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History of Engraving

Updated on May 26, 2010

Engraving is primarily the art of drawing on a substance by means of an incised line. From very early times gems had been engraved with ornaments or signets, and commemorative inscriptions had been cut into metal tablets. Technically, however, the term engraving is confined to the incision of a design upon a plate of metal or a wooden block, for the purpose of producing upon paper by the aid of ink a series of reproductions of that design. The term was thus extended to denote the impression upon the sheet of paper of the engraved work, but in this article it is applied to the basic process of engraving metals with a graver.

Line-engraving is executed with a tool called the graver or burin. This consists of a steel rod some 20 cm long, with a square or lozenge-shaped section, a sharp edge being secured by cutting the section obliquely. The engraver pushes the burin through the surface of the metal varying the pressure in accordance with the thickness of the line required. When his work is finished he covers the plate with printer's ink, presses it into the incisions by the aid of a dabber, rubs away the superfluous ink with a piece of muslin and then carefully lays a sheet of moistened paper on the engraved surface. The plate, with the paper thus attached, is placed on a board which slides between two rollers in what is called the copperplate press, blankets softening the contact of paper and roller. The design is reproduced by the transference of the ink from plate to paper. An effect of tone can be achieved by covering the plate with dots and short strokes, using the curved stipple graver, the roulette or the 'dry-point' method for the purpose. The latter is executed with an implement with a steel point stronger and more tapering than the ordinary graver. When this is firmly drawn across the metal surface, a distinct burr (like a miniature thorn) is produced, the effect of which is to leave a semi-luminous ridge of tone at the side of each line, and thus to impart to the whole print an attractive richness of tone. See also stipple engraving.

The art is of comparatively recent development, beginning independently in both Germany and Italy and probably first practised north of the Alps. The earliest known date on an engraving from metal is 1446. It appears on a Flagellation and is the work of a German who lived in the neighbourhood of Cologne or Basel. In Italy the art grew side by side with painting and possibly arose from the art of niello, a process of incising a pattern of gold or silver and then filling in the groove with a black compound (nigel-lum). Two distinct styles are apparent. The work of Maso finiguerra, with its plentiful cross-hatchings illustrates the Tine manner', while Antonio pollaiuolo's remarkable Battle of the Nudes, exhibits the broad and simple lines of parallel shading which characterises the exponents of the so-called 'broad manner'. Somewhat similar in style is The Virgin and Child of Andrea mantegna. Albrecht Durer together with Marcantonio Raimondi and Lucas van Leyden form a conspicuous triumvirate of engravers. Marcantonio is famous for his reproductions of Raphael's work. The first French engraver of note was Jean Duvet (1485-1561), whose 'Apocalypse' series emphasises his mysticism and at the same time his somewhat heavy, overloaded style. In England, the same distinction must be reserved for William Rogers (flourished 1580-1610) who executed several portraits of Queen Elizabeth, all of which, however, are rather stiff and over-ornate.

Professional print-sellers, ready to provide portraits for historians and maps for discoverers, first began to flourish in the latter half of the 16th century. The pioneers were mostly Netherlanders, like Hieronymous Cock and Philippe Galle (1551-1612), many of whom migrated to Italy and Germany and thus popularised commercial engravings abroad. Robert nanteuil, who was engraver at the court of Louis XIV, stands easily at the head of all French engravers of portraits, and a similar honour can be claimed for William faithorne, who was the first great English master of line-engraving, raising the art in England to equal that being done on the Continent. Other notable English line-engravers were George Vertue (1684-1756), engraver of portrait plates, appointed engraver to the society of Antiquaries and buried in Westminster Abbey; William hogarth; Ravenet, who came from France in 1750 and blended line-engraving and etching; John Hall (1739-97), historical engraver to the king, one of whose works is Oliver Cromwell dissolving the Long Parliament; Francois Vivares (1709-80), the first landscape engraver in England and founder of a school of engravers in line; William Woollett (1735-85), who engraved in line and etching, his best plates being landscapes after Claude Lorraine and Richard Wilson, though the most famous of his works are the Death of Engraving. Self-portrait by Feoydor Ivanovitch, 'a Kalmuck Slave', published 1815. The face is rendered by 'stippling'.

General Wolfe and The Battle of La Hogue, both after Benjamin West; William Sharp (1749-1824), the last of the great copper-plate engravers, who executed many fine portraits after Reynolds and Romney and historical subjects. William blake was an engraver of peculiar merit in this period, for example his Illustrations of the Book of Job, which have rarely been surpassed in purity of line, harmony of composition and independence of convention, whether in design or execution. In the late 18th and 19th centuries the efforts to imitate tone and texture made by engravers like W. H. Simmons, Cooke, Goodall and others, using line in conjunction with other forms of engraving, produced marvels of technical virtuosity. By the middle of the 19th century, however, engraving as an original art form had virtually died out. Not until alternative methods of reproduction had become available did engraving grow anew as an original art medium. Artists of the 20th century who have found engraving an inspiring technique in which to work include Jean-Emile Labou-reur, Joseph Hecht and Stanley William Hayter, well-known for his work in colour as well as black-and-white. Picasso occasionally made prints solely for this medium but more often worked in a combination of techniques including engraving.


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