Proof prints, part one

Last time I posted on The Collation (Two disciplines separated by a common language, 30 April 2013), I went off on a bit of a rant about vocabulary barriers between printed pictures and printed words. Guess what? There’s more! That post mentioned edition, copy, state, impression, and plate, but deliberately omitted the word “proof.” Those other terms all fit the tidy pattern of meaning one thing in one discipline, and something else in the other. “Proof,” on the other hand, means basically one thing in the book-printing world, and three things in the picture-printing world. 

One of the three meanings for picture printing is identical to the meaning for word printing. A “proof” is what the printer gives the artist or author so he or she can check for mistakes, mark them, and get them corrected before going into production. Traditionally, authors refer to these as galley proofs, and artists as trial proofs. Here, artist Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) wrote in the right-hand margin of a trial proof, “White parts deeper cream. More blue in shadows & in purples.”

Semi-abstract battle scene with pencil notes

Marked-up trial proof for Wyndham Lewis’s “Alcibiades” from the “Timon of Athens Portfolio,” 1912. Process print, 39.5 x 28 cm (sheet)

In addition to the pencil note in the right margin, Lewis drew lines in the left margin to indicate areas where shapes printed in pale blue should be omitted. Look, for instance, at the uppermost pencil line, slightly more than half-way up the page. Follow it from the small blue triangle just touching the left margin to the helmet of the soldier slightly down and to the right. Now look at the same areas in the final print, below:

Semi-abstract battle scene

Wyndham Lewis, “Alcibiades” from the “Timon of Athens Portfolio,” 1912. Process print, 39.5 x 28 cm (sheet)

No pale blue shapes. As instructed, the printer left them out. The printer also followed the artist’s instruction to mix more blue into the purple areas. It’s a subtle difference, but clearly seen under magnification. Here are close-ups of the left side, near the top:

Abstract shapes with a redder purple on the left, bluer on the right

Detail from proof (left) and final production print (right) of Wyndham Lewis, “Alcibiades” from the “Timon of Athens Portfolio,” 1912

The other difference between the proof and the final product here is that the proof was obviously a working document, and so was left kicking around the print shop after it was no longer needed. It’s grubby and torn, just like the other proofs for Wyndham Lewis’s 1912 Timon of Athens portfolio in the Folger collection. Its value is scholarly rather than aesthetic.

Ideally, the image in a trial proof like the Alcibiades would be good to go, and the proof wouldn’t need any changes marked at all.  But another kind of “proof” in printmaking is deliberately incomplete. Called a “progress proof,” it allows the printmaker to check how work on the plate is going so far. If you have progress proofs from different stages in the making of the same print, you have “progressive proofs.”

For example, the Folger has progressive proofs of an engraving by James Caldwall (1739–1819) showing Macbeth and Banquo meeting the Weïrd Sisters on the heath. Based on a painting by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), it was published by the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in 1798. These three states happen to be relatively close to each other, and look almost the same unless you click to zoom in. The earlier progress proof has relatively few cross-hatched areas, and most of these crossed-hatched areas have only two directions of line:

Unfinished print

Earlier progress proof, 44.5 x 59.2 cm (image)

The later progress proof has more cross-hatching, including varied lengths of vertical lines in the dark diagonal strip pointing to the lower right corner, making it stand out as much darker than before:

Unfinished print, no lettering in lower margin

Later progress proof, 44.5 x 59.2 cm (image)

In the finished state of the print, below, the shadows are much deeper, particularly across the top of Macbeth’s head and at the lower right. The lettering in the lower margin was added as the final stage before the main print run.

Finished engraving, with lettering in the lower margin

Final state. Macbeth, act I, scene III A heath: Macbeth, Banquo, & three witches. Engraved by James Caldwall (1739-1818) after a painting by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Published April 23, 1798, by John and Josiah Boydell at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Etching and engraving, 44.5 x 59.2 cm (image)

The differences are much easier to see when magnified. Below, enlarged 125%, are details of the lower left Weïrd Sister’s cloak and face from each of the three states:

Witch's face and cloak engraved with relatively few lines

Earlier state

Witch's face and cloak with heavier shadows

Later state

Witch's face and cloak, heavily engraved

Finished state

The darks become darker as additional lines, dots, and squiggles get added to the plate. The original painting has not survived, so it is impossible to know how Caldwall translated the full color of Fuseli’s original painting into the black-and-white of engraving. Viewers of the original painting might have seen a purple face, or a dark green one, yet the vast majority of viewers only see the print, where the face reads as black. But those cultural meanings are part of another story.

So, that’s trial proofs and progress proofs out of the way. What about the third kind of proof in printmaking? Stay tuned for “Proof prints, part two,” in which we’ll see what happens after people selling prints figure out that there’s a market for proofs.

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

3 Comments

  1. Excellent blog on Proof Prints by @FolgerLibrary using egs of Wyndham Lewis’s illus for Timon & Fuseli’s Macbeth. http://t.co/b6gEDcfBDz

  2. Proof prints, part one | The Collation (@FolgerResearch) http://t.co/v2SBBmIWYo

  3. Is it a proof…or a proof? Proof prints, part one, via @folgerlibrary: http://t.co/6gO5FUZhvl #rarebooks #collecting

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