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ON PICTURE PRINTING.
BY MR. D. MARPLES.
THE great extent to which the Printing Press and Printing Machine have been brought into requisition to multiply works of Art, the vast amount of taste and skill exhibited in embodying the conceptions of the artist, and the extremely low prices at which, considering their comparative excellence, these beautiful productions are sold, are striking characteristics of the times in which we live. Volumes not a few, whose chief though not their only attraction is found in their embellishments, are continually multiplying our sources of rational enjoyment; while several of the more popular weekly or monthly serials are thus adorned, with but a trifling, if any, increase to their cost. They differ widely from each other as to the artistic taste or typographical skill displayed in their production ; but the humblest of them are greatly in advance of those which were produced a hundred, or even fifty years ago, and which can only be said to have afforded the cheering hope that the Press would, at no distant day, commence a new page of its wondrous history, developing a new power, and adding another to the many claims which it may justly prefer to the lasting gratitude of the country and of the world : while the growing taste for these beautiful productions of the press is the best security that they will continue to improve. It is marvellous to see what a little smart competition will do in the direction of excellence.
Considering the rapid strides towards perfection which the newly-discovered art of printing made within the first half century after its invention-or revival and extensionit would have been matter of surprise if attempts had not been made, very early in its history, to decorate to some extent the works which issued from the press, in order to increase their attractiveness. To imitate the illuminations of the beautiful MSS. they were so soon to replace, may have been beyond the aspirations of the most gifted or ambitious of the early printers, either in this country or on the continent of Europe ; but what at that time was within their power they accomplished. Initial letters, of great brilliancy of colour, were printed at the commencement of chapters, while in many instances the old illuminator had to fill in these initial letters, with pen or pencil, in blank spaces left for them by the printer. In these cases, not unfrequently, some of the capital letters in the body of the work received a slight ornamentation. It is true that the woodcut embellishments of early printed books, whether plain or coloured, have few attractions for modern eyes, evincing, as they too frequently do, great want of taste on the part of both engraver and colourer, and in many particulars violating all the canons of art.
Briefly to trace the progress of printing in Colours, from the introduction of the initial letters into printed books in the fifteenth century, down to the production of the elaborate works of the present day; and to point out the difference betwixt pictures executed from wood blocks alone, and those from a combination of wood blocks and aquatint * mezzotintt plates, or lithographic stones, is the object of this Paper. Actively engaged, until very recently, in a
* Aquatinta, from aqua, water, and tinta (Ital.) dye-a method of etching on copper, by which a beautiful effect is produced, resembling a fine drawing in water colour or Indian ink.
+ Mezzotint, from mezzo (Ital.) and tinto (Lat. tinctus) painted-a particular manner of engraving, or representation of figures, on copper, in imitation of painting in Indian ink. To accomplish this, the plate is scratched and furrowed, in different directions, after which the parts where the lights of the piece are to be are scraped away, the parts to represent the shades and darker parts being left, to receive the ink in the ordinary way.
business which necessarily absorbs so much time and thought, but little leisure has been left to me, even had pecuniary means been at my disposal, to make a large collection. Nor is this of much importance, so far as the illustration of this Paper is concerned, since it is confidently hoped that even the few specimens submitted, some of them the best of their class,* will be found of sufficient interest to repay the sacrifice of time occupied in the description or examination of them.
The art of Printing, as connected with the production of books, had its origin in Europe about the commencement of the fifteenth century, and was rapidly diffused throughout Christendom. That it may with some degree of certainty be ascribed to, or rather that it arose out of, the art of engraving on wood,—the origin of which was undoubtedly prior to it, although the precise period has never yet been satisfactorily demonstrated, -will appear in the sequel.
It is the opinion of some that the art is of Asiatic origin, and that China has the strongest claim to the honour of the invention.t According to Chinese chronology, indeed, the art of printing was discovered and practised in the Celestial Empire about fifty years before the birth of Christ, and printed works exist, supposed to be of very remote antiquity, executed, as Chinese books until very recently were, from wooden blocks. In corroboration of the supposed early use of the art among that singular people, Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller, who visited Tartary, China, and other
* For a list of the specimens submitted, see Note, p. 94.
+ Since this Paper was read, the following extract has come under the notice of the writer :-“There is some probability that this art originated in China, where it was practised long before it was known in Europe.
That the Romans did not practise the art of printing cannot but excite our astonishment, since they actually used it, unconscious of their rich possession. I have seen Roman stereotypes, or immoveable printing types, with which they stamped their pottery. How in daily practising the art, though confined to this object, it did not occur to so ingenious a people to print their literary works, is not easily to be accounted for.
Not a hint of the art itself appears in their writings.-D’Israeli's Curiosities of Literature.
countries in the East in the thirteenth century, is represented as having seen their paper money, on which, to quote his own remarks, " the principal officer deputed by the Cham smears with cinnabar the seal consigned to him, and imprints it upon the money, so that the figure of the seal, coloured in cinnabar, remains impressed upon it.” With this exception, the most diligent and intelligent investigators have failed to discover, during the long interval of fifteen centuries which elapsed from this assumed exercise of the art in China, to the time when it was again discovered, or revived and extended, in Europe, any indication that it was practised, or even thought of. I may here state that, in a conversation I once had with the late Rev. Dr. David Thom, that gentleman informed me that, in a letter recently received from his brother, then an employé under Government, and whose early and unexpected death was regarded at the time as a national loss, the writer stated his decided conviction that Chinese books which had come under his own personal observation had been produced from wood blocks antecedent to the Christian era.
But let us inquire what authority there is for the remark that the art of printing arose out of that of wood engraving, or rather was an extension of it to another and greatly more important purpose than that to which it was originally applied. The earliest information concerning wood engraving in Europe is given by Papillon, a French writer, whose historical treatise on the art was published in Paris in 1766. He states that the first work produced was a representation of the actions of Alexander the Great, executed in eight pieces, about the year 1285. Ottley, an English writer on the same interesting subject, after a careful consideration of the evidence furnished by Papillon, compared with the results of his own researches, coincides in his opinion, that engraving on wood was practised as early as the thirteenth century, in those parts of Italy which border on the Gulf of Venice.
It is not a little remarkable that the next application of the art of which there is any record was to purposes of amusement rather than of utility. In a document bearing the date of 1392, a Register of Accounts of the French Court of that period, there is an entry for three packs of cards, of three different kinds, of a sum so utterly inadequate as a remuneration for the labour which must have been bestowed upon them, even in those days, if executed entirely with the hand, as to lead to the supposition that the outlines were first printed from wood blocks, the cards being afterwards coloured and gilt by hand; more especially because, being for the king's use, it is natural to suppose they would be executed with more than ordinary care. This supposition is strengthened also by official documents of the government of Venice, intended to secure to the Venetian artists the exclusive
production of playing cards. A decree, dated the 11th October, 1441, refers to "the great quantity of playing cards and coloured figures printed, made out of Venice, to which evil it is necessary to apply some remedy, in order that the artists, who are a great many in family, may find encouragement, rather than foreigners.” Now, if wood engraving, and printing from those engravings, as practised in Venice, had become an established and lucrative branch of commerce, affording the means of subsistence to a large family or body of artists, and at the date of the decree just referred to the trade had been brought by foreign competition to such a state of decay as to call for legislative enactment to insure to its professors future support, it is a legitimate conclusion that the art must have been practised for a considerable period, little if anything short of half a century.
As the art of wood engraving proceeded, its professors composed historical subjects, with a text or explanation subjoined, sometimes placed below, sometimes on the side, and not unfrequently proceeding, as a label, from the mouth of