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.

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