Skip to main content
Grolier Club Exhibitions

Printing Surfaces - Intaglio

Intaglio printing surfaces—such as engraved copper plates—began to be used in the 15th century. They carry texts and images incised into their surfaces that, when pulled though a press, sit on top of substrates. Why are these processes important? Understanding how books are made can reveal much about when they were made and where they came from.

Abraham Bosse. Traicté des manieres de graver en taille douce sur l’airin. Paris: Chez ledit Bosse, en l’Isle du Palais, à la Rozerouge, deuant la Megisserie, 1645.

Gift of Jeremy Norman.

Abraham Bosse (1604–1676), a French Huguenot artist and printmaker, was a prolific and skilled etcher whose Traicté des manieres de graver (1645) was the first European manual on intaglio printmaking. Bosse describes the following etching process, step by step, including how to immerse the plate in an acid bath (as shown in the image here). This illustration also reminds us of the prevalence of children as workers in the hand-press period (and indeed, for long afterwards).

Fragment of engraved copper plate with 1674 John Ogilby map on recto and right-reading text and heraldic images on verso. London: [n.p.], ca. 1698.

Gift of Terry Belanger.

This modest fragment of copper plate bears a portion of a cartouche of the map of Ipswich completed under the supervision of John Ogilby (1600–1676) in 1674 and finally published in 1698. The map of Ipswich was part of his ambitious and uncompleted project to map all of Britain, which took on the form of his Britannia (1675), the first modern European road map. The reverse side of the copper plate was used by an apprentice to practice engraving heraldic coats of arms, capitals, and round hand.

Jacques Daran. Observations chirurgicales sur les maladies de l’urèthre, traitées suivant une nouvelle méthode. Paris: De Bure, 1748.

In the early 1700s, the engraver Jacob Christophe Le Blon (1667–1741) devised a three-color and four-color printing technique using mezzotint engraving and blue-, yellow-, red-, and black-inked plates. Jacques Gautier (later known as Gautier d’Agoty, 1717–1785) briefly worked as an assistant to Le Blon. When Le Blon died, Gautier acquired his royal privilege for color printing and began claiming that it was he who had invented the four-color printing technique. His royal privilege gave him the exclusive right to produced color prints in anatomy, botany, and natural history.

William Cooke’s Medallic History of Imperial Rome. London: James Dodsley, 1781. Etched copper printing plate, ca. 1781; used to print illustration in Cooke’s Medallic History of Imperial Rome.

This intaglio copper plate is one from a larger set that was used to print illustrations of coins accompanying William Cooke’s Medallic History of Imperial Rome (1781). Published after the death of the author, the illustrations were etched rather than engraved. Etching required less skill and was less time consuming than engraving. One of the 15 copper plates from RBS’s set continues to be printed successfully to this day as part of a hands-on demonstration for RBS’s course, “The Illustrated Scientific Book to 1800,” taught by Caroline Duroselle-Melish and Roger Gaskell.

Friedrich von der Trenck. La vie de Frédéric, Baron de Trenck, traduite de l’Allemand, par M. Le Tourneur. . . . Berlin and Anvers: C. N. Spanoghe, 1788. Purchased with funds donated by Peter Drummey.

RBS owns two of four copper printing plates created to illustrate a 1788 edition of the adventures of the Prussian Baron Friedrich von der Trenck (1726–1794). RBS faculty use these printing surfaces to teach students how to distinguish engraving from etching. By examining the lower left-hand corner of this particular printing plate, produced for the frontispiece of volume four of the book, one can observe the difference between the heavy, blunt lines of etching and smoothly tapered lines of engraving.

Samuel Alken Jr. and Thomas Sutherland. “A noted Oyster Room near the Theatres—Time 3 o’Clock in the Morning.” London: Thomas Kelly, 1823, with the plate used to print it. Purchased with funds donated by Florence Fearrington through the good offices of Terry Belanger.

Like mezzotint, aquatint is an intaglio printing process in which the surface of the printing plate is distressed to achieve gradations of tone. To identify an aquatint, one looks for different levels of graining in the image caused by various levels of etching; the grain will appear as small islands of white in a black sea. RBS owns a set of eight steel-faced copper aquatinted plates “engraved” by Thomas Sutherland from drawings by the British sporting artist Samuel Alken Jr. (1784–1825), who specialized in hunting and sporting scenes.

The Works of Shakespeare. New York: Leavitt & Allen Brothers, n.d. [ca. 1870]; Steel-faced printing plates corresponding with the Leavitt & Allen edition. N.d.

This steel-faced printing plate illustrates a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as it appeared in a 19th-century edition of Shakespeare. Steel engraving began to be used in book illustration during the first quarter of the 19th century with the increased demand for affordable books from a growing literate public. By 1858, copper plates could be engraved and then electroplated with a thin coating of iron—a process referred to as “steel-facing,” which saved time and cost by readily allowing the surfaces of plates to be renewed when the coating wore down.