Antiques expert Richard Ellison explains the history behind antique and original prints and why they are now a lost art. Photography: DocB Photography

The word ‘print’ is often mistakenly perceived as being a reproduction, the poor cousin of an original painting.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Original prints are not reproductions but are in fact works of art in their own right. They are classified as prints because the image is transferred from one surface (a block, stone or metal plate) to another, and the process can be repeated to produce more than one image. Many of the world’s most famous artists were printmakers. Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Van Dyke, Picasso, Goya, Edvard Munch – all were great printmakers as were most of their contemporaries.

An original print is one where the artist has created the surface from which the image is transferred to the paper.

This may be a carved wood block, an etched or engraved copper plate, a lithographic stone or other medium.

Etchings are just one of many types of original print and a method often used by the great printmakers, from old masters to contemporary artists. There are several types of etching but the most common are wet etching and drypoint.

A wet etching is achieved by first covering the metal plate with a wax. The design is then drawn on the plate with an etching needle. This process removes the wax from the plate where it has been drawn. The plate is then immersed in acid which bites into the plate where the wax has been removed creating depressions in which the ink can sit. The plate is then wiped clean, inked and wiped again, leaving the ink only in the grooves. Paper is then laid on the plate, covered with a blanket and pressed onto the plate using a copper plate press. The pressure forces the paper into the grooves and when the paper is removed the image, originally drawn onto to plate with the needle, is transferred to the paper.

A drypoint etching does not use wax or acid but relies on the needle to incise the plate. This action creates ‘furrows’ in the copper and displaces material, rather like a plough in a field. This displaced material is called the ‘burr’. The same printing process then follows as for wet etching but the burr creates a ‘feathery’ effect around the lines giving the etching more texture.

The powerful etchings of Herbert Dicksee RE, (1862-1942) or the wildlife etchings of Winifred Austen (1876-1964) are wonderful examples of these types of original print and are often available for little more than the price of a modern reproduction.

Although some of the print making processes are still taught and practiced today the great age of print making has passed, replaced by scanning techniques, the inkjet printer and photolithography. Many antique and original prints are in private and public collections, but many are still out there, representing some of the best value and most beautiful art ever produced on paper.

The current record price for a print was achieved by Sotheby’s in 2016 for a lithograph of The Scream by Munch which sold for £1.8 million, while an etching by Picasso La Minotauromachie made £1.27 million. So a poor relation of a painting they certainly are not.



Tedd Walmsley

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