As a couple of you guessed correctly last week, the June Crocodile Mystery is a proof for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery print of Lady Macbeth illustrating Macbeth, act 1, scene 5.1 In the finished state, which was printed from the same plate after additional work was done on it, the background is darker, and figure of Lady Macbeth has been filled in.2 Here they are, side-by-side:
The two prints are bound into a special set of the two-volume work A collection of prints, from pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the dramatic works of Shakspeare by the artists of Great-Britain, London: John and Josiah Boydell, 1803 (Folger ART Flat b1-2 copy 1, which has been photographed cover-to-cover). This particular set of the one hundred prints is unusual because it also contains proofs for eight of the prints, and twenty-nine color and hand-colored duplicates.3 In addition to appearing bound in two volumes in 1803, individual prints could be purchased separately. They came on the market as each plate was finished, starting in 1790.4
In the proof state, it looks as if the background might have been printed in grey ink, leaving a space for the figure to be printed in black ink, from another plate (as one person suggested in last week’s Comments). In fact, it is entirely printed in black ink, from a single plate, but the fine lines in the proof state make it look grey from a distance. This particular proof state is what’s known as an “etched proof.” It is a preliminary stage in the production of the final print: the ink-holding lines have been cut into the plate by acid, not by a sharp tool. Rather than cutting into the metal plate itself, the printmaker scratched lines in a layer of varnish on the plate, exposing the bare metal. The plate then went into an acid bath; the acid ate away at the exposed metal, created the grooves that will hold the ink.5 Etching is a speedy way to work up the background of an illustration, the basic shading, and a rough outline for the main subject. After the etching is complete, the printmaker begins the difficult and laborious task of using engraving tools to physically cut the primary design lines and fine shading.
The difference between the proof state and the finished state is especially easy to see if you look at a close-up of Lady Macbeth’s head and shoulders. The proof state has the main contours of her hairstyle and cloak, plus horizontal wavy lines for the neutral background, but only dotted outlines for her features and hand:
In the finished state, there is relatively little difference in the hair and cloak, especially in the portion of the hair that cascades down over her shoulders, but the background has now been darkened with diagonal lines, and her face and hands are fully realized. Her skin provides an excellent example of what is sometimes called the “dot and lozenge” style of engraving. In this highly stylized form, shading is built up from intersecting sets of parallel lines that form diamonds, with each diamond containing a dot or short line made with a flick of the engraving tool.
I should clarify that the “finished state” of the print described here is not the final known state of the print. Later states of all one hundred prints exist thanks to Shearjashub Spooner of New York, who acquired the original copper plates and had them re-cut along the original lines (“restored,” as he put it). Spooner published the prints with accompanying descriptive text in parts between between 1848 and 1852, calling his two-volume publication The American edition of Boydell’s illustrations of the dramatic work of Shakspeare. The original London publication information remained unaltered in the lower margin of each plate, but thanks to the addition of numbering in the lower left, it is easy to recognize the American prints at a glance.
Later 19th-century editions of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery images used photographs of the engravings as their source rather than the original printing plates. For example:
- The Shakespeare Gallery: A Reproduction Commemorative of the Tercentenary Anniversary. London and New York: George Routledge, 1867. (Folger ART Vol. e57, which contains actual photographs)
- The Boydell gallery: a collection of engravings illustrating the dramatic works of Shakespeare, by the artists of Great Britain, reproduced from the originals in permanent woodburytype by Vincent Brooks, Day, and Son. London: Bickers & Son, 1874. (Folger ART Vol. f86)
- The gallery of illustrations for Shakespeare’s dramatic works originally projected and published by John Boydell, reduced and re-engraved by the heliotype process, with selections from the text. Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1874 (Folger ART Vol. f90)
- The Boydell Shakespeare gallery: a series of ninety-six photographs, with selections from the text. London: W. Mansell, 1879 (Folger ART Vol. e21)
Photography provided one major practical advantage over the original plates: easy size reduction. Editions printed from the original copper plates, whether for the Boydells or for Shearjashub Spooner, are enormous. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of “Lady Macbeth” in the 1803 edition, and in the 1874 edition “reduced and re-engraved by the heliotype process” mentioned in last week’s Comments:
Each original volume weighs close to 25 pounds (11 kg), and requires two people to lift onto a book truck for transport to the Folger’s Reading Room. Even then, they will only fit on the larger of the two standard sizes of book truck, so cannot be sent up from the vault on the book lift. Instead, they have to come up by passenger elevator. This is one reason I went down to the vault to take the side-by-side photograph rather than bringing the books up. The other reason is that I’m just 5’3″ (160 cm), and the Folger’s only set of four-step rolling stairs is kept in the vault. Climbing to the top of the steps and leaning over the guard rail was the only way to get the shot.
- See the Collation post “Proof prints, part one” for more on the meaning of “proof” when talking about printed pictures.
- See the Collation post “Two disciplines separated by a common language” for the difference in meaning between “state” in textual printing and “state” in pictorial printing.
- For the difference between “color prints” and “hand-colored prints” see The Collation, “Colored print or color print?” from 21 May 2012.
- This “Lady Macbeth” was first published June 4, 1800, as indicated in the lower margin, though this particular copy is so discolored that it’s hard to read the date. Folger ART File S528m1 no.113 copy 2 shows it clearly.
- For more on printmaking techniques, see “Woodcut, engraving, or what?” The Collation, February 7, 2012.
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