Engraving: Its Origin, Processes, and History

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Principal of the National Art Training School, South Kensington Museum.

Its Origin, Processes, and History.



With an Additional Chapter on English Engraving




The author of “La Gravure,” of which work the present volume is a translation, has devoted so little attention to English Engraving, that it has been thought advisable to supplement his somewhat inadequate remarks by a special chapter dealing with this subject.

In accordance with this view, Mr. William Walker has contributed an account of the rise and progress of the British School of Engraving, which, together with his Chronological Table of the better-known English Engravers, will, we feel sure, add much to the value of the Work in the eyes of English readers.


I.The Processes of Early Engraving. The Beginnings of Engraving in Relief. Xylography and Printing with Movable Type1
II.Playing Cards. The Dot Manner30
III.First Attempts at Intaglio Engraving. The Nielli of the Florentine Goldsmiths. Prints by the Italian and German Painter-Engravers of the Fifteenth Century49
IV.Line Engraving and Wood Engraving in Germany and Italy in the Sixteenth Century86
V.Line Engraving and Etching in the Low Countries, to the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century118
VI.The Beginning of Line Engraving and Etching in France and England. First Attempts at Mezzotint. A Glance at Engraving in Europe before 1660150
VII.French Engravers in the Reign of Louis XIV178
VIII.Engraving in France and in other European Countries in the Eighteenth Century. New Processes: Stipple, Crayon, Colour, and Aquatint211
IX.Engraving in the Nineteenth Century248
A Chapter on English Engraving287
Chronological Table of English Engravers331




The nations of antiquity understood and practised engraving, that is to say, the art of representing things by incised outlines on metal, stone, or any other rigid substance. Setting aside even those relics of antiquity in bone or flint which still retain traces of figures drawn with a sharp-pointed tool, there may yet be found in the Bible and in Homer accounts of several works executed by the aid of similar methods; and the characters outlined on the precious stones adorning the breastplate of the high-priest Aaron, or the scenes represented on the armour of Achilles, might be quoted amongst the most ancient examples of the art of engraving. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Etruscans have left us specimens of goldsmith’s work and fragments of all kinds, which, at any rate, attest the practice of engraving in their countries. Finally, every one is aware that metal seals and dies of engraved stone were in common use amongst the Romans.

Engraving, therefore, in the strict sense of the word, is no invention due to modern civilisation. But many centuries elapsed before man acquired the art of multiplying printed copies from a single original, to which art the name of engraving has been extended, so that nowadays the word signifies the operation of producing a print.

Of engraving thus understood there are two important processes or methods. By the one, strokes are drawn on a flat surface, and afterwards laboriously converted by the engraver into ridges, which, when coated with ink, are printed on the paper in virtue of their projection. By the other, outlines, shadows, and half-tints are represented by incisions intended to contain the colouring matter; while those parts meant to come out white on paper are left untouched. Wood-cutting, or engraving in relief, is an example of the first method; while to the second belongs metal-work or copperplate engraving, which we now call engraving with the burin, or line engraving.

In order to engrave in relief, a block, not less than an inch thick, of hard, smooth wood, such as box or pear, is used. On this block every detail of the design to be engraved is drawn with pen or pencil. Then such places as are meant to come out white in the print are cut away with a sharp tool. Thus, only those places that have been covered beforehand by the pencil or the pen remain at the level of the surface of the block; they only will be inked by the action of the roller; and when the block is subjected to the action of the press, they only will transfer the printing ink to the proof.

This method, earlier than that of the incised line, led to engraving “in camaïeu,” which was skilfully practised in Italy and Germany during the sixteenth century. As in camaïeu engraving those lines which define the contours are left as ridges by the cutting away of the surrounding surface, we may say that in this method (which the Italians call “chiaroscuro”) the usual processes of engraving in relief are employed. But it is a further object of camaïeu to produce on the paper flat tints of various depths: that is to say, a scale of tones somewhat similar to the effect of drawings washed in with Indian ink or sepia, and touched up with white. Now such a chromatic progression can only be arrived at by the co-operation of distinct processes. Therefore, instead of printing from a single surface, separate blocks are employed for the outlines, shadows, and lights, and a proof is taken by the successive application of the paper to all these blocks, which are made to correspond exactly by means of guiding marks.

A third style of engraving in relief, the “early dot manner,” was practised for some time during the period of the Incunabuli, when the art was, as the root of this Latin word shows, still “in its cradle.” By this method the work was no longer carried out on wood, but on metal; and the engraver, instead of completely hollowing out those parts destined to print light, merely pitted them with minute holes, leaving their bulk in relief. He was content that these masses should appear upon the paper black relieved only by the sprinkling of white dots resulting from the hollows.

We just mention by way of note the process which produced those rare specimens called “empreintes en pâte.” All specimens of this work are anterior in date to the sixteenth century, and belong less strictly to art than to industry, as the process only consisted in producing on paper embossed designs strongly suggesting the appearance of ornaments in embroidery or tapestry. To produce these inevitably coarse figures a sort of half-liquid, blackish gum or paste was introduced into the hollow portions of the block before printing. On the block thus prepared was placed a sheet of paper, previously stained orange, red, or light yellow, and the paste contained in the hollow places, when lodged on the paper, became a kind of drawing in relief, something like an impasto of dark colour. This was sometimes powdered with a fluffy or metallic dust before the paste had time to harden.

Though simple enough as regards the mere process, in practice line engraving demands a peculiar dexterity. When the outlines of the drawing that is to be copied have been traced and transferred to a plate usually made of copper1 the metal is attacked with a sharp tool, called the dry-point. Then the trenches thus marked out are deepened, or fresh ones are made with the graver, which, owing to its shape, produces an angular incision. The appearance of every object represented in the original must be reproduced solely by these incised lines: at different distances apart, or tending in various directions: or by dots and cross-hatchings.

Line engraving possesses no other resources. Moreover, in addition to the difficulties resulting from the use of a refractory tool, we must mention the unavoidable slowness of the work, and the frequent impossibility of correcting faults without having recourse to such drastic remedies as obtaining a fresh surface by re-levelling the plate where the mistakes have been made.

Etching by means of aquafortis, originally used by armourers in their damascene work, is said to have been first applied to the execution of plates in Germany towards the close of the fifteenth century. Since then it has attracted a great many draughtsmen and painters, as it requires only a short apprenticeship, and is the quickest kind of engraving. Line engravers have not only frequently used etching in beginning their plates, but have often employed it, not merely to sketch in their subject, but actually in conjunction with the burin. Many important works owe their existence to the mixture of the two processes, among others the fine portraits of Jean Morin, and the admirable “Batailles d’Alexandre,” engraved by Gérard Audran, after Lebrun. But at present we are only occupied with etching as practised separately and within the limits of its own resources.

The artist who makes use of this method has to scoop no laborious furrows. He draws with the needle, on a copper plate covered with a coating of varnish, suggestions of form as free as the strokes of pen or pencil. At first these strokes only affect the surface of the copper where the needle has freed the plate from varnish. But they become of the necessary depth as soon as a certain quantity of corrosive fluid has been poured on to the plate, which is surrounded by a sort of wax rampart. For a length of time proportioned to the effect intended, the acid is allowed to bite the exposed parts of the metal, and when the plate is cleaned proofs can be struck off from it.

With the exception of such few modifications as characterise prints in the scraped or scratched manner, called “sgraffio,” and in the stippled manner, the methods of engraving just mentioned are all that have been used in Europe from the end of the Middle Ages up to about the second half of the seventeenth century. We need not, therefore, at present mention more recent processes, such as mezzotint, aquatint, &c., each of which we shall touch upon at its proper place in the history of the art. Before proceeding with this history, let us try to recollect the facts with which we have prefaced it; and, as chronological order proscribes, to differentiate and classify the first productions of relief engraving.

However formal their differences of opinion on matters of detail, technical writers hold as certain one general fact. They all agree in recognising that the methods of relief engraving were practised with a view to printing earlier than the method of intaglio. What interval, however, separates the two discoveries? At what epoch are we to place the invention of wood engraving? or if the process, as has been often alleged, is of Asiatic origin, when was it brought into Europe? To pretend to give a decisive answer to these questions would be, at least, imprudent. Conjectures of every sort, and even the most dogmatic assertions, are not wanting. But the learned have in vain evoked testimony, interpreted passages, and drawn conclusions. They have gone back to first causes, and questioned the most remote antiquity; they have sometimes strangely forced the meaning of traditions, and have too often confounded simple material accidents with the evidences of conscious art properly so called. Yet the problem is as far from solution as ever, and, indeed, the number and diversity of opinions have up till now done little but render conviction more difficult and doubt more excusable.

Our authorities, for instance, are not justified in connecting the succession of modern engravers with those men who, “even before the Deluge, engraved on trees the history of their times, their sciences, and their religion.”2 Nor is the mention by Plutarch of a certain almost typographical trick of Agesilaus, King of Sparta, excuse enough for those who have counted him among the precursors of It is by no means impossible that Agesilaus, in a sacrifice to the gods on the eve of a decisive battle may have been clever enough to deceive his soldiers, by imprinting on the liver of the victim the word “Victory,” already written in reverse on the palm of his hand. But in truth such trickery only distantly concerns art; and if we are to consider the Greek hero as the inventor of printing, we must also allow that it has taken us as long as eighteen centuries to profit by his discovery.

We shall therefore consider ourselves entitled to abandon all speculations on the first cause of this discovery in favour of an exclusive attention to such facts as mark an advance from the dim foreshadowing of its future capabilities to the intelligent and persevering practice of the perfected processes of the art. We shall be content to inquire towards what epoch this new method, the heir of popular favour, supplemented the old resources of the graphic arts by the multiplication of engravings in the printing press. And we may therefore spare ourselves the trouble of going back to doubtful or remote information, to archæological speculations, more or less excused by certain passages in Cicero, Quintilian, and Petronius or by a frequently quoted phrase of Pliny on the books, ornamented with figures, that belonged to Marcus Varro.3

Moreover in examining the historical question from a comparatively modern epoch only, we are not certain to find for ourselves, still less to provide for others, perfectly satisfactory answers. Reduced even to these terms, such a question is complicated enough to excuse controversy, and vast enough to make room for a legendary as well as a critical view of the case. Xylography, or block printing, which may be called the art of stamping on paper designs and immovable letters cut out on wood, preceded without doubt the invention of printing in movable metal characters. Some specimens authentically dated, such as the “St. Christopher” of 1423, and certain prints published in the course of the following years, prove with undeniable authority the priority of block printing. It remains to be seen if these specimens are absolutely the first engraved in Europe; whether they illustrate the beginning of the art, or only a step in its progress; whether, in one word, they are types without precedent, or only chance survivals of other and more ancient styles of wood engraving.

Papillon, in support of the opinion that the earliest attempts took place at Ravenna before the end of the thirteenth century, brings into court a somewhat doubtful story. Two children of sixteen, the Cavaliere Alberico Cunio and his twin sister Isabella, took it into their heads in 1284 to carve on wood “with a little knife,” and to print by some process seemingly as simple a series of compositions on “the chivalrous deeds of Alexander the Great.” The relations and friends of the two young engravers, Pope Honorius IV. amongst others, each received a copy of their work. After this no more was heard of the discovery till the day when Papillon miraculously came across evidences of it in the library of “a Swiss officer in retirement at Bagneux.” Papillon unfortunately was satisfied with merely recording his discovery. It never occurred to him to ensure more conclusive publicity, nor even to inquire into the ultimate fate of the prints he only had seen. The collection of “The Chivalrous Deeds of Alexander the Great” again vanished, and this time not to reappear. It is more prudent, in default of any means of verification, to withhold our belief in the precocious ability of the Ravenna twins, their xylographic attempts, and the assertions of their admirers, although competent judges, such as the Abbé Zani4 and after him Emeric David, have not hesitated to admit the authenticity of the whole story.

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