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