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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeTechniques Harvey-LeeIntaglio Introduction Harvey-LeeLine Engraving

Line Engraving

Line engraving - detail of an engraved lineLine engraving was the first of the intaglio techniques to be devised and was developed in Germany and Italy about half a century later than woodcut.

Engraving allows a much finer line, and a concentration of lines can give a rich subtle nuance of tone which the woodcut cannot achieve. The inherent light and shade in the technique precluded added hand colouring from the outset.

The artist engraves directly into the sheet of metal with a steel burin with a wooden handle that fits into the palm of the hand, not dissimilar to those illustrated in the section on Wood Engraving. The steel is sharpened at its cutting end to a lozenge-shaped cross-section which cuts a V-shaped groove tailing off to a point (a stylistic factor especially exploited by the mannerist Haarlem School – see the detail above and the entire engraving by Saenredam, illustrated to the right). The rough shaving of metal raised by the burin at the edges of the cut line is removed with a scraper, to give a sharp, clean, crisp line when printed, whose slight stiffness reflects the initial resistance of the metal.

There was already a long tradition of ornamental engraving and metal chasing by the 15th century. It is not known who first in Germany conceived of taking impressions from engraved designs and adapted the technique as a process to print pictorial images from copper onto paper, or when the earliest intaglio printing press was made. However, most of the earliest renowned masters of engraving like the Master of the Year 1446, author of the earliest dated intaglio print, the Master of the Playing Cards and the Master E.S. were themselves also goldsmiths.

The invention of engraving in Italy has traditionally been credited to the Florentine goldsmith Maso Finiguerra, a famous niellist. Niello was a method of decorating a small gold or silver plaque by filling incised lines with an alloy (nigellum) so that they read as a black design against the brightly polished metal. Apocryphally damp laundry left on top of a fresh niello plate suggested the concept of printing onto paper from the incised plate. Impressions were printed from niello plates and occasionally come onto the market.

Italian artists of the stature of Pollaiuolo and Mantegna experimented with engraving, using broad open parallel lines in the manner of their ink drawings.

By the close of the 15th century line engraving had come of age. As in woodcut, Dürer was the predominant figure of the period, though Lucas van Leyden, in the Netherlands and Marc Antonio Raimondi in Italy complete Arthur M. Hind’s “great triumverate”.

Whereas Dürer, Lucas van Leyden and their followers engraved their own original designs. Raimondi was primarily an interpretive engraver of other artists’ drawings; he worked in particularly close collaboration with Raphael. As the century progressed the reproductive tendency of engraving increased throughout Europe, given impetus by the founding of publishing houses such as those of Cock, Galle, Van de Passe, and Sadeler in the Netherlands and Salamanca and Lafrery in Italy.

The 17th century was particularly noteworthy for the interest in line-engraved portraiture. France produced some exceptional masters in Claude Mellan, Jean Morin, Robert Nanteuil.With the principal exception of William Blake, by the 18th and 19th centuries line engraving had almost ceased as an original medium (a role taken over by etching) and was largely used to reproduce paintings. The eloquence of line as an original graphic expression was submerged in its conjunction with the tone processes of mezzotint and stipple, the better to reproduce paintings. The introduction of steel plates in 1820, and steel-facing for copper plates in the mid 19th century, meant that demand for popular images such as Frith’s “Derby Day” could be met by thousands of identical impressions.

Though the subsequent invention of photographic methods of reproduction made the commercial engraving trade redundant later in the century, it was not before it had subsumed the concept of artists’ own original printmaking in public understanding.

In the mid-1920’s, inspired by the old master engravings of Schongauer and Dürer, Robert Austin revived original engraving with its emphasis on pure line. Austin’s example generated a small following amongst his English contemporaries, such as Stanley Anderson, and students at the Royal College of Art.

Stanley Anderson (1884–1966): The Reading Room. 

Stanley Anderson (1884–1966): "The Reading Room". * 
Engraving, 1930.  (169 x 218 mm)

In Paris Jean Emile Laboureur had taken up line engraving by 1916 for his cubist figure and town scenes and in the 1930’s Stanley William Hayter with the establishment of his Atelier 17 in Paris took original line engraving into abstraction and the Modernist movement.

In general parlance line engravings are usually referred to simply as engravings.

(* Stanley Anderson's "The Reading Room", above. This example is a fully annotated unique impression from the cancelled plate, the corners having been cut off and the engraved inscription added to the plate to show the limited edition was complete in 1931, before the plate was sold at his special request to an American collector.)


Jan Saenredam (1565–1607): Pluto and Proserpine. Engraving, plate 3 of a series of three (Gods with their Wives) after Hendrick Goltzius. (321 x 219 mm)

Jan Saenredam (1565–1607): "Pluto and Proserpine".
Engraving, plate 3 of a series of three (Gods with their Wives) after Hendrick Goltzius.  (321 x 219 mm)


Geertruydt Roghman (Born 1625): Woman Cooking. Engraving c1647. Plate 3 of Roghman’s own series of five Domestic Interiors with Women at Work. (205 x 163 mm)

Geertruydt Roghman (Born 1625): "Woman Cooking".
Engraving c1647. Plate 3 of Roghman’s own series
of five Domestic Interiors with Women at Work. 
(205 x 163 mm)


Robert Austin (1895–1973): The Pack Bridge. Engraving, 1926. (125 x 112 mm)

Robert Austin (1895–1973): "The Pack Bridge".
Engraving, 1926.  (125 x 112 mm)

Austin signed his engraved plates with his initials
RSA in honour of the old master engravers who
often signed their plates with a monogram.
He used his full name for his etched plates.


See also :

INTAGLIO PRINTS - A General Introduction

French Engraving in the Crayon and Pastel Manners
English Stipple Engraving
Soft-Ground Etching

Colour Printed Intaglio Prints

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