THE ART OF ENGRAVING
This short essay by Marian Maguire accompanies a display of antique engravings from her collection, that are on show in the back hallway, for the duration of the LAST JUDGEMENT exhibition.
Engraving differs from etching, where acid does the work of cutting a groove through metal, and drypoints, where the lines are scratched into the plate’s surface raising a burr. The engraved line is carved into the plate (usually copper) with a fine, sharp chisel, called a burin. Curls of metal roll away as the burin gouges the surface, although ‘gouge’ doesn’t seem the right word, it’s too inelegant and, in its heyday, engraving was anything but that. Tonal areas were created by carving parallel lines; sometimes straight, sometimes curved, evenly uniform, very controlled. Even the lightest of grey areas were made this way. Textures were evoked by carving wavy, hatched, dotted or interrupted lines. In a feat of virtuosity some portraits were produced by carving a single line that spiraled from the point of the nose outwards, swelling and tapering, thick then thin, across the skin, eyes, costume of some wigged nobleman or other. I write this in the past tense because one may now say, with some degree of certainty, that the art of metal plate engraving is dead; no one can do it anymore. Thiscomes as no surprise to me. Engraving is extraordinarily difficult. I occasionally employ a burin on my etching plates when a weak line needs some reinforcement but I must take extreme care. The burin has a habit of digging in then skidding off at a tangent and I run the risk of ruining the plate and all my work so far.
Engraving was first adapted for use in the print industry back in the 1400’s and soon overtook woodblock printing for book illustration particularly. It wasn’t long before nearly every type of image that needed to be dispersed was printed from an engraved metal plate. Technical manuals, medical books, musical scores, historical scenes, portraits of important personages, maps, images from voyages to far off lands, exotic animals, anything. It was also used for single sheet reproductions of art works: the Ghisi print being an early example. It wasn’t until the invention of stone lithography (my own trade) in 1798 that the dominance of engraving was challenged. By the end of the nineteenth century both engraving and stone lithography had been made obsolete in the commercial sphere, having been supplanted by photomechanical processes. And while stone lithography, like etching and woodcut, has continued to be used as an art medium engraving did not survive into the twentieth century. Too time consuming, it could not compete. Once engravers stopped training apprentices it disappeared.
Having spent my much of my career printing the work of other artists I have always had great respect for the professional engravers of the old days. My role is different, as it is the artist I work with who draw on the stones and plates to make original work directly in the print medium, whereas the engravers were reproducing existing drawings or paintings. Some were fine draftsman. It is hard for us, in the digital era, to imagine sitting in front of a painting and redrawing it without resorting to a camera. They would have really had to study it, investigate its structure, be intimate with its detail; know how they were going to interpret it, before the burin touched the plate.
Over the years I’ve collected a lot of engravings and have pulled a few out to accompany this show. The ones with the lines further apart are generally earlier, mostly eighteenth century, the very fine-lined ones with lots of textural variation are nineteenth century. The Ghisi engraving of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is the oldest piece in my collection and the most ambitious in scale. I think about what the life of the Ghisi engraving might have been before it came to me and wonder if other artists have looked at this particular impression over the past 450 years. And I wonder if, through it, they were able to gain the only glimpse possible to them of Michelangelo’s incredible fresco in the Sistine Chapel. One forgets that before photography was invented if you wanted to see a painting you had to stand in front of it and soak it up with your eyes. Engravings allowed the composition, the symbology, the light and shade of a work to travel and be discussed, studied and learned from. I often think about the engravers and imagine one working in his loft, near a window for light, bent to his task, eyes straining to focus on the point of contact between burin and plate. I think about all his hard, good work and am grateful.