Huon Mal­lalieu is fas­ci­nated by an ex­hi­bi­tion that of­fers new per­spec­tives on the pro­duc­tion and pur­pose of prints be­fore the in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy

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The im­age of the artist as a lone ge­nius iso­lated in his gar­ret is deeply em­bed­ded, but rarely true to life. The cat­a­logu­ing terms ‘Stu­dio of’ or ‘and Stu­dio’ are of­ten more ac­cu­rate (even if they do no jus­tice to the in­dus­trial-scale op­er­a­tions of a Jeff Koons or Damien hirst) and orig­i­nal print­mak­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, has gen­er­ally been a team op­er­a­tion. This fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, cur­rently show­ing in the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s print gal­leries, is an ed­u­ca­tion, even for those of us who thought we knew some­thing about it.

The cre­ative com­plex­ity was of­ten demon­strated in the ‘cred­its’ in­scribed be­low an im­age in 17th- or 18th-cen­tury prints. De­grees of re­spon­si­bil­ity tended to be in­di­cated by Latin ab­bre­vi­a­tions: Imp[ressit], mean­ing that the artist has done his own print­ing—this is also the mean­ing of ‘by and af­ter’—and

pinx[it] or del[in­eavit], in­di­cat­ing that he has only painted or drawn the orig­i­nal, in which case the printer’s name will be fol­lowed by f[ecit] or sculp[sit]. If a de­signer is in­volved, then he is fol­lowed by in[venit] and the pub­lisher by ex[udit] or exc.

Just as por­trait painters might have drap­ery and land­scape as­sis- tants, so print­ers and en­gravers would have their own as­sis­tants and ap­pren­tices to pre­pare the plates. Later, a fur­ther troop of job­bing artists might be em­ployed to do hand-colour im­ages.

This com­plex busi­ness grew rapidly af­ter Guten­berg de­vel­oped move­able print in the 1440s and it be­came pos­si­ble to in­cor­po­rate wood­block il­lus­tra­tions in pages of printed text. The tech­niques of en­grav­ing on cop­per plates came from gold­smiths and per­haps ar­mour­ers and pro­duced more re­fined im­ages. etch­ing, in which the artist draws on the plate with

‘Luck­ily, orig­i­nal print­mak­ing did not quite die af­ter the 1920s

an acid nee­dle, rather than cut­ting with a graver, came from the same sources and is more del­i­cate still. Both wooden blocks and metal plates wore down with use, so that the num­ber of strong im­pres­sions was lim­ited, al­though etch­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, of­ten strength­ened, re­worked and added to plates, thus pro­duc­ing dif­fer­ent ‘states’ of a print.

How­ever, artists and pub­lish­ers might sell their plates to oth­ers while there was still a good deal of life in them. In The Print Be­fore

Pho­tog­ra­phy (Bri­tish Mu­seum, £60), the pi­o­neer­ing book that the ex­hi­bi­tion ac­com­pa­nies, Antony Grif­fiths notes that the plates of Braun and Ho­gen­berg’s city views,

Civ­i­tates Orbis Ter­rarum, first is­sued be­tween 1572 and 1617, passed to at least four later pub­lish­ers and were still be­ing printed in the 1750s.

There is a par­tic­u­larly sat­is­fy­ing ex­am­ple of a plate be­ing reused in the show. In 1761, when the new king Ge­orge III an­nounced his en­gage­ment to Char­lotte of Meck­len­burgstre­litz, a por­trait had to be rushed out and she was un­known in Bri­tain. Two pub­lish­ers dug out an old por­trait of a lady, changed the in­scrip­tion and up­dated her hair­style. This sold well, un­til it was recog­nised to be of an em­bar­rass­ingly dif­fer­ent royal lady, who had died in 1735: Maria Cle­mentina So­bieska, wife of the Old Pretender, Ge­orge’s ri­val for the throne.

The Bri­tish Mu­seum has a vast and var­ied print col­lec­tion, run­ning from re­li­gious broad­sheets, por­traits, pro­pa­ganda, play­ing and trade cards, board games and car­i­ca­tures to sub­lime works of art, such as Dürer’s en­grav­ings and etch­ings by Rem­brandt, Goya and Whistler.

Well af­ter the in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy, at which point the show ends, print col­lec­tors paid them as close at­ten­tion as they would a paint­ing or mas­ter draw­ing. The ex­tra­or­di­nary skills shown by many of the works dis­played here prove just how worth­while it can be to slow down and re­ally look at these far from ephe­meral works of art. The con­nois­seur­ship died with the etch­ing boom and bust in the 1920s, buried by new pho­to­graphic print­ing tech­niques that re­moved the artist from the process.

Luck­ily, orig­i­nal print­mak­ing did not quite die af­ter the 1920s, even though the mar­ket dis­ap­peared. The English land­scape tra­di­tion, with roots in the work of Bewick, Palmer, the Etch­ing Club, Haden and Whistler, was con­tin­ued and en­hanced by the gen­er­a­tion of Nash, Suther­land, Moore, Rav­il­ious and Baw­den. It con­tin­ues to flour­ish to­day in the hands of artists who use both old and new tech­niques.

‘The busi­ness of prints’ is at the Bri­tish Mu­seum, Prints and Draw­ings Gallery, Great Rus­sell Street, Lon­don WC1 un­til Jan­uary 28, 2018 (www. british­mu­seum.org; 020–7323 8181). The work of 13 con­tem­po­rary print­mak­ers, se­lected by the dealer Gwen Hughes, is in a sell­ing show, ‘In Print: Bri­tish Land­scapes’ at the Watts Con­tem­po­rary Gallery at Watts Gallery Artists’ Vil­lage, Compton, Sur­rey, un­til Jan­uary 7, 2018 (www.watts­gallery.org.uk; 01483 810235)

Above: The Count of Harcourt (1667) shows An­toine Mas­son’s skill in en­grav­ing tex­tures. Be­low: A Cop­per­plate Work­shop (1642) by the French en­graver Abra­ham Bosse

Hip­polyte Po­chon hand-coloured his satir­i­cal 1814 etch­ing Les Visites du Jour de l’an in an at­tempt to ri­val draw­ings prices

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