King's College London
Online Exhibitions
From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Woodcut and engraving compared

Title page with engraved printer's markTitle page with engraved printer's mark Title page with woodcut printer's markTitle page with woodcut printer's markIn the first part of this exhibition we examined the woodcut, a relief process. Here we introduce the copperplate engraving, which belongs to the second basic printmaking process, intaglio. Intaglio is an Italian term meaning to incise or engrave. For an intaglio illustration the areas to be printed are hollowed out of a metal plate, usually copper.

Engravings, etchings, mezzotints and aquatints are all intaglio techniques. The earliest dated engraving on copper dates from 1446. During the late 15th century artists in Germany, most notably Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), pushed the technique to new heights and copperplate engravings began to feature as book illustrations.

The engraver used a burin, or graver, to gouge out the areas to be printed from the copper plate, a technique which produced lines with crisp edges. Each line usually had a taper at one end from where the burin was lifted gradually to the surface of the copper to end the stroke. A deeper stroke produced a wider line, creating a sculptural effect.

Illustrations made using an intaglio process were printed on a separate press to the letterpress. The plate was inked and then wiped clean, leaving the ink to penetrate the incised lines only. The rolling press applied considerable pressure to force the ink out of the recessed lines and onto the dampened paper, resulting in a visible plate-mark. The process wore a copper plate down quite quickly, however, and each plate could only produce a limited amount of impressions.

This two-volume work contains letters of King Henry IV of France and others to the French ambassador to England, Antoine Le Fèvre de La Boderie. The volumes were once owned by the Empress Maria Feodorovna (1759-1828), consort of Tsar Paul I of Russia, and bear her gilt-tooled armorial crest on the binding. They are included here to make a useful comparison between an engraving (seen in volume 1) and a woodcut (seen in volume 2).

The title page of volume 1 bears an engraved printer’s mark or device. Printers used such a mark to accompany the imprint details of a book, a practice which flourished from the 15th century until its decline towards the end of the 17th century.

The abbreviation ‘sc’ (meaning ‘carved’) identifies M Pool as the engraver. The title page of volume 2 bears the same device in woodcut.

A comparison of the two devices shows clearly that the engraved printer’s device produces finer detail and reveals the impression of the plate-mark. The woodcut device is cruder in appearance, and, as it was printed in relief at the same level as the metal type, bears no mark of the wood-block.

Printing in red and black was more expensive than printing in black alone and including the engraved device, requiring a separate passage through a rolling press, added further time and expense to the process. The printer here apparently chose to incur this additional cost for the title page of the first volume only.

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