Proof prints, part two; or, Proofs and proofiness

Last month’s post from me (your friendly neighborhood art historian) looked at trial proofs and progressive proofs (see Proof prints, part one). As promised, here’s a look at a third kind of proof in printmaking: proofs that aren’t really “proofs” as such, just “proofy,” to adapt Stephen Colbert’s terminology. Traditionally, a proof is a test impression of some sort, something not meant for sale. But print connoisseurs began to value proofs for their rarity, their unfinished aesthetic, and their fresh, unworn clarity. Writing in the 1690s, Roger North explained:

But above all a proof print is most esteemed. Which is an impression before the plate is finisht; done for the satisfaction of the graver, who perhaps while he is at work, will often roll off a sheet, to see how the draught proves, that he may mend or alter if he sees caus[e]. And these proof prints are known by some unfinished part, that appears.1

Consider this unpublished proof of a design by Henry Fuseli, for instance:

Print by Charles Sherwin (1764-1794) after an original work by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). NB. this print is mounted sideways in a volume, so it will display sideways if you click through to the zoomable version.

Print by Charles Sherwin (1764-1794) after an original work by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). NB. this print is mounted sideways in a volume, so it will display sideways if you click through to the zoomable version.

Turn it over, and you can see that Fuseli didn’t think that the proof worth saving: he re-used the paper to make preparatory sketches for another composition. The early 19th-century collector who trimmed and mounted it into an album, however, valued the proof print more than the sketches, as he explained in a handwritten note across the back of the print:2

Sketches by Henry Fuseli (sideways here, to match the orientation of the proof)

Sketches by Henry Fuseli (sideways here, to match the orientation of the proof)

Publishers began to cater to market demand for proofs by deliberately printing additional copies of the last few stages of a print, then selling them at a premium. For example, a “proof before letters” has a completely finished image, but does not have a title, publication information, or any other lettering in the lower margin.

Even once the lettering engraver set to work, further marketable proofs could be made. An “open letter proof” has only the outline of block letters:

Detail from an open letter proof (click for entire image)

Detail from an open letter proof (click for entire image)

The final version of the print would look exactly the same, except with the letters filled in. Unfortunately, I don’t have an image of a later state of the exact print shown above, but here is a detail of another print from the same series:

Finished version, with the lettering filled in (click for entire image)

Detail from a finished version, with the lettering filled in (click for entire image)

Other so-called proofs were simply part of the normal production run, but printed on smooth, bright, lightweight “India paper” mounted to heavier stock.3 Known as “India proofs” or “India paper proofs,” the extremely smooth paper showed off a print’s details better than standard paper could:

India proof of Mr. G. Bennett as Cassius, drawn on stone [that is, lithographed] by W. Sharp from the original of G.F. Stroehling.

India proof of Mr. G. Bennett as Cassius, drawn on stone [that is, lithographed] by W. Sharp from the original of G.F. Stroehling.

You’ve heard the adage “If you have to say it, it probably isn’t true”? Notice that an India proof typically includes the word “proof” in the lettering, usually in the lower right:

Detail from lower margin, right of center (click for full image)

Detail from lower margin, right of center (click for full image)

You can also see in the detail how the India paper is only large enough for the image and title. The word “proof” (like the names of the printmaker, artist, publisher, and printer) falls below it, on the heavier and less white paper.

In addition to proofs before letters, open letter proofs, and India-paper proofs, publishers also issued scratched letter proofs4 and remarque proofs.5 As collector Joseph Maberly sadly wrote about all this:

It is, perhaps, to be regretted that a practice, which was originally resorted to for no other purpose than the honest satisfaction of the artist’s anxiety for his fair reputation, should have degenerated into a means of traffic; the number of proofs of different kinds is no longer confined to the very few necessary to be taken for satisfying the original intent, implied in the term, or for presentation copies to the artist’s friends or patrons, but is regulated solely by what the expectation may be of the public demand.”6

Maberly would be glad to know that the  proliferation of  types of proof print that aren’t really “proofs” is under control again. In more recent fine art printing, there is pretty much just one kind of proof beyond trial proofs and progressive proofs: artist’s proofs. These are typically the first few prints from a limited edition, reserved for the artist’s personal use, and not part of the numbering. The example below (Folger ART 243- 162) is clearly marked “A/P” for “artist’s proof” where the edition number would normally have been written:

"Wm. Shakespeare" by Ken MacKintosh, 1994

“Wm. Shakespeare” by Ken MacKintosh, 1994

On the other hand, any presumption that Maberly would be pleased about proofiness now being a thing of the past depends on whether or not he survived the shock of seeing an Expressionist woodcut Shakespeare.

  1. Roger North. Notes of Me: The Autobiography of Roger North, edited by Peter Millard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000, page 247. []
  2. Transcription:

    This is a Sketch by Fuseli himself for the Figure of Sly in the Play of Taming the Shrew, which he afterwards adopted with some slight alteration v. octavo Plate, Chalmers’s Edition.

    This Plate was the Proof sent by Sherwin to Fuseli, before the engraving was finished: — Fuseli made it a rule in any capital Engraving made from Paintings or Drawings by him — to have Impressions taken from the plates in various stages of [it?] – v. the many Impressions taken from the Scene of the Witches’ meeting Macbeth on the Heath of which 5 proofs in different stages were in my possession, & make a part of my Collection, one of the having corrections by Fuseli himself for the Engraver. []

  3. “India paper, n. 2. A soft absorbent paper originally imported from China and used esp. for high quality prints and illustrations.” OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/94407 (accessed June 25, 2013). []
  4. Scratched letter proof: an unfinished print where the lettering is lightly etched in the lower margin, ostensibly as a guide for the lettering engraver. []
  5. Remarque proof: a print where the etcher’s marginal designs, originally intended as tests, have not (yet) been removed. See, for example, Folger ART File S527 no.359 copy 3 and Folger ART File S898c1 no.108 copy 1. []
  6. Joseph Maberly. The Print Collector: An Introduction to the Knowledge Necessary for Forming a Collection of Ancient Prints. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1880, pages 34-35. []

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).

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