Rub gently out with stale bread

Adam Smyth

  • The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking 1550-1820 by Antony Griffiths
    British Museum, 560 pp, £60.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 7141 2695 1

The Compleat Drawing-Book, published by Fleet Street printseller Robert Sayer in 1755, is a handbook for the amateur artist that aims to provide ‘Proper Instructions to Youth for their Entertainment and Improvement in this Art’. The core of the book is a series of ‘Many and Curious Specimens’: prints from images ‘engrav’d on one hundred copper-plates’ that present vignettes to study and copy. There are groups of figures; ‘beasts and birds of various kinds’ (turkeys, cockerels, lions, cows, goats); landscapes, views and ruins; and, most strikingly, pieces of the human body. Samuel Pepys, a century before, would have called these ‘brave cutts’. Page after page displays eyes, chins, mouths (grinning, aghast, pursed), ears, hands and feet, each part excised from the whole to float in a manner both exemplary and forlorn. This is the body chopped, sliced and pulled apart to enable its artistic recomposition. There are dozens of expressive heads and faces, their knotted brows or upturned noses or quiet smiles showing ‘the various passions of the soul’. A symmetrical, settled face conveys ‘Tranquility’. Eyes and mouth wide open: ‘Astonishment’. Half-closed eyes and visible top teeth: ‘Extreme Bodily Pain’. Irregular eyebrows and down-turned mouth: ‘A Violent motion of Murder’. A lolling head: ‘Dejection.’ These images tell us something about the physical signs of subjective states, but they also remind us that ‘character’ means both personality, and, in its original sense, a mark impressed, engraved or otherwise made on a surface: a brand or stamp or cut.

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