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.

Peter Simon’s engraving of Fuseli’s ‘The Enchanted Island Before the Cell of Prospero’ for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (1797).
Peter Simon’s engraving of Fuseli’s ‘The Enchanted Island Before the Cell of Prospero’ for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (1797).

The Compleat Drawing-Book is an example of the kind of educational artistic guide that flourished in the 18th century. The ‘compleat’ in the title declares its ambition to cover, unlike many earlier books, every subject of drawing in a single publication (Sayer recycles prints drawn from Sébastian Le Clerc’s Principes de dessin, among several other titles), and the book as a whole reflects the status of drawing as both a useful artisanal skill and a polite leisure activity newly separated from utilitarian applications of surveying, heraldry or craft. With (the introduction tells us) ‘a black lead pencil and paper’, the reader should ‘slightly sketch’ the image placed before them (vaulting horse, waterfall, clenched fist). ‘By rubbing gently out with stale Bread’ and then through a process of retouching and hatching and shading with Indian ink – continuing until ‘you can find no farther Disagreement from the Original in your Sketch’ – the aspiring artist will tread the slow and painful path from incompetence to ‘Pleasure’ and then ‘Attainment of this Art’. The guide strives to be both catalogue and manual, displaying the work of luminaries (it includes prints based on drawings by ‘the best Masters’ of the day, artists such as Francis Barlow and the French academicians Charles Le Brun and Le Clerc) while framing the task as fundamentally accessible: ‘Made easier to the comprehension of Beginners than any book of this kind hitherto made publick.’ The copy from 1755 I looked at had the signature ‘Eliza Danby’ written across the title page.

Early modern culture was saturated with prints. They might be made using a relief process, where the image is chiselled out of a woodblock to leave raised lines, or an intaglio process of incising into a copper plate with a burin (engraving) or through the addition of acid (which eats away or ‘etches’ the plate), so that the inked areas are recessed. These processes, along with new techniques enabling variations in tone, such as mezzotint and aquatint, produced a culture that stretched from cheap, ephemeral images by workers we can no longer name to the early 16th-century masterpieces of Dürer (in Germany), Lucas van Leyden (in the Netherlands) and Marcantonio Raimondi working with Raphael (in Italy). As Sayer’s guide shows, the relationship between printing and drawing was rich. In The Compleat Drawing-Book, the print is a training tool for amateurs, but professional artists also needed prints of their works to spread their fame and standing. From 1829 until his death in 1837, John Constable grew increasingly preoccupied with printmaking and collaborated with the young engraver David Lucas to translate his oil sketches and paintings into 22 mezzotints, part of what would become known as English Landscape Scenery. Proofs survive, and are covered with the handwritten revisions and instructions with which Constable besieged Lucas: ‘two near crows a little too large’; ‘put a little smoak about the Cottages’. (After Constable’s death, the quality of the prints collapsed.) Artists could grow quickly famous – and wealthy – via prints of their paintings; Joshua Reynolds’s sold in their thousands. In 1789, the publisher John Boydell opened his ‘Shakespeare Gallery’ in Pall Mall, where, for an entrance fee of one shilling, visitors could enjoy paintings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, commissioned by Boydell from painters including Reynolds and Henry Fuseli. The gallery was an important force behind surging 18th-century bardolatry, and part of Boydell’s broader project to encourage British history painting. The paintings were not for sale but served to attract punters (or ‘patrons of native genius’ as Boydell called them) to the prints, produced by Boydell’s team of 46 printmakers. The status of these prints was finely poised: a surrogate for a painting that couldn’t be bought, and so a marker of an absence, the Boydell print was also (or was becoming) an artistic object in itself, an illustration of the new idea that (in Antony Griffiths’s words) ‘a multiple could be a work of art’.

While recent studies of the history of the book have, after D.F. McKenzie, richly described the relations between printers, publishers, authors and readers, work on early modern prints has generally lacked this kind of sociology. Griffiths’s The Print Before Photography maps out precisely this culture of the print, rather as David Landau and Peter Parshall’s The Renaissance Print 1470-1550 (1994) did for an earlier period: 31 chapters, with more than three hundred illustrations, which constitute a riveting anatomy of the technical production of plates and their images, the mechanisms of distribution and circulation, and the habits of consumption, use and preservation. For all his cautious rigour, Griffiths is drawn to the human beneath the analytical category. Personalities emerge from the scant records. The French engraver Jacques Philippe Le Bas (1707-83) took on far more work than he could manage, but often ended his day with an impromptu dance in the studio. English mezzotinter John Smith (1652-1742) grew rich and arrogant engraving Godfrey Kneller paintings and towards the end of his career dealt with customers while seated on his close-stool. Gaspard Duchange (1662-1757), ashamed of the erotic prints he’d engraved after Correggio’s paintings of Jupiter pursuing Io, Danaë and Leda, defaced his own plates with deep slashes of the burin. John Sartain (1808-97), before he emigrated to Philadelphia and became a pioneer of mezzotint engraving, struggled for work and for some time could only secure employment engraving names on dog collars. The three Wierix brothers who produced masterpieces of late 16th-century Catholic piety were drunkards: the publisher Christopher Plantin told a Spanish client that the brothers only worked long enough to accumulate sufficient funds to vanish into Antwerp’s taverns, from where Plantin, who depended on their remarkable talents, would extract them, pay their bills and retrieve their pawned tools.

Griffiths grants to non-specialist readers a level of knowledge about print production that means they are likely to stop responding to prints in terms of modern, photographic assumptions; he also exposes the dangers of reading prints as simple historical documents. Not only are they always a collision between generic traditions, the subject represented, and the many-headed creature of print publishing; but the same plate might be repurposed to produce images revised for a new political moment. Pierre Lombart issued an engraving in 1655 of Oliver Cromwell, splendid in armour on horseback. Times changed. The head was removed and replaced with Louis XIV’s; then the head was switched back to Cromwell’s, then to Charles I’s, and finally – collectors now interested in the fluctuations of Lombart’s ‘Headless Horseman’ – back to Cromwell’s again. The shifting fortunes of monarchy and republicanism can be seen in these polished down and re-engraved plates. Publishers routinely hoarded generic plates – battles, funerals, coronations, processions – in anticipation of speedy reworkings, the almost-finished representation preceding the historical event it sought to describe.

A signature trait of prints is mobility. As Dutch art theorist Willem Goeree observed in 1670, prints ‘journey to all corners of the world and fall into the hands of all art lovers, while the paintings remain in one place’. Publishers employed agents who were perennially, joylessly on the road, trekking between towns, weekly markets and the twice-yearly fairs in Frankfurt and Leipzig. During wars these salesmen were issued with special passports to permit them to move across enemy territory. But print mobility went beyond Europe. Huge numbers of prints were included onboard Dutch trading ships as they sailed towards India and the Far East. We know about this in part through endeavours that went wrong. In 1596, Willem Barentsz, attempting to sail to Russia around the north of Norway and so open up a new trade route, found his ship trapped in ice. After wintering on the island of Nova Zembla, his crew returned to Amsterdam, but they left behind a great pile of prints: four hundred impressions from 150 plates, which were rediscovered in the 19th century. Drawing manuals and prints of Western paintings made their way into isolationist Japan on more successful Dutch missions, introducing European techniques of modelling and shading, and linear perspective, to Japan’s far more sophisticated fine print culture. En route to China in December 1792, the British embassy stopped at Rio de Janeiro and found that (in the words of the embassy’s chronicler) ‘the shops of Rio were full of Manchester manufactures and other British goods, even to English prints, both serious and caricature’, despite the fact that the British were not officially permitted to trade with Spanish America before 1796.

The restless movements of prints meant they often ended up in surprising places, serving unexpected purposes. Thomas Coryate, travelling in Italy in 1608, was delighted by the fashion for fans bearing cut-and-pasted prints: ‘elegant and pretty things … either of amorous things tending to dalliance or of some notable Italian city with a brief description’. Griffiths guides us briskly past a parade of the inventive things prints could do: a life-size printed rabbit from the Netherlands in about 1560, intended as a target for shooting practice; a budget sundial, printed by Giovanni Paolo Cimerlino in 1569, a specialist in paper scientific instruments; the printed parts of a puppet, etched in France in about 1750, to be cut out and assembled on card. Writing in 1674, Hannah Woolley described how to snip out prints and ‘clap them upon the Wainscot’ with glue, producing rooms decorated with ‘anything you can imagine: for there is not any to be named, but you may find it in Prints.’ Woolley recommended pasting prints onto the walls as well as on ‘white plates and flower-pots’: instances of découpage (from the French découper, to cut up or out) before that term was coined. Another Robert Sayer publication, The Ladies Amusement (1760), included two hundred engraved plates and instructions to paste them onto anything ‘from the superb cabinet to the smallest article of the toilet’. In 1675, the publisher Arthur Tooker issued a catalogue in which he advertised sixty landscape ovals ‘with neat borders’, designed ‘for cabinets, dressing-boxes, power-boxes, baskets, skreens etc’. As they blew through the early modern world like leaves, prints had the capacity to turn almost anything into a substrate awaiting decoration. The world became a frame, or a hook, or a surface. Prints were fixed to wooden window sashes to reduce the light and replace an unpleasing view with an engraved landscape or sea-scene. A 16th-century bed-frame survives in Nuremberg, decorated with putti, foliage, vines and medallions: woodcut prints were a cheaper, easier, less permanent alternative to carvings.

Griffiths’s book, which is in part an archive of beguiling examples, doesn’t have time to do more than note the craze for grangerised or extra-illustrated books in the 18th century, but this fashion (or madness, depending on your bibliographical inclinations) constitutes one of the more striking endpoints for thousands of prints. Grangerising took its name from James Granger’s A Biographical History of England, from Egbert the Great to the Revolution, Consisting of Characters Disposed in Different Classes (1769). By taxonomising history into ‘a Methodical Catalogue of Engraved British Heads’, with blank leaves awaiting printed illustrations, Granger’s work initiated a fashion for interleaving books with printed portraits. Perhaps the most sustained example is the vast collection assembled by Charlotte and Alexander Sutherland between 1795 and 1839, which is now in the Ashmolean. One of the first books they grangerised was Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (1702). They disbound the volumes, and then glued or inlaid hundreds of prints they had collected that pertained to the text: most frequently prints of foreign and British royalty, the nobility and other notable early modern figures. Opposite Clarendon’s discussions of Charles I, the Sutherlands posted dozens of English, Dutch and German prints of Charles’s head, of the king kneeling in prayer, of his trial, his death, of his lying in state. There are multiple copies of the same print, some in different states (that is, with alterations), some in unfinished proof, all juxtaposed with Clarendon’s words. The effect is a kind of paper cloud of royalist elegy that speaks to the challenge of adequately representing regicide (for royalists there is always more horror to add). More fundamentally, this level of grangerising produces something like an explosion of the book: a process of disbinding, augmenting and rebinding, a cycle of co-ordinated dissolution and amplification that means Clarendon’s three-volume History comes to occupy 55 fat volumes containing thousands of prints. What have the prints done to the book? Is Clarendon’s History still there, or has it become – what? A bibliographical enactment of royalist trauma? An artist’s book, avant la lettre? A cabinet of swirling prints uncannily frozen in time? It’s easy to see why critics saw in this endlessness a kind of insanity: in 1809, the bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin called grangerising ‘one of the unfortunate stages of Bibliomania’, and a century and a half later, Holbrook Jackson described the ‘giddy-headed’ practice as ‘singularly perverted … a furious perturbation to be closely observed and radically treated wherever it appears’. But in a world that was awash with prints, it must also have been an attempt to fix and order and control them, to give shape to the great mass of paper representations.

On the back of a prospectus for English Landscape Scenery, which ended up losing him £600, Constable scribbled 15 reasons why print publishing was a dangerous business for a painter to enter. The list is an accidental poem to the perils of print that begins:

1. Great interruption of my time & peace of mind.

2. An anxiety that ought not to be with me.

3. Selling off the prints in lots or detail – a trouble.

4. Nobody will ever pay me what they owe me.

5. I was never able to get money off a printseller yet.

‘Above all’, Constable wrote, as the final entry, ‘consider the weight on the mind.’