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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

West's guide to the Lakes

Aquatint is an intaglio technique. Like mezzotint, it is a tonal technique but while mezzotint is a method of engraving, aquatint is a method of etching. Aquatint became popular in England for illustrating landscapes from 1770 until 1830 and was used to imitate the appearance of a watercolour wash, hence its name.

The technique was brought into vogue by the engraver and painter Paul Sandby (1731?-1809) who published a series of aquatint views of Wales in the mid-1770s. In the following decades artists and travellers flocked to Wales in search of the romantic and the picturesque. The technique was widely used to illustrate the numerous topographical colour-plate books published in Britain between 1790 and 1830.

The technique involved fusing a coating of fine particles of resin to the copper plate. The plate was then etched in the usual manner described in case 3. The particles of resin resisted the acid, which bit around them creating small pools of lines. Under magnification tonal areas reveal a twisting network of fine black lines around small pockets of white. This enlarged detail reproduced from Johnson’s Journey from India to England (1818) reveals the characteristic aquatint grain.

View of Grasmere lake surrounded by hills, with people, animals and a house on the shore in foreground, illustrated using the aquatint techniqueView of Grasmere, illustrated using the aquatint techniqueIt was customary to print a landscape illustration in pure aquatint before a team of trained colourists added colour by hand. The first item in this case, West’s Guide to the lakes, in Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire provides an example. The second item, however, Johnson’s Journey from India to England, conveys how well the aquatint plate could replicate the tone of a watercolour even without additional colouring. To aid the colourists aquatint plates were often inked up and printed in two colours (à la poupée) using pale blue for the sky and brown elsewhere. The colourist could then complete the colouring by hand.

This is the 11th edition of a Guide to the lakes, in Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire by Thomas West (1720?-79), first published in 1778. Numerous editions of the work contributed to the popularity of the district and West’s introduction of suggested vantage points or ‘stations’ for the traveller broke new ground.

The second and later editions included a copperplate frontispiece engraving of a view of Grasmere after the landscape painter John Feary (d 1788). The hand-coloured frontispiece to this 11th edition, however, was engraved in aquatint by the firm of R Havell & Son, who specialised in producing lavish series of aquatints in the early 19th century.

Robert Havell (1769-1832) and his son Robert Havell junior (1793-1878) were members of the Havell family of artists, engravers and publishers. The firm’s most celebrated commission was a series of ornithological aquatint plates to illustrate John James Audubon’s Birds of America, published in parts between 1827 and 1838. The project was completed under Robert Havell junior, following his father’s death in 1832, and established his reputation as master of the aquatint technique.

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