Simanaitis Says

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IMAGES SHARED before photography were typically prints of one sort or another. As its name suggests, a woodblock print has its image chiseled into the block. An intaglio print is incised into a copper plate, either engraved with a burin, a tool to define the image, or etched, with acid eating away the unwanted portions of the plate. Later processes, mezzotint and aquatint, gave variations in tone.

I learned this, and more, from the article “Rub Gently Out With Stale Bread,” by Adam Smyth in the London Review of Books, November 2, 2017. Smyth reviews The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking 1550-1820, by Anthony Griffiths, British Museum, 2016. I cannot speak firsthand about this 560-page tome, but Smyth’s review certainly was replete with tidbits. (The “Stale Bread”? It was used as an eraser.)

Smyth quotes seventeenth-century Dutch art theorist Willem Goeree on the fact that prints “journey to all corners of the world and fall into the hands of all art lovers, while the paintings remain in one place.”

Willem Barentsz, c. 1550–1597, Dutch navigator, cartographer, and Arctic explorer.

Indeed, in 1596, Willem Barentsz (he, of the Barents Sea off northern Scandinavia) went searching for a new trade route to Russia. His ship got trapped in the ice; Barentsz and his crew wintered on the island of Nova Zembla. Once weather permitted, they returned to the Netherlands, though leaving scads of cargo behind. Rediscovered in the nineteenth-century, 400 prints of 150 plates were an artistic treasure trove.

Elizabeth Chudleigh, eighteenth-century con woman, was the subject of this print.

Prints got caught up in social satire as well as politics, with caricatures being only one example. Smyth tells a tale of artful political recycling: “Pierre Lombart issued an engraving in 1655 of Oliver Cromwell, splendid in armour on horseback. Times changed. The head was removed and replaced with Louis XIV’s; then the head was switched back to Cromwell’s, then to Charles I’s, and finally—collectors now interested in the fluctuations of Lombart’s ‘Headless Horseman’—back to Cromwell’s again. The shifting fortunes of monarch and republicanism can be seen in these polished-down and re-engraved plates.”

In fact, publishers kept generic engravings of battles, coronations, funerals, and other processions, all the better to adapt them speedily to print needs of the day.

Plates could be destroyed too: Gaspard Duchange (1652–1757) produced erotica based on Correggio’s paintings of Jupiter pursuing Io, Danaë, and Leda. (Smut had real class in those days.) Later ashamed of it all, he defaced the plates with deep gashes of the burin.

In the early 1790s, a British ambassador on his way to China stopped in Rio de Janeiro. He found “the shops of Rio were full of Manchester manufactures and other British goods, even to English prints, both serious and caricature.” This was especially surprising in that British trade in South America was not officially sanctioned until 1796.

Not that printmaking was an instant means to wealth. Smyth tells of John Sartain, 1808–1897, who was one of the pioneers in developing mezzoprint engraving: Sartain “struggled for work and for some time could only secure employment engraving names on dog collars.”

Prints pasted on walls became fashionable parts of interior decor. Decoupage (from the French, découper, to cut out) evolved into a hobby with the prints applied to furniture and furnishings as well.

Which brings me to grangerizing. James Granger wrote A Biographical History of England, from Egbert the Great to the Revolution, Consisting of Characters Disposed in Different Classes, 1769. Notes Smyth, “By taxonomising history into ‘a Methodical Catalogue of Engraved British Heads,’ with blank leaves awaiting printed illustrations, Granger’s work initiated a fashion for interleaving books with printed portraits.”

Title page of Granger’s A Biographical History of England, 5th edition, 1824. Image by Zippymarmalade.

One example of grangerizing, assembled between 1795 and 1829, involved disbounding a three-volume history, interspersing thousands of prints, and ending up with 55 volumes. If you wish to see the result, it’s in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

Smyth quotes twentieth-century bibliographer Holbert Jackson who described grangerizing as “giddy-headed” and “singularly perverted… a furious perturbation to be closely observed and radically treated wherever it appears.”

I don’t know that I feel all that strongly, but I guess I know what he means. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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