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An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

David Bindman


Before photography, almost the only method of producing multiple images was by making a design on a copper plate, stone, or woodblock, applying ink to it, and then pressing the inked design onto a sheet of paper to form a print. Hence from the end of the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, prints in a certain sense controlled the ways in which the world was made visible to all but the few who had access to *paintings [27] and drawings, or to ceremonial forms of representation. Prints provided an almost limitless range of services, from the reproduction and multiplication of works of art to the commemoration of public hangings in broad-sides sold at these events. All *advertising beyond a simple letterpress announcement required the services of a printmaker, and the religious life of ordinary people was reinforced by mass-produced, single-sheet, moralizing broadsides set around a relief-printed image. From its fifteenth-century beginnings, printmaking had become a multi-faceted profession which encompassed a wide range of skills and techniques, and offered many products in conjunction with letterpress or other forms of printing. Between 1776 and 1832 it was at its height, carried along by the growth of trade to which it made a notable contribution. Ironically, however, the very dynamism of printmaking contributed to its demise, for its technological innovation eventually led to its own replacement: photography was, after all, a mode of printmaking, which grew out of the perceived limitations of the processes then available.

While the products of the printmaking industry in the period are still part of common experience—available in museums and libraries, reproduced in books, and hanging in private homes—the culture which grew up around them has been lost. This culture, the milieu of the printmakers themselves, their rivalries, and their negotiations with each other and with purchasers, was essentially urban and overwhelmingly London-based, though there were independent centres of print production in the major provincial cities such as Edinburgh, Dublin, and Belfast. Like other industries in the period, printmaking was the locus of perpetual demarcation disputes and agitation, caused by the introduction and exploitation of new technologies and artificial attempts to confer value on new products.

The lives of printmakers were, therefore, dominated by unstable hierarchies. Printmaking had itself a place, though a low one, within the hierarchy of the visual arts [see *viewing, 20]. With the foundation of the *Royal Academy in 1768, line-engravers hoped that they would achieve recognition and be allowed full membership within this self-proclaimed professional élite. This was denied to them on the grounds that they were ‘mechanics’ and not practitioners of a liberal art—a rejection greeted by strong protest at the time and resulting in long-standing resentment. The line-engravers were the most conservative and status-conscious of all print-makers, jealously guarding methods going back to sixteenth-century Germany and Italy. Their practice involved the use of a burin, a short steel rod cut obliquely at the end to provide a point used to gouge lines out of the copper. The plate would be printed by inking and wiping it, and then squeezing the ink from the lines on to the paper by means of a special press. This technique had developed by the late eighteenth century into a highly formalized system of parallel lines and cross-hatching which could provide a kind of equivalence to a painting, but could never pass for a facsimile. In the hands of the best practitioners, like William *Sharp, engravings could produce remarkable effects of tone: they retained a strong aura of probity and ancient craft, but they never claimed to capture the texture of the original. Painters, when making prints themselves, almost always preferred the less laborious and infinitely more spontaneous medium of etching, which required them not to wrestle with a burin but simply to scratch with a needle-pointed tool through a wax coating applied to the surface of the copper. The plate would then be placed in a bath of acid which would eat into the copper exposed by the needle, enabling the lines to hold ink and be printed by the same method as engravings.

Line-engraving and etching were instantly recognizable as printmaking techniques in their own right, but from the mid-eighteenth century onwards there was an increasing interest in imitative techniques which would provide a more precise equivalence of other media. Much effort, mainly in England and France, was expended in attempts to make facsimiles of the original painting or drawing from which the print was derived, so that its fugitive qualities could be captured and multiplied. A premium was increasingly placed on achieving a softness of effect, mitigating the hard linearity of traditional engraving. This was achieved by the use of tools which made fine dots on the surface, or by chemical means to create a delicate granular surface. Mezzotint, a technique invented in the seventeenth century which involves scraping white highlights from a previously roughened copper plate, already provided a reasonable imitation of the tones and handling of oil paint on canvas. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards mezzotinters achieved a high standing in the profession, based on their skill but also on a careful control of the market. Since mezzotint involved working the surface of the copper plate, rather than cutting into it as with line-engraving, the plate wore very quickly. This meant that there was a visible difference between early impressions from the plate and those that had been taken further down the print run. Hence for collectors there was a high premium on proof impressions before the plate had been issued. In order to capitalize on this premium, mezzotinters often produced several impressions before the lettering was finished, no doubt with the collusion of the painter who had provided the design. These ‘proofs before letters’ became much sought after, but by definition could only cater to a very limited market, despite the fact that the production of such ‘rarities’ became notoriously open to abuse. In the nineteenth century the practice was even formalized into the publishing of ‘proof editions’.

Mezzotint continued to provide the most persuasive rendering of oil painting, but by the end of the eighteenth century several other surrogate techniques were readily available. Stipple-engraving, which involved dotting the surface of the copper, imitated chalk drawing so that decorative prints in the French manner could be produced in large numbers to complement interiors in the style of Robert *Adam. Aquatint, in which fine resin was bonded to the plate before etching, could imitate wash drawing, thereby allowing the production of particularly elegant collections of views. In the face of these new imitative methods, traditional line-engraving was open to criticism as inexact, labour-intensive, and old-fashioned. However, partly through judicious compromise with new demands, it continued to hold its own well into the nineteenth century.

For the professional printmaker these new techniques raised the fundamental question of whether he (printmakers were almost always male) should be content to reproduce the characteristics of another medium, or should, on the contrary, make a virtue of the specific techniques of printmaking. The case for line-engraving was stated most eloquently by William *Blake, who had undergone a seven-year apprenticeship with James Basire (1730–1802), the most distinguished antiquarian engraver operating in London at the time. In his notebook drafts known as the ‘Public Address’ (c.1810) Blake condemned ‘What is call'd the English Style of Engraving, such as proceeded from the Toilettes of Woolett & Strange’; these engravers, who were as it happens the most vociferous defenders of the profession in the face of the Royal Academy's rejection, had in Blake's eyes sacrificed the linear qualities of traditional engraving for softer and more imitative styles. This rejection of outline, he claimed, represented also the sacrifice of independence, in favour of work ‘Suited to the Purposes of Commerce…for Commerce Cannot endure Individual Merit’. The entrepreneurial efforts of ‘Alderman’ John *Boydell, who had sought, like Josiah *Wedgwood, to bring advanced business methods to the marketing of his product, were therefore inimical to the independence of the honourable traditions of engraving [see *design, 25].

It goes without saying that Blake's opinions were highly tendentious. A golden age of line-engraving had never existed in England, and Blake himself was as eclectic in method as any of those that he dismissed so fiercely. Furthermore, he gained more than he was prepared to admit from the increase in demand for prints and from the apparatus of speculative print publishing and selling. If old ways were under threat there were also new opportunities: the unique method of relief etching that Blake used for his visionary *prophecies was also the product of an age which sought to bring new technologies to bear on old problems. In his case this was the problem of reconciling on one plate text and design, which, if letterpress were used, would have to be printed separately.

Such debates were relevant to what was agreed to be the top end of the trade; there was perceived to be a huge gulf between line-engravings and broadsides as well as other forms of *street literature, decorated by woodcuts and relief prints, put out by the firms of James Catnach and John Pitts in Seven Dials, London, and sold by hawkers throughout the country. Such firms, which carried on through their successors right up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, offered a diverse production but one which almost always contained text and design, taking advantage of the fact that while an engraved plate was incompatible with letter-press, a woodblock or relief plate (including the finer technique somewhat misleadingly known as wood-engraving) could be locked into a page of type. Their production ranged in size from the ballad slip to the full broadside intended for display in cottage parlours, pubs, or religious meeting-places. The production was enormous but it is poorly documented, for it was a dying trade by the time that Victorian social commentators like Henry Mayhew (1812–87) began to take an interest in it, and a very great deal has been lost because of poor paper, the disdain of collectors, and the practice of pasting the broadsides directly to walls. Even so it also contained its modernizing tendencies, for it is clear that by the 1820s stereotypes of wood-blocks were already being used to prolong the life of the image. It is probably not coincidental that the period in which modern technology was introduced also saw the first signs of nostalgia for the lost world that they supposedly represented. Writing in the 1820s Thomas *Bewick could not

help lamenting that in all the vicissitudes which this art has undergone, some species of it, is lost & done away—I mean the large blocks, with the prints from them, so common to be seen, when I was a boy, in every Cottage & farm house throughout the whole country…these prints, which were sold at a very low price, were commonly illustrative of some memorable exploits…besides these, there were a great variety of other designs, often with songs added to them, of a moral, a patriotic or a rural tendency which served to enliven the circle in which they were admired.

Caricatures were often stigmatized at the time as belonging in the vulgar milieu of Seven Dials, but they also carried with them the aura of a gentlemanly hobby, for they were practised by aristocratic amateurs who had often learned to make them on their *Grand Tour, and they were collected avidly in fashionable circles. Graphic satire, or caricature as it is usually called (strictly speaking, caricature is a method of graphic satire which creates a humorous effect from the exaggeration of a single feature of the person caricatured), was perhaps the most successful of all branches of printmaking in the late eighteenth century, and was noted as a distinctive feature of London life by foreign visitors [see *satire]. Much of its reputation was due to the authority and fame of such artists as James *Gillray and Thomas *Rowlandson, both of whom gained reputations abroad, especially in Germany. Gillray and Rowlandson, despite the often lewd and scatological nature of their imagery, were in fact sophisticated purveyors of luxury goods aimed at the wealthy and politically powerful who might open their volumes of satires underneath their portraits by Thomas *Gainsborough or Joshua *Reynolds, or place them on shelves alongside the 1802 edition of prints of works housed in Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. None the less, their work was also made available to a popular audience in print-shop windows, where they were displayed for free. Gillray and Rowlandson were both Royal Academy-trained, their work was undeniably ‘artistic’ and produced in relatively small numbers, and the imagery of their satires was consciously aimed at those conversant with literature and painting, and with the political debates of the time. Though their work has a raffish air, and Gillray's in particular cruelly mocked the royal family, it tended to be populist and volatile rather than conventionally radical or consistently conservative. Both produced some strongly *loyalist satires at the time of the *French Revolution debates in 1792–3, and Gillray was responsible for some of the crudest as well as the most elegant attacks on Charles James *Fox and other French sympathizers.

The success of Gillray and Rowlandson undoubtedly encouraged others to set up as satirists, and there were many who sought different and more radical paths. Unlike reproductive printmaking, which required the most meticulous craft skills and immense patience, caricaturists almost always used the free and rapid medium of etching, and so it was possible to achieve a certain success as a caricaturist without training. This left the door open to amateurs who might be gentlemen, like the Norfolk landowner Henry Bunbury (1750–1811), described by contemporaries as ‘the second Hogarth’, or evidently self-taught artists like William Dent (fl. 1783–93), who turned out hundreds of ribald political caricatures in the period. Somewhere in between amateur and professional was the extraordinary Richard Newton (1777–98), who produced a substantial œuvre despite his death at the age of 21. He drew brilliantly from the age of 15, and his social and political caricatures are marked by a scatological humour directed at the royal family or the *Pitt government. If Gillray, who had his own publisher in Hannah Humphry, tended to uphold the Pitt government, Newton's publisher, William Holland, was firmly on the radical side, publishing Thomas *Paine's Letter Addressed to the Addressers (1792) and spending time in Newgate prison.

The profusion of political caricature from the 1780s onwards raises the question of its efficacy as propaganda. It is hard to measure its impact because it was almost always part of a larger campaign involving pamphlets and *newspapers. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that Fox was damaged by James Sayers's (1748–1823) caricatures in the row over the India Bill of 1784, and it is hard to believe that the slow drip of Gillray's ceaseless portrayal of Fox as a sleazy, cowardly, and hypocritical opportunist did not undermine his credibility in some quarters at least. Certainly William Pitt and his colleagues felt more comfortable having Gillray on their side as a government pensioner in the later 1790s, though Gillray did not hesitate also to attack Pitt's new system of taxation. In the early nineteenth century, with the Napoleonic *wars [2], caricature tended to direct its energies abroad, and though many of George *Cruikshank's satires of *Napoleon are ribald and effective they lack Gillray's sharp edge. There is also a perceptible lessening of intensity among Cruikshank's contemporaries, like William Heath (1794–1840), and the end of the decade saw the virtual demise of the single etched and hand-coloured satirical print in the face of new technologies.

Overall, printmaking in late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth- century Britain had the characteristics of a diverse and successful industry. The reproductive line-engravers had succeeded in replacing imports from France, the traditional producer, and had built up a Europe-wide dominance in the field of decorative engravings. Successful engravers like William Woollett (1735–85) had become celebrities, and the engraver-turned-entrepreneur John Boydell was briefly able in the 1780s to broach the possibility, abortive as it turned out, that serious *history painters might find a public through engravings after their work and thus be compensated for the neglect they suffered from the wealthy. If import replacement was a sign of printmaking's success, technological innovation and division of labour were signs of its modernity. A plethora of new or adapted techniques enabled paintings and drawings to be imitated as never before, making something of the experience of owning paintings or drawings available beyond the small circles of connoisseurs.

Though some printmakers capitalized specifically on the rarity value of their products by limiting editions and offering carefully contrived variants, for most, economic success was dependent on producing large numbers of prints from each copper plate. Copper had one serious disadvantage: as a soft metal it wore down imperceptibly each time it was printed, with the result that there was a limit on the number of satisfactory prints which could be taken from one plate. In the early nineteenth century copper was increasingly, though never completely, replaced by other means: lithography, steel plates, and Bewick's method—the use of the end-grain of hard wood. Lithography was the most adaptable printing method, for it was a chemical process, allowing an artist to work easily and freely with a greasy medium on the block of fine limestone it usually required. It also had great commercial potential; because the image was printed from the surface of the stone it could be made compatible with letterpress. Steel plates came into general production in the 1820s and they effectively replaced the use of copper, enabling increasingly large editions of line-engravings and book illustrations. Under Bewick, working in Newcastle, the use of wood-engraving burgeoned to the point that it practically forestalled the success of lithography, becoming an important element in the mass-production of images characteristic of Victorian serial publishing.

Though printmaking in the period was predominantly a means of reproduction, many of the best artists were drawn to it as a means of expression, as well as a way of making their work available to a wider public. The latter part of the eighteenth century saw much experimentation by artists seeking independence from publishers and the opportunity to develop their techniques in other media. Gainsborough produced a series of prints using soft-ground etching and aquatint from the mid-1770s onwards which replicate the effect of his chalk and wash drawings, while George *Stubbs, an inveterate experimenter who had worked briefly with Wedgwood on porcelain supports for his paintings, produced prints of a fine-grained texture based on the free use of stipple and engraving tools.

William Blake, though trained as a line-engraver, was perhaps the most far-reaching innovator of all. His main achievement was the combination of image and text on the same plate, while at the same time controlling all the processes within his workroom. He developed a process which he called, probably with reference to medieval manuscripts, ‘Illuminated Printing’. This was, strictly speaking, a form of relief etching, which involved printing from the surface of the copper plate, like traditional woodcut, but also incorporated etching away the parts of the copper which did not print. Such a method allowed him to work freely between text and image, moving from images which occupied the whole plate, to marginal decorations, to the poetic text. He used this unique method almost exclusively to produce hand-made editions of his prophecies, and though achieved by technological innovation, it contributed to the other-worldliness of their appearance.

In the early nineteenth century, with the invention of lithography and the steel plate, the initiative in developing printmaking techniques effectively passed out of the hands of artists. J. M. W. *Turner and John *Constable both produced volumes of prints illustrative of their methods of *landscape painting. In his Liber Studiorum (1807–19), Turner combined outline etching by himself and mezzotint added by a professional engraver to provide a reasonable approximation of sepia drawings, while Constable, in his Various Subjects of Landscape (1830–3), also used mezzotint, but this time on steel and in a quite different spirit. Constable employed David Lucas (1802–81) as a printmaker to work mainly from paintings, but actively intervened in the production of the prints. Here Constable sought in miniature the dramatic effects of his bold handling of oil paint, aiming in the process to lose any sense of mechanical reproduction. John *Martin also used mezzotinting for his large biblical scenes dating from 1826. The tonal values of mezzotint suited the visionary qualities of his art; and with the use of steel plates he was able to produce them in large numbers. Lithography did not have much success with artists in Britain, except perhaps for the painter and caricaturist John *Doyle, though a great many produced experimental plates in the early part of the century. The one artist to take it seriously in Britain was the French painter Géricault (1791–1824)—not surprisingly, since Paris publishers were far advanced in lithography. On his brief visit to London in 1821, Géricault produced twelve prints entitled Various Subjects Drawn from Life on Stone. Here a brilliant grasp of the technique of lithography worked to produce a searching vision of the misery of a great industrial city in formation.

The modernizing tendencies of printmaking were confirmed by the growing division of labour which characterized its development throughout the period. The characteristic type of mid-eighteenth-century printmaker was someone like George Bickham (d. 1758), who among other things made caricatures, music sheets, and drawing manuals, and sold prints to collectors. By the end of the century there were specialists of all kinds, the best of whom had established considerable public reputations. Print publishers and sellers were no longer necessarily engravers themselves, and the processes involved in production tended to become increasingly specialized. In the early part of the century a workshop would also be the point of sale; by its end there were rival publishers in the fashionable parts of town. Blake, writing in 1800, remarked; ‘There are now, I believe, as many Booksellers as there are Butchers & as many Printshops as of any other trade. We remember when a Print shop was a rare bird in London.’ The designer, the engraver, and the publisher of a large plate would all be clearly differentiated in the caption below the print, and by the early nineteenth century a plate printer like W. B. McQueen might also have his name on the plate.

There is a tragic irony in the fact that popular printmaking of the Seven Dials variety should outlive, though not by many years, the whole apparatus of the printmaking industry with its ceaseless quest for improved status and its ancient craft traditions. Yet, remarkably, one print-maker survived into modern times. This was Ross & Co., which was discovered to be still printing off some of its inheritance of copper plates in London's Hampstead Road until it moved in 1966. It had retained many of its records, and it proved also to have inherited many of the most important plates of the eighteenth century because, as other printmakers collapsed in the nineteenth century, Ross & Co. was able to acquire the stock, which included still printable plates by Gainsborough and Stubbs. Whatever future remains for this stock—and the company is no longer in the hands of its original owners—it remains the greatest monument to and source of knowledge of the lost milieu of printmaking.


Bain, I., ‘Thomas Ross & Son: Copper- and Steel-Plate Printers since 1833’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 2 (1966), 3–22; Bindman, D., The Shadow of the Guillotine: Britain and the French Revolution, London, 1989; Donald, D., The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III, New Haven, Conn., 1996; Duffy, M., ed., The English Satirical Print 1600–1832, Cambridge, 1986; Essick, R. N., William Blake, Printmaker, Princeton, NJ, 1980; George, D. M., English Political Caricature: a Study of Opinion and Propaganda, vol. i, to 1793; vol. ii, 1793–1832, Oxford, 1959; Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire, Harmondsworth, 1967; Godfrey, R. T., Printmaking in Britain, Oxford, 1978; Gretton, T., Murders and Moralities: English Catch-penny Prints, 1800–60, London, 1980; Twyman, M., Lithography 1800–50, Oxford, 1970; Viscomi, J., Blake and the Idea of the Book, Princeton, NJ, 1993.

David Bindman