The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Photo-manual illustration

As Jeff and Anthony commented on last week’s Crocodile Mystery, this picture is unusual because it is an engraved portrait copied from a photograph rather than from a drawing or painting.

Full-length portrait of a woman
“Madame Celeste as the Princess Katherine.” Engraved by George Hollis from a daguerreotype by J.E. Mayall. Steel engraving, circa 1842 (printed circa 1850)

Specifically, it is a steel engraving by George Hollis (1793–1842) based on a daguerreotype by J.E. Mayall (1813–1901), and it depicts Madame [Céline] Celeste (1814–1882) as Princess Katherine in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

"Engraved by Hollis from a Daguerreotype by Mayall"
Statement of responsibility for the “Madame Celeste” print (detail from lower margin of Folger ART File C392 no.1)

A comparison of the daguerreotype-based steel engraving with a drawing-based copper engraving of Mrs. [Sarah] Siddons in the same role (made about thirty five years earlier) is illuminating:

Full-length portrait of actress in costume
“Mrs. Siddons in Princess Katherine.” Engraved by J. Thornthwaite from a drawing by Edward Francis Burney. Copperplate engraving, 1806.

First off, the compositions are similar: both are full-length portraits of actresses in character, indoors, leaning forward with the left hand raised. They are also similar on a technical level: both engravers used the same visual language to translate the continuous tones of the original picture into strict black-and-white. For example, dots generally make up the skin tones (a technique known as “stipple engraving”), and lines generally make up the hair, clothing, and background:

Portrait heads, both with dots for skin tone and lines for clothing tone
Left: copperplate engraving based on a drawing (detail of Folger ART File S568 no.50). Right: steel engraving based on a photograph (detail of Folger ART File C392 no.1).

The dots and lines are finer in the Madame Celeste illustration because steel is harder than copper (and can therefore take more detail), not because photographs show more details than drawings. But the photographic model does lead to the reproduction of details not normally found in drawings. Most startling, in my opinion, is that we see Madame Celeste’s teeth—individually! Like seeing a smiling Queen Victoria, it’s just…. weird. This is a level of realism we’re not accustomed to seeing in 19th-century portraits.

Head and shoulders photo showing Queen Victoria's toothy smile
Detail of “Her Majesty’s gracious smile. An instantaneous photograph from life.” Photograph, 1898. (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division LC-USZ62-93417)

The figures’ proportions also show the difference between an idealized drawing and the realism inherent in photography.  Mrs. Siddons stands over eight heads high, proportions rarely seen in real women, unless you spend a lot of time with supermodels:

Full length portrait of a woman with grid showing proportional height
Detail of “Mrs. Siddons” with superimposed grid showing a proportional height of over eight heads

Madame Celeste, on the other hand, stands about seven heads high. This is perfectly ordinary for human beings, but looks rather stumpy for fine art.

Full length portrait of a woman with grid showing proportional height
Detail of “Madame Celeste” with superimposed grid showing a proportional height of seven heads

There is something a little creepy about this version of Madame Celeste, like the “uncanny valley” effect sometimes evoked when seeing a robot that looks almost, but not quite, like a real person. Objectively, steel engravings based on daguerreotypes ought to look comfortingly realistic, but are they not a bit unsettling? Here is a sampling of other prints from the same series of theatrical portraits:

Realistic full length portrait of a woman in costume.
“Mrs. Fitzwilliam as Mrs. Page.” Engraved by Thomas Sherratt from a daguerreotype by J.E. Mayall. Steel engraving, mid-19th century.

 

Realistic portrait of man in costume on bended knee.
“Mr. G. V. Brooke as Othello.” Engraved by Thomas Hollis from a daguerreotype by John Fitzgibbon. Steel engraving, mid-19th century.

 

Realistic full length portrait of a man in costume
“Mr. Charles Kean as Hamlet.” Engraved from a daguerreotype, engraver and photographer unknown. Steel engraving, mid-19th century.

 

Realistic portrait of a man and woman in costume
“Miss Glyn and Mr. Hoskins as Isabella & Lucio.” Engraved from a daguerreotype by Paine of Islington, engraver unknown. Steel engraving, mid-19th century.

 

Realistic full length portrait of a woman in costume
“Miss Julia St. George as Ariel.” Engraved by Thomas Sherratt from a daguerreotype by Paine of Islington. Steel engraving, mid-19th century.

Wood engravings made from photographs, but entirely hand-cut, are similarly eye-catching:

Realistic head and shoulders portrait of a man in a suit
“Phillips Brooks.” Engraved by T. Johnson from a photograph by H.G. Smith. Wood engraving, late 19th century?

These prints are not themselves photographs, since the lines that hold the ink were created by hand. Retrospectively, engravings cut by hand have become known as “manual engravings,” as opposed to “photomechanical engravings.” Like acoustic guitars and dip pens, the adjective only became necessary after something new became popular.

By the end of the 19th century, photomechanical printing had become the norm for book illustration.1  Oversimplifying greatly, a photomechancal print is made from a relief or intaglio printing plate derived from the use of light sensitive gelatin.2 The gelatin hardens when exposed to light, so if you expose it through a transparency, the darker parts stay softer, and can be washed away, creating a surface in relief that becomes the matrix for the printing plate. There is no term, however, for manual prints with a photographic intermediary, prints where the original image is a photograph copied to (or even created on) a printing plate, but cut by hand.

Might prints like these photo-realist steel engravings be called “photo-manual prints” as opposed to manual prints or photomechanical prints?3

 

  1. For more on manual versus mechanical printing, see for example Bamber Gascoigne, How to Identify Prints: a complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to inkjet (New York: Thames  & Hudson, 2004, and Ad Stijnman, Engraving and etching 1400–2000: a history of the development of manual intaglio printmaking processes (Houten, Netherlands: Archetype Publications Ltd. in association with HES & DE GRAAF, 2012).
  2. For a discussion of relief versus intaglio printing, see the Collation post “Woodcut, engraving, or what?
  3. As far as I know, the term “photo-manual” hasn’t already been claimed for photomechanical prints where the printing surface has been touched up or worked over by hand, a not-uncommon situation. But then what should those prints be called? It’s never simple.

2 Comments


  • Super awesome post! Now I want to study book llustration at RBS all over again! BTW Phillips Brooks looks a good bit like Lord Grantham.

  • The teeth are definitely creepy! Do you think some of these prints might look more bizarre because the backgrounds aren’t styled after photographs, but resemble more traditional steel engravings?

    I like the term ‘photo-manual,’ by the way–highly useful! Thanks!

    And Sim–you’re right, he really does.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)