The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

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.

Beheading of the Earl of Strafford
Beheading of the Earl of Strafford

On page 8 of this copy of Former ages never heard of, and after ages will admire. Or, A brief review of the most materiall parliamentary transactions from 1656, the rolling-press printer didn’t manage to center the poorly-inked copper plate in the gap left for it by the type-setter, so the bottom overlaps a line of text. The etching itself is crudely executed (if you’ll pardon the pun), and the lettering at the top of the plate has been imperfectly removed. Originally, it said “The Earle of Strafford for treasonable practises beheaded on the Tower-hill” and was part of a double illustration:

Beheading of the Earl of Strafford; Fleeing of Sir Francis Windebank et al.
Beheading of the Earl of Strafford; Fleeing of Sir Francis Windebank et al.

The illustration seen above, before the plate was cut in half,  comes from the 1646 pamphlet A sight of ye trans-actions of these latter yeares emblemized with ingraven plats, which men may read without spectacles, though it had already appeared in 1642 as an illustration in All the memorable & wonder-strikinge Parlamentary mercies effected & afforded unto this our English nation. This time it’s properly centered on the page, but smudges on the right and lower edges show that the excess ink wasn’t properly wiped off before it went through the press.

After the plate was cut in half, the lower image also re-appeared in other Thomas Jenner publications. In the 1656 edition of Former ages never heard of, and after ages will admire. Or, A brief review of the most materiall parliamentary transactions shown at the start of this post, it comes eight pages after its former mate:

"The King Escapes out of Oxford in a disguised maner"
"The King Escapes out of Oxford in a disguised maner"

Notice that although the picture itself is unchanged – five people on horseback gallop down a street – it now illustrates something else. In 1642 and 1646 it showed “Sr. Francis Windebank, Sr. Iohn Finch, the Lord Digbie, Iermin, etc. fly for their lives beyond the sea” but now it’s  “The King Escapes out of Oxford in a disguised maner.”

Needless to say, these pamphlets are very useful for making the point that plates belonged to the publisher, not the artist. The artist simply did work for hire. But which artist created these illustrations? The etchings came from none other than Wenceslaus Hollar, who turned to dashing off pamphlet illustrations after his aristocratic patrons fled to the Continent during the Civil War. By 1644, Hollar gave up and moved to Antwerp himself, but not before finishing one of his most famous sets of etchings, “The Four Seasons” represented by beautifully-dressed women. Setting aside my qualms about women’s bodies being displayed as allegorical fodder, I think Summer is a particularly amazing etching. Click on the image below for a zoom-able version in the Folger’s digital image database:

"Summer" from Wenceslaus Hollar's Allegories of the Four Seasons, 1643-44
"Summer" from Wenceslaus Hollar, The Four Seasons

I especially admire the way Hollar represents the diaphanous black veil that provides protection from the sun. Also worth noting: if you zoom in on the right, you can make out the Holbein Gate and the Banqueting House (which still stands in Whitehall today), and behind them, old Saint Paul’s.



  • 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.


    • 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.

  • 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.

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