Engravings – A Short Introduction

 

Naturally, before we can start talking about forming a collection of engravings, we need to start from the ground up. What is the process of engraving and what does it represent? Simply stated, engraving is the art of cutting wood, metals or precious stones and representing a design on the face of any of these mediums to later be reproduced on paper or other suitable material. This definition gives us a reflection of the engraving technique, but if we are thinking on a higher level, we may ask ourselves what is the purpose of making these impressions, is it aesthetic/decorative, or still pragmatic? What are the origins of such delicate process?

There is no doubt that engravings have been in vogue from a very early date. Roots of the engraving art can be found in ancient civilizations: for Greeks and Romans it was very common to engrave their laws and important contracts on metal plates. But there is more than that. The ancients didn’t only make the first step; they have thoroughly mastered the details in process of engraving, leaving numerous superior designs on metal and precious stones. So we can only wonder how didn’t they take that last step and transfer impressions to papyrus, linen, or even the hard waxen tablets. That step, which ancients have neglected, was not taken at all, as far as we know, up until middle of 15th century.

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A modern reproduction of the cards by Jost Amman from the year 1588.

Of all the methods of engraving in its more extended sense, the ones in the wood are the oldest. For these engravings, we are indebted to the German card-painters, who were not only focusing their attention onto playing cards, but frequently executed the images of saints, and depicted the various subjects related to ancient history.  These impressions were afterwards taken from the block, leading to the idea about block books and perhaps supplying Guttenberg with the first ideas on typographical art. The earliest dated print is known as Brussels Print and it dates from 1418. Still, its authenticity is much doubted and therefore, this print is often overlooked. First dated and truly genuine print is known as St. Christopher.  Dating from 1423, this print is still preserved in the Carthusian Convent at Buxheim. The block from which the impressions were taken is wooden and made by already mentioned German card painters. It depicts the image of infant Christ being carried across the sea by St. Christopher.

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The Brussels Print, 1418. Hand colored from the time of print.

The invention of printing significantly accelerated the development of the engraving art, as woodcuts were used in the embellishment of books almost from the start. As the number of books was increasing, the practice of engraving was becoming more general. The earliest known engravers were Schapff and Jacob Walsh who flourished during 1450’s.  The art which dates from the middle of the fifteenth century, and which is almost coeval with the invention of printing, includes not only the science of engraving practiced, but also the process of taking impressions from engraved plates upon paper or other suitable substances.

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A leaf from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia depicting Belgrade (or Greiches Weissenburg in German, Alba Graeca in Latin). Hand colored, mid 16th century.

 

We do not want to consider subject of the engraving history further than to point out few basic principles. Consider this as introduction to the world of engravings and prints. Stay with us as we will be talking about more interesting moments and techniques of engraving art.

 

Mилош Станковић
Мiloš Stanković

 

Picture of Cosmografia from private collection.
Picture of Jost Amman’s cards taken from The World of Cards – http://www.wopc.co.uk/
Picture of the Brussels print from The History of Information http://www.historyofinformation.com/

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