The Print before Photography: ‘The Technology and its Implications’

A student’s review of Antony Griffiths’s first Slade Lecture

By Emily Knight

Abraham Bosse, Intaglio Printing, 1642  © Trustees of the British Museum

Abraham Bosse, Intaglio Printing, 1642 © Trustees of the British Museum

A “tiny backwater sandwiched between…art history and that of printed books”; the European print is the focus of this year’s Slade Lectures by Antony Griffiths. The aim of the series is to provide a framework for understanding and interpreting the European print, not as an early photograph but as a work of art in its own right. As the former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum rightly stated, the European print is little taught at universities, consigning it to the preserve of academics and specialised collectors. This prestigious lecture series will hopefully go some way to addressing this lack in art education and encourage a new generation of scholars to direct their attention more fully to this vital and expansive aspect of European visual culture.

Griffiths began the lecture by giving an overview of the history of printmaking in Europe, referring to the developments of various printing techniques and the commercial aspects of their production. Acknowledging and explaining the complex technical processes and confusing terminology associated with prints, he provided the audience with a necessary and clear introduction to the lecture series. Rather than focusing on the changes that took place in the development of the European print, he has structured his lectures around various continuities drawing examples largely from the British Museum, some which had fittingly been owned by Felix Slade (after whom the Slade Lectures are named).

Antoine Masson, Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, known as "le Cadet la Perle”, after Nicolas Mignard, 1667.

Antoine Masson, Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, known as “le Cadet la Perle”, after Nicolas Mignard, 1667. © Trustees of the British Museum

The main body of the lecture centred on the technology of printmaking and the astounding manual dexterity of the most skilful engravers. This was perfectly illustrated by Antoine Masson’s Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, known as “le Cadet la Perle”, after Nicolas Mignard. Using close-ups of the print, Griffiths demonstrated the precision of lines and diverse effects made possible by the expert engraver and his burin, contrasting these to the pixilation of digital images. He compellingly argued that no skill has been so completely overlooked in recent art history and it is vital that due attention is paid. Griffiths made a point of distinguishing the techniques of engraving and etching, the latter so often subsumed by the use of ‘engraving’ as an umbrella term. Etching was a more accessible technique available to the gentleman amateur, whereas engraving was a highly skilled and refined technique that required a lengthy apprenticeship.

Despite this, Griffiths interestingly explained how present scholarship favours etching over engraving, the latter having been assimilated with photography due to the fact that engravings were often made after Old Master paintings. This, he persuasively argued, ignores the skill and creativity of engravers. Furthermore, before 1800, when the public had little access to these sorts of paintings, people did not consider engravings as mere substitutes but as works of art in their own right. This has resulted in a complete misrepresentation of the print. It will be intriguing to discover more about the status of the print with regards to debates about originality and copying as the lecture series progresses.

It was fascinating to discover more about the economics of the print business, such as the issue of copper plates wearing down over time, therefore limiting the total number of impressions; an issue which Griffiths will focus on in his third lecture. He also touched upon the personal exchange of prints and it will be interesting to discover how they were circulated outside of the trade.

As Griffiths demonstrated, the complexities of print scholarship – the lack of signatures on prints, the softening of images as the plate wears out, the subtle differences in printing techniques – make it a challenging field for researchers, let alone an unspecialised audience. Griffiths’s erudite, thoughtfully structured and expertly illustrated lecture was a comprehensive and clear introduction to this area of art history. The rest of the lecture series promises to be a rare and fascinating insight, particularly for history of art students, into this overlooked aspect of visual culture.

The next seven lectures in the Slade Lecture Series ‘The Print Before Photography: The European print in the age of the copper plate and wooden block’ given by Antony Griffiths will be taking place in the Andrew Wiles Building in the Mathematical Institute on Wednesdays at 5pm during Hilary Term. For more details please click Slade Lectures 2015.

Antony Griffiths

Antony Griffiths

Emily Knight completed her Masters in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford (2012). She is continuing her postgraduate studies within the History of Art Department working toward her DPhil. 

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