II: Steel Engraving

The first illustrations in printed books used the woodcut, a relief process where the back is cut away leaving the design raised. Probably because both wood and wood carvers were plentiful this remained a popular printing technique long after copper plate engraving had been invented. Wood would remain an important medium for illustrations until the 20th century and early Victorian guide books often included attractive woodcuts. Because they were relatively cheap to prepare, woodcuts also tended to be popular in penny newspapers and where illustrations were embedded in the text. Despite the increase in copper printing, innovations in wood block engraving continued throughout this period.[i] Alexander Jenkins had used wood engravings to illustrate his History ... of Exeter (1806) which he himself had prepared. [ii] When the London Illustrated News hit the streets in 1842 it contained 32 wood engravings and sold 26 000 copies.


Fig. 1. Alexander Jenkins’ wood engravings of the Ancient Guildhall and the Tower 

which appeared in his history of Exeter (1806).


Copper plate engraving dominated the production of maps and book illustrations for some three hundred years until the middle of the 19th century. The design was cut into the metal in reverse, the plate was then inked and wiped clean leaving the ink within the incised lines. Passing the plate through rollers under pressure ‘lifted’ the lines onto the paper, so that they stood proud of the surface. This technique had many advantages over the woodcut; the engraver could work much faster and could use many other techniques, dots, pecked lines, stipples and lettering of greater fluency. Changes were also fairly easy to carry out; lines could be burred or hammered out and re-engraved. Copper engraving had the major disadvantage that the copper sheet eventually wore down so that strengthening of incised lines was needed or even a new plate.

Fig. 2. Copper engraving of River Lid and Cataract by T Bowen for Benjamin Martin (1759).

It was not until the 1800s that it was possible to engrave on steel. The use of steel allowed a longer print run with no loss in quality, hence illustrations and maps engraved on steel became more common. Acid etching was also introduced in the 1800s. In this technique the design is cut through a wax coating applied to the plate; the plate is then immersed in acid which eats into the exposed copper or steel, creating the etched image. A simple difference in the technique is that etched lines tend to end square or blunt, whereas engraved lines taper to a point. This gave the artist much greater flexibility. These two inventions combined produced very attractive copper and steel engravings or etchings.

However, the biggest breakthrough in printing was the invention of lithography. This was invented in 1798 and patented a year later. Alois Senefelder, a German playwright (1771-1834) who published his own plays, found that by drawing with special greasy ink or crayon on a flat limestone slab the grease was absorbed and the image would then accept printer’s ink which was repelled by the rest of the stone, provided the surface was kept moistened.[iii] Senefelder went on to experiment with colour and constructed various printing machines. The technique was already being used by the 1820s but was not adopted generally by the printing trade until much later.[iv]

The earliest engraved scenes of Devon or Devonian architecture appeared in the early years of the eighteenth century. Works such as Henry Overton’s Cathedral Churches of England (1710) and William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum (1724) featured views of Exeter’s cathedral[v] and the city[vi] respectively. Historical and Topographical works then appeared at more frequent intervals with sometimes more, occasionally less, wood cuts, copper engravings, etchings and aquatints of important sights in Devon.

Fig. 3. Isca Dumnoniorum by Stukeley 1723 in his Itinerarum Curiosum

George Rowe was one of the first Devonians to exploit the new medium of steel engraving[vii], and although he also issued booklets with varying numbers of lithographic views (S.90. records 15, 13, 10 and 4 views chosen from a selection of up to 20) the vast majority of scenes were bound in book form with more or less text. Up to 1830 the majority of these engravings had been executed on copper plates. By 1800 some 25 works had been published (or started) with scenic views[viii] but by 1829 this had increased to over 100[ix]. If there were almost 100 different views available at the beginning of the century this had blossomed to nearly 600 only 30 years later. The period 1825-1830 seem to have been something of a watershed in the fortunes of landscape scenery and printing, as it is after about 1825 that copper engraving slowly disappears and is superseded, initially by steel plate engraving and then lithography before the advent of the photograph. The newly developed steel engraving meant that almost immediately four times more copies of a view could be printed from one plate. As a result a number of engravers turned to steel and this was also the case with Devon prints. However, the heyday of steel engraving was very short.



 Fig. 4. Steel engraving of Ashburton Market Place drawn by T M Baynes and engraved by W Deeble for Moore’s History of Devonshire.


Part III: Subscribers and Funding

Return to Introduction

[i] Twyman (1998) pp.50-54.

[ii] A Jenkins utilised seven woodcuts to illustrate The History and Description of the City of Exeter and its Environs in 1806 and possibly executed them himself. S.33.

[iii] Jesusa Vega; Lithography and Spain: the difficult beginnings of a new art; JoPHS; 1998; pp. 33-34.

[iv] Twyman 1998) especially pp.47-50.

[v] All references to early guides are to Somers Cocks (1977) and given in the format S.#. Entry S.1. contained one line engraving by J Harris of The Cathedral Church of Exeter.

[vi] Somers Cocks S.2. This work has two line engravings after Stukeley; Prospect of Exeter (illustrated) and Moridunum. The illustration from a copy in the New York Public Library available on-line at Hathitrust.org. All rights reserved.

[vii] Somers Cocks entries S.81. (1826), S.90. (1828) and S.98. (1828), S.99. (1828) and S.104. (1829).

[viii] Somers Cocks has entries S.1 to S.25 including Polwhele’s The History of Devonshire published in 3 volumes between 1793 and 1806. There are over 90 illustrations listed excluding Polwhele, those (re)published in a second work or the elevations of Edystone lighthouse.

[ix] Somers Cocks entries S.1. to S.102


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