Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Vetusta Monumenta and Printmaking

Eighteenth-century printmaking techniques 

By Richard Goddard

The illustrations to volumes I-III of Vetusta Monumenta comprise large-scale, full-page copper-plate engravings which were issued separately, and later bound together in volumes with title pages. Copper-plate engraving was arguably the principal means by which high-quality images were reproduced and distributed from the early Renaissance until the beginning of the nineteenth century. As such, this print-making technique was instrumental in the relatively rapid and widespread sharing of visual information by the scientists and scholars of the Enlightenment, including the fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL).

Images and Text

A glance at the plates published in Vetusta Monumenta reveals that they contain not only images, but also limited amounts of text. It is therefore important to begin this summary of printmaking techniques in the eighteenth century by distinguishing copper-plate from the more familiar letterpress printing. Generally speaking, the text of books from the Renaissance onwards was printed from moveable and reusable letters cast from metal and placed in a frame. Pictures were most commonly and cheaply added to the text by placing carved wood blocks in the appropriate position alongside the letters in the same frame. In contrast to this, copper-plates engravings were printed on a completely different type of press, generally on a separate page, and then bound in with the letterpress pages by the bookbinder.

If publishers wished to combine text with the sort of high-quality images provided by copper-plate engraving, then there were two options. Text could be engraved onto the copper plate alongside the image, normally by a specialist writing engraver. This was a technique which was particularly favoured for ornamental writing styles used, for instance, in dedications to patrons. In the context of antiquarianism, including in Vetusta Monumenta, it was particularly useful for providing facsimiles of ancient inscriptions or manuscript calligraphy. The alternative technique was to leave space on the page printed with letterpress, and then to overprint this with an engraved copper plate cut to the size of the space left on the printed sheet. In the latter case, the technique is identifiable through the plate mark left by the pressure exerted by the rolling press which was used for copper-plate printing. 

Intaglio Engraving Techniques

The plates in the first three volumes of Vetusta Monumenta are engraved using three separate intaglio engraving techniques, line engraving, etching and, in one case, mezzotint. “Intaglio” refers to the process whereby lines, dots and rough patches are cut, scratched, scraped or bitten (by acid) into the copper plate. Ink is then dabbed onto the plate, any excess wiped off, and the plate is placed below a sheet of dampened paper on the press. The ink is then squeezed onto the paper by the downward pressure of the press. This is essentially the opposite of relief printing techniques, such as letterpress and woodcut printing. In relief printing, the ink is transferred to the paper from the ridges of the cast letters or wood block, as opposed to the recesses cut, scratched, scraped or bitten into the copper plate.

The choice of engraving technique or techniques to interpret any particular image depended on a number of factors, which could be technical, aesthetic or practical, including financial. Wood cuts tended not to be used for scholarly or scientific publications. They generally provided a less distinct line, and the wood blocks had an increased tendency to chip and break if they were too large. So-called “line engraving,” which was produced by pushing a sharpened metal tool called a burin or graver through the surface of the copper plate, was the most prestigious, time-consuming and expensive technique. It required many years of training, and was particularly recommended for generating crisp, straight or gently curving lines. It was therefore the preferred method for interpreting such subjects as architecture, metal surfaces, faces and drapery.

High-quality etching produces images which can be mistaken for those created by line engraving unless viewed with a magnifying glass, but uses a completely different technique. The engraver draws the image with an etching needle onto a layer of waxy varnish, or etching ground, which is evenly spread over the surface of the copper plate. A bath of nitric or hydrochloric acid then bites lines or dots into the copper plate where the varnish has been displaced. This technique requires much less specialist training than line engraving, but a very high degree of skill in drawing. It was used, for example, in the initial outlines of figures, and for complex combinations of wavy lines to depict trees, bushes and landscapes in general.

George Vertue, SAL’s first engraver, was a vociferous supporter of line engraving as opposed to etching, which he called “an invention for expedition.” A review of his work for Vetusta Monumenta, however, reveals that he combined both techniques in the same way as other contemporary English engravers with a similar level of training and resources. His use of etching is particularly obvious, for example, in the trees, foliage and small, incidental figures in the architectural prints. The reproductions of works of art, on the other hand, show his ability to deploy line engraving in the best French manner of the period. This is especially evident in his interpretations of The Horn of Ulf (Plate 1.2), the Portrait of Richard II (Plate 1.4) and the Bronze Head of Sulis Minerva (Plate 1.34). James Basire Sr. continued in a similar vein to Vertue, but generally had a more fluid drawing hand.

Mezzotint is a specialist technique of intaglio printmaking which differs significantly from engraving and etching both in its deployment and effect. The surface of the copper plate is first roughened by using a tool called a “rocker” and/or a roulette, so that it traps the ink and would print entirely in black, if not further processed. The plate is then scraped and burnished in order to create smoother areas which will retain less ink and therefore produce lighter effects when printed. Mezzotints are instantly recognisable because of their soft, tonal effects. They were not used for scholarly and scientific works which required more distinct lines. Mezzotints were most popular for the interpretation of painted portraits, such as James Watson’s print of Charles Lyttleton, Bishop of Carlisle and President of SAL, after a painting by Francis Cotes, which was published in the second volume of Vetusta Monumenta (Plate 2.28).

The Engraver’s Studio

The following etching of an engraver’s workshop published in the Universal Magazine in 1748 should help the reader visualize how the illustrations in the first three volumes of Vetusta Monumenta were made.

The gentleman on the left is producing a drawing for engraving. If there was no suitable drawing available, the engraver or one of his assistants would produce such a drawing of the relevant object, which could also be another drawing or a painting. In many cases, the engraver would need to re-size the source drawing and, preferably, also reverse it, so that it printed the same way round as the source object. The specially prepared drawing would usually be traced in outline onto the copper plate using needle pricks and/or chalk in order to ensure its accuracy.

In the above image, the engraver is sitting on the right in front of a screen, which is diffusing the daylight in order to avoid glare and provide an even spread of light on the copper plate. The plate is perched on a leather sandbag as, in many cases, the engraver moved the plate rather than the graver in order to produce evenly cut lines. Some of the engraver’s many tools lie on his desk. Others are shown at the bottom of the plate. The plaster models, books and tools behind the engraver demonstrate that he was ideally not only a skilled craftsman, but also an artist and a man of learning. This was certainly the case for George Vertue and James Basire Sr.

The engravers’ assistants could be apprentices, normally between the ages of 14 and 21 years, older journeymen, or family members, including wives, and children of both sexes. The two assistants shown here are engaged in two of the multiple technical activities required before and after the etching of plates by the engraver. The older assistant is blacking the etching ground on the plate with smoke from a candle, so that the engraver can more clearly see the copper emerge from beneath the displaced etching ground. The younger assistant is dipping the plate in a bath of acid or aqua fortis. The acid deepens the lines, which the engraver has cut into the plate through the ground. In a landscape print, the background was often bitten less than the foreground in order to create lighter lines which suggested distance. Such variable biting was achieved by masking or “stopping out” specific areas of the plate before subsequent acid baths.

The print above does not include a rolling or “star-wheel” press, but successful engravers would normally have such a press in their premises or available nearby. The proximity of a rolling press would enable engravers efficiently to pull a number of proofs of each print during every stage of its production in order to check the effects produced on the paper by engraving and the use of aqua fortis. In some cases, the engraver would also print the full set of plates for his client or patron as an additional professional service.

In order to visualize in more detail the process of engraving copper plates using different intaglio techniques, links to some selected short video demonstrations can be found at the end of the bibliography below.

Final Remarks

There was very little development in engraving techniques in the course of the eighteenth century, and the plates in Vetusta Monumenta demonstrate a sub-set of these, as appropriate to the nature of the objects illustrated and the artistic and practical choices made by the engravers. From the end of the eighteenth century, there was a rapid expansion in more efficient techniques for producing printed images, including lithography, zincography, engraving on steel plates, and ultimately, photography. It was photography which finally replaced copper-plate engraving in illustrations published by SAL, but only in the early 1860s.

General Bibliography:

“Account of the curious Art of Engraving, Etching, and Cutting in Wood.” 1748. Universal Magazine III (October): 178-183. (See the plate facing p. 178)

Clayton, Timothy. 1997. The English Print, 1688-1802. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Goddard, Richard. 2016. “Drawing on Copper.” The Basire Family of Copper-Plate Engravers and their Works. Maastricht.

Griffiths, Antony. 2016. The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking 1550 – 1820. London: The British Museum Press.

Myrone, Martin. 1999. “Graphic antiquarianism in eighteenth-century Britain: the career and reputation of George Vertue.” In Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice 1700–1850, edited by Martin Myrone and Lucy Peltz. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Online resources:

The Library of Congress. "Printmaking Processes: a Webliography."

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