Skip to main content
The Collation

Copperplate illustrations and the question of quality

While looking at early modern book illustration in the undergraduate seminar on Friday, we got to talking about the false assumption that copperplate illustrations always indicate better-quality publications, while woodcuts are inherently lowly. True, the raw material is more expensive: copper plates cost more than wood blocks. True, it’s possible to produce finer lines in copperplate illustrations than in woodcuts, allowing for more detail. But sometimes copperplate illustrations simply aren’t that great. Pamphlets published by Thomas Jenner in the 1640s and 50s make a good example.


Thanks for this, Erin. We hear a *lot* about woodcut reuse, but evidently intaglio wasn’t above reuse either. And yes, you’re right, some engravings are just… mediocre!

Would it be worthwhile to factor material lifespan into this discussion, since copper plates yield far fewer impressions than wood blocks in the first place? (Might one expect to find more distinct reuses of woodcuts than of engravings/etchings?)

Also, it’s interesting to note that, while you can efface and re-engrave a caption/title onto a plate, to replace lettering on a woodcut would involve a plug, a new bit of wood — so although both methods show evidence of retouching, the intaglio surface retains its integrity while the old relief must be replaced with the new.


Simran Thadani — October 3, 2011

Good point. Copper plates weren’t as long-lasting as wood blocks (even in storage, copper plates suffered from corrosion). However, I suspect intaglio plates were re-used more often and over longer periods of time than many people think. The numbers that get tossed around when talking about how many impressions you can get from a copper plate generally come from fine art printing, with answers in the range of a few score to a few hundred. With bookwork, though, the number could be much higher (and the quality correspondingly lower). See for example the article by Bowen and Imhoff in Print Quarterly 22.3 (2005); they used the account books in the Plantin-Moretus archives to determine that a copper plate in use between 1601 and 1658 was re-worked 5 times, and printed between 1,900 and 6,425 impressions between re-workings for grand total of 18,257 impressions.

Erin Blake — October 5, 2011

Thanks for this, Erin. I have heard a lot of talk about the difficulty of training a machine to recognize images, since there is no immediate equivalent to an “alphabet” in pictorial space. (Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do a Hamnet search on “all images of dancing in the seventeenth century” for example? To do so, someone would have to look at all of our images and say which ones show dancing.) But it strikes me that plate and woodcut re-use could be surveyed in semi-automated fashion, which would allow us to talk more comprehensively about how particular images are repeated, adapted and repurposed throughout the history of print. This is a fascinating post.

Michael Witmore — October 28, 2011