An image of a world long gone...

on Wednesday, 04 September 2013. Posted in Art

Here at the History Centre we have a collection of over 1,000 prints dating from the 17th century to the late 19th century; artistic snapshots of our county in time. A selection will be on show in our reception area in the form of a mini exhibition, running from the 28th of September 2013 to the 3rd January 2014. Entry to the exhibition is free, open during our normal working hours. Please feel free to pop in and take a look; they are beautiful works of art in themselves!

The earliest examples of printed illustration are the woodcuts used by William Caxton to illustrate his books in the late 15th century. Saxton’s atlas of England and Wales was published in 1579 and has been called the greatest publishing achievement of the 16th century, being the first national atlas of its kind to be produced in any country, utilising the latest technology of line engraving.

By the 17th century it had become established practice to issue books with engraved title pages and portraits. The process required a different printing process to text and led to an increase in the use of the copper plate press. Demand for this new type of publication increased, resulting in the establishment of two new trades; the publisher and print seller.

The popularity of etching in Britain was predominantly due to one man, Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) from Prague. He arrived in Britain as a member of the household of the Earl of Arundel, one of Charles I’s Ministers of State who was a great patron of the arts. Less than 10 years later both the Earl and Hollar had to flee due to the Royalist defeat in the Civil War.

The Mezzotint

The Mezzotint process was introduced into Britain by Prince Rupert (1619-82) on his return from exile after the Restoration. The first dated Mezzotint was of King Charles II, engraved by William Sherwin and published in 1669. Mezzotint was later to become the engraving process in which the British excelled, and the technology enabled the works of portraiture and landscape to be reproduced with a tonal quality not possible by any other means until the introduction of aquatint in the late 18th century. The process of Mezzotint led to the technique of stipple engraving in the 18th to early 19th century which displayed the colours in definitive quality.

As with other older print process, Mezzotint went into decline after the invention of the camera and photogravure in the latter part of the 19th century.


Lithography was introduced into Britain in the early 1800s. William Millington of Trowbridge was one of the first provincial printers to use Senefelder’s lithographic presses, invented in 1798. Millington, already working with the process in the early 1800s, was also a competent artist. He produced a number of topographical lithographs of Wiltshire views. Tinted lithographs were introduced by Hullmandel in the early 19th century and were the fore-runners of the colour printed lithographs. Each colour required a separate stone. The extent of lithographic production means that today those surviving prints can provide us with a valuable and important record of Britain in the 19th century before the development of photography, giving us the opportunity to view an era that has long gone.

Wood Engraving

Wood engraving was re-introduced into Britain by Thomas Berwick in the early 1800s. The advantage of wood as a medium is that the blocks can be incorporated with the letterpress text and printed together on the same machine. Steel printing plates had also been introduced which increased the amount of printing undertaken compared to copper plates, but these were manually worked and could not compete with new production techniques.

Lithography and steel engraving had increased the number of print runs, but by the mid 19th century the beautiful topographical plate books of earlier years with their charming steel engravings had largely disappeared. The subsequent experiments in photography by Henry Fox Talbot of Lacock Abbey and Daguerre in France led to the introduction of printing plates that utilised the photo-mechanical processes of gravure and lithographic printing, paving the way for the colour and high quality printing techniques of the present day.


How were etchings used?

Etchings were compiled in books or journals, specially commissioned to accompany text or vice versa. Many were issued as instalments which appeared monthly and were then collected into volumes when the issues were completed. Occasionally the owners of country houses contributed to the cost of having their estate drawn and engraved. Some painters also made engravings of their work or sold the copyright of their paintings to dealers who employed engravers and collected the profits. Samuel Loxton from Clifton provided many of his illustrations of Wiltshire locations to the Bristol Observer and by 1904 he was supporting himself solely from his artwork. The Gentleman’s Magazine, first published in January 1731 and running for almost 200 years, is one of the best known of these publications. It was illustrated with copper engravings.


Many of these books and journals have been split and their prints sold at auction. Often the name of the journal can be found in one of the corners of the print itself. Additional details can include the name of the artist, the engraver and the publisher’s name and date. In most cases the date will be that of the first published issue; the print itself may have come from a later run. Engravings also have a plate mark; a recession in the paper made by the printing process but not always visible if the paper has been trimmed. These marks were not produced by the wood engraving or lithographic process. It is quite common for wood engravings to contain no detail about the artist or designer and lithographs often omit a date. If you are lucky enough to discover a copper etching or engraving on fine quality paper it is probably from a first impression. Copper plates quickly wear and subsequent runs were used for lower quality copies.

Julie Davis
Local Studies Assistant


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