In earlier blogs I talked about different print processes, including those which fall into the category of intaglio prints, that is prints where the image is printed from a recessed design incised or etched into the surface of a plate. In an intaglio print the ink lies below the surface of the plate and is transferred to the paper under pressure. One of the most common types of intaglio print is an engraving, where the image was cut into the metal plate by use of a pointed tool called a graver or burin. Engraving was one of the first forms of print making, with the earliest engravings issued in the fifteenth century.
At first engravings were made from copper plates. Copper is quite malleable and so it was relatively easy to work the image into the plate with the burin and also not too difficult to flatten out the surface when a correction needed to be made. The problems for printmakers in using copper, however, were several. It was a relatively expensive metal, the softness of copper limited the fineness of line which could be achieved, the softness also limited the number of impressions which could be run off before the image quality deteriorated to an unacceptable extent, and there was a limit to how big a plate it was possible to use on a printing press.
All of these problems were solved when a process of working in steel was developed in the early nineteenth century. When compared to copper, steel was less expensive, a finer line could be achieved, huge numbers of impressions could be run off without loss of quality, and the stiffness of the plates allowed for much larger prints to be created. Steel, of course, had its own problems, the primary one being that it was difficult to work.
An American inventor, Jacob Perkins first developed a process of steel engraving for use in banknote printing. His process was a success and he was invited to England to help produce steel engraved banknotes in 1819. At the end of that year, Perkins, and his partner Gideon Fairman, were joined by Charles Heath, the Engraver to King George II. Heath, who was known for his engraved book illustrations, realized the potential of steel engraving, and in 1820 he produced the first steel engraved book plates for Thomas Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope.
Other engravers soon began to work in and make improvements in steel engraving, including Charles Warren, William Say, and John Thomas Lupton. In 1822, Lupton produced a mezzotint portrait of the comedian Joseph Munden on steel, for which he was awarded the Isis Gold Medal of the Society of Arts. The process which evolved was for the engraving to be made on a steel that had been annealed to soften it (creating what is called mild steel), and then subsequently the plate was rehardened so that prints could be run off in the thousands without wear. Improvements continued to be made, including the development of ruling machines which allowed for the mechanical production of fine lines over a large area of the plate.