Week 5: Printing from a copperplate press

A few weeks back I wrote a post on analysing copperplate impressions of satirical prints. I’ve always been interested in the idea that I could ‘date’ when an impression was made within a print cycle from the quality of the reproduction, but have never felt totally confident doing so as I had never seen the process in action. I’m pleased to report this has now changed.

Following a kind invitation, on Monday I visited the workshop of the artist Anthony Dyson in Teddington. Those interested in reproductions of art in the nineteenth century will – I expect – be well aware of Anthony’s work, in particular his marvellous Pictures to Print (1985), which is still – in my opinion – the richest survey of the engraving trade at this time. As Anthony repeatedly pointed out to me, the process of printing from engraved copperplates he intimately describes in Pictures to Print has changed little since the first half of the long-nineteenth century. This did not mean – I repeated – that I understood it any better from reading (and rereading) his description. To both see this process and – rather excitingly – have a go at it myself, has therefore proven of huge benefit to my understanding of how the satirical prints I am researching were made.

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So, how did I make the above print? (for those of you who are interested, it is from an original plate by Anthony called ‘Dry Dock‘) I don’t have any photos from the day (which as Saskia pointed out to me serves to demonstrate once more that I am not an anthropologist… ) so those wishing to visualise the process will have to consult the technical drawings of the seventeenth century French etcher/engraver Abraham Bosse (useful links – here, here, here, and here). Instead, I’m keen to describe the process using as few technical terms as possible, because that is how I remember the experience of ‘the doing’. So here goes:

  • First prepare high quality rag pulp paper the previous day by running water across the surface as each sheet then carefully stacking the paper.
  • Heat the engraved/etched copperplate a little to help the ink run into the crevices. This is essential in the winter as if the plate is too cold it could crack in the printing.
  • Take some thick and sticky black ink (the texture was much thicker than I expected), and smear some of this on a flat surface with a palette knife.
  • Get some ink on a roller (in the eighteenth century this would have been a dabber), then roll it out on a flat surface to make the ink even across the roller
  • Using the roller spread the ink across the plate (this required more pressure than I expected).
  • Clean the plate first with a dirty loose weave cloth, then a cleaner loose weave cloth, and finally the ball of your hand (though your skin must chalked up a little first so any oil on your hand does not transfer to the plate). The purpose of this is to remove ink from the plain areas of the plate (those intended to be white areas) whilst at the same time working the ink into the engraved and etched lines (the darker areas). After this Antony recommended I use a chalked finger to tidy up the open spaces on the plate and alter areas of fine detail (such as the clouds – you can see on the close up images that I didn’t do this very well).
  • When satisfied, place the plate (engraved side up) onto the centre of the plank which runs across the press (underneath which is some thick woolen cloth), carefully place the pre-wetted paper onto the plate, and then put some grease proof paper on top of that.
  • The plank runs between two cylindrical rollers with enough clearance between them for the plank, the woolen cloth (which the top roller is also wrapped in), the plate, and the paper.
  • Turning the wheel at the side of the press pulls the plank through gap between the two rollers. At point at which plate goes through the gap the turning gets really heavy, but a steady rhythm must be maintained to ensure the plate is not damaged and the impression is transferred evenly.
  • Finally, once the plate emerges from between the rollers, the woolen cloth now on top of the plate is removed and the moist paper carefully lifted from the plate, placed on a flat surface with blotting paper on top, and weighed down to remove any indentations. The blotting paper is changed within an hour, then two or three further times in the next twelve hours for the best possible finish. Each time this is done unwanted marks can be removed by carefully blotting out excess ink on the paper.

You then have a copperplate impression (I don’t think I’ve missed anything out).

I took two main lessons from this experience. First, the time consuming complexity of printing just a single object (Antony estimates it takes him 15 minutes per plate) reinforces the notion that significant labour costs went into producing satirical prints. Second, the number of processes involved in making each print made me question the meaning of the word ‘reproduction’ in an eighteenth century context. For us a ‘reproduction’ is an object that can be identically reproduced, but – as Tony stated – when using copperplate “every print is unique” due the human agency (and error) involved at every stage of the process. I had in a recent post for The Comics Grid questioned the notion of their being canonical versions of printed works from this period. My thoughts in this regard have only been reinforced by having replicated the process of printing an eighteenth century copperplate design.


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