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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
Wood engravings made from photographs, but entirely hand-cut, are similarly eye-catching:
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
- 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).
- For a discussion of relief versus intaglio printing, see the Collation post “Woodcut, engraving, or what?“
- 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.