I have several files on several devices entitled ‘pretty pictures’. That is, early modern pictures. Lots of these are paintings, some manuscript illuminations, and some from printed books. I have to admit: I’ve never really thought about what the differences between them are, how they were made, how to tell the one kind from another.

That’s why I’m glad that I had a chance to learn about illustrations in early printed books at a workshop organized by my dear friend and colleague Maria Shmygol at Geneva yesterday.                  

Forget about all those women with unshaved armpits. Here’s your original hairy 
lady from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Maria had invited a very special guest, fabulous Erin Blake from the Folger Library. Erin gave us a practical introduction into the different kinds of images in books, and a lecture on Shakespeare illustrations through the ages. I came away with a head full of new words and knowledge, so this is going to be a long one, but bear with me.

In the morning, we had a fantastic practical session in a lovely room of Geneva’s main library. Erin had brought original images from the sixteenth century onwards all across the pond, so that we could have a look at all those pretty woodblocks, engravings, and etchings.

The most important thing to distinguish all those techniques and their effects is whether the picture came about through being a relief (pressing an inked block of wood on paper), or intaglio (pressing paper onto a piece of metal with ink-filled incisions. Itaglio is Italian and means ‘cut in’ but it’s not only engraving which is intaglo, so better stick with the Italian.

Another difference is whether pictures are hand or machine-made, and it’s extraordinary to consider just how recently machines have taken over what has been made by hand for thousands of years. I guess, for better or worse, that recent machinization relates to lots of things today…

I also didn’t know how expensive illustrations were, and just how very much craft they required. I’ve never taken into consideration, for instance, that you’ve got to cut trees in order to have woodblocks, and have people dig up the earth in mines in order to get to the copper. Engaging with the several illustration techniques made me realize that we shouldn’t take anything for granted.


So the first technique we looked at were woodcuts, an aesthetic I am most familiar with, I think, having looked at these for years and years now. My world history stops around 1680, everything after that is too young for me! Woodcuts are relatively recognizable once you know, but they can become quite intricate, and perhaps seduce you into thinking it’s an engraving (which allowed for finer outlines), so we learnt a trick: you can definitely tell you’ve got a woodcut in front of you if there are white lines anywhere. That’s when the wood has cracked and not taken the ink. Woodcut blocks were used until they fell apart, so a block with a crack would not be thrown out straightaway.


Another good advice was that engraving usually has a fine edge running all around the image. That’s where metal met paper. Engraving was done by incising a thin copper plate with a sharp instrument. Against expectations, the plate was moved while the instrument was held still. It was slow and laborious, and required expertly skilled craftsmen (and women? Who knows). Once you got your design on the plate, you ink it, rub the ink off carefully, cover it with a sheet of paper and put it into a rolling press which exerts more pressure than the usual hand press.


Engraving and etching works in the same way once the lines are in the metal (so it’s also an intaglio technique), but the way to get there is different: you apply varnish to a plate as protective shield. Then you scratch your design into the varnish, taking it away, and exposing the copper where you want to. The plate then gets dipped into acid which eats into the lines you scraped off while leaving the varnished metal intact. If you want bigger black lines on your print, you apply stopping-out liquid (another kind of protective varnish) onto the already etched lines while leaving those you want blacker. Then bathe it in acid again, and there you go. Etching is faster and freer than engraving, and allowed a different kind of curly aesthetic which I find quite attractive. Erin had brought some nice landscapes and country houses, with beautiful wriggly clouds. A trick how to tell your image is an etching and not an engraving is to see if the ends of lines are round. Etching instruments do not produce sharp ends.


Mezzotint is another intaglio method where you work the surface of the metal, roughing it up with this scraper tool and punching lots of little grooves into it. These cavities would hold the ink, so the more and the deeper they are, the darker the print. If you wanted it lighter, you’d burnish the holes away, leaving a smoother surface from which the ink would be wiped. Mezzotint makes lovely shadows and gradations of grey, and was used in mid to late-seventeenth-century portrait illustrations. It’s hard and laborious, and the plates were not very durable, but it served the zeitgeist well, what with all the cavaliers and budding personal history novels (thinking of Clarissa, but that’s later, of course).

Often you’d have a mixing of techniques, for example of mezzotint for some nice shading, and engraving for a clear outline. That was not an issue for people back then, though it makes categorizing prints hard for today’s archivists!


Aquatint worked sort of similarly as etching, but you sprinkle resin on the areas that you want un-incised, and then dip it into acid again. As with mezzotint, the English took and developed the technique producing lots of portraits and landscape paintings with more continuous shades of grey.


Lithography means writing with a stone, so you’d have your big smooth slab of special stone, draw the design with greasy crayons, then etch that away, slightly burning the lines into the stone which would then hold the ink. This was a relatively cheap useful technique as the big stone plates were easily smoothed off for a new design. The library of Geneva happened to have a litographic stone there, a total first for me! The last design was still on it, publicity for a late-nineteenth-century Genevan wine, if memory serves right. Incredible to think people were still using it for so long. But why not.


Up to the 1780s, producing illustrations was a costly, time-consuming process, so to have a book with pictures in it was A Big Deal. When wood engraving was invented at the end of the eighteenth century, and then steel engraving replacing people with machines, and copper with durable steel, and then photo reproduction, there was suddenly an abundance of pictures circulating, so much so that, in the course of the nineteenth century, it came to a saturation and people’s eyes were too full with images.

Erin had brought samples of every printing technique for everyone which really nicely illustrated them. Using that word in the early modern sense here, since ‘illustration’ was giving an example, and our ‘illustrated’ was expressed as ‘adorned with cuts’ or ‘sculptures’, an amazingly three-dimensional tactile way to think of images!

We then had an opportunity to look at some extraordinary holdings of the Geneva library. I was very impressed by those gems I did not know it had! There was a Nuremberg Chronicle from the late-fifteenth century, complete with insane mythological monsters, and a Hooke Micromographia with the fold-out flea. It was water to the early modernist soul to dabble in beautiful old books.

More monsters from the chronicle.

After a gregarious lunch (with Maria’s amazing home-made food!), we heard two student presentations, one by Gemma Allred from Neuchâtel, working on production posters of Shakespeare plays from the 60s to today, and Aleida Auld from Geneva, speaking about an illustrated collection of poems containing Lucrece.

Erin then gave a lecture on Shakespeare illustrations through the ages, beginning with the startling fact that except for a 1656 Lucrece frontispiece, there were no illustrations of any of his works until 1709! That is, more than just his pretty face. Proper illustrations of scenes from his poems or plays. After the 1709 and 1714 Rowe editions with illustrations, you have a gorgeous luxury edition by Boydell who had also commissioned these motifs as actual canvas paintings which he exhibited in a gallery; had people come, and discuss the paintings together with the play excerpts they belonged to. I really love this interactive communal discussion and interpretation of words and image, and that the visitor was walking from piece to piece in a hall. And today, our entertainment is binge-netflixing on a Friday evening. Anyway.

The eighteenth century saw a curious move away from dramatic scene illustration or portraiture towards a depiction of Shakespeare-inspired landscapes, such as a view of Mantua from a hill for Romeo and Juliet rather than the lover buying poison from the apothecary. 

In the 20th century, illustrations disappeared from ‘proper’ books including Shakespeare, tending to gather at the opposite ends of the spectrum, that is, in children’s books and fine press volumes. Erin showed a gorgeous 1930 Hamlet printed in Weimar (Bauhaus style, anyone?), with big bare black figures from woodcut, and the Hamlet sources surrounding the English on the page. Erin also mentioned graphic novels and mangas which straddle the conventions of their own genre (such as stock characters) while safe-guarding Shakespeare’s original text. Excited to check out the unshortened graphic novel Macbeth!

Maria rounded the day off with a brilliant and hilarious talk about the afterlife of John Mandeville’s Travels, a hugely popular text that featured some rather interesting pictures on onion-headed dragons, and some even more curious images of aroused hermaphrodites. What could a scholarly gal want more than to cap such a wonderful day with some naughty early modern picture porn.

Maria discoursing on hermaphrodites.

I came into the workshop with a total clean slate in terms of knowledge about book illustrations. I went out with a mind packed with information and techniques on how to spot differences between methods and aesthetics. I’m also much humbled because I hadn’t realized just how effortful it was to produce an image, and quite what it meant for a publication to have a picture of whatever kind. We have all sorts of colours and crazy images at our disposal, most of the time just a click away, so I think we can’t really appreciate what it meant for someone disused to seeing pictures all the time to suddenly encounter a visual reproduction. It must have been awe and wonder. And so I am in awe and wonder at the ingenuity of printers and artists, continually inventing and perfecting techniques. And I’ll try and appreciate the presence of images in books from now on, be they old or new.        

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