing a larger number of prints to be produced from each plate before wearing out) but its days were numbered. Its replacement as the dominant method of book illustration was a blast from the past – a return to the good old wooden block. Wood-engraving, which I’ll talk about more in my next blog, ruled the roost for much of the 19th century.

Categories: Special Collections

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9 replies

  1. Thank you, very interesting topic to read about. The illustrations definitely help to make it (more) lively!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. I’ll try to get round to writing the next one in the series (on 19th century wood engraving) soon.

  3. Excellent article! I will have my printmaking students read it!


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