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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Steel engraving

Steel engraving of a view of a château, seen across a river with a bridgeSteel engraving of Château of AmboiseFrom the 1820s steel replaced copper as the primary metal from which engraved plates were made for commercial use. It was first introduced in 1792 by the American inventor Jacob Perkins (1766-1849) for printing banknotes. After only a few hundred impressions, the delicate lines on a copper plate showed signs of deterioration and required retouching or repair.

Steel was a harder metal and the printer could take thousands of impressions without any signs of wear. Although the softness in copper made the plate easier to cut, the harder medium of steel allowed the engraver to cut lines closer together and to attain finer detail.

The illustration shown here was engraved on steel by James Baylis Allen (1803-76) after a drawing by the renowned landscape painter and water-colourist JMW Turner (1775-1851). From the 1830s all Turner’s smaller prints were engraved on steel and his fame spread throughout Europe and America during this age of Romanticism thanks to the commercial reproductions of his work.

The illustration, ‘Château of Amboise’, was made for Turner’s famous Rivers of France series of the 1830s, first published in three volumes in 1833-5. Those plates became the best known prints after the artist. The edition on display was published in 1853. It came to King’s in 1996 as part of a collection of post-1850 books from Sion College Library.

During the 18th century the techniques of etching and engraving were combined to create line engraving. The development made commercial work quicker and easier;  preliminary lines could be filled in quickly through etching, while areas of detail and tone were added with the engraver’s tools, the burin and drypoint (a steel needle similar to an etcher’s needle but used without acid).

Turner understood the engraver’s art well, having worked as a boy in the workshop of John Raphael Smith, a mezzotint engraver, and he carefully supervised the engravers of his prints. While he also employed mezzotint, the technique of line engraving on steel enabled him to translate effectively the essence and luminosity of his landscapes into black and white.

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