The early mezzotint

Early history of mezzotint

From a lecture delivered at The National Portrait Gallery, 20 November 2003.

A mezzotint is a distinctive tonal print made using a copper plate that has been worked or 'grounded' using a semi-circular fine-toothed hand tool known as a 'rocker' so that the entire surface is roughened with tiny pits. In this state, when inked the plate will print a solid black. Grounding a plate by hand is very laborious task and needs to be done in a systematic way, down the plate, across the plate and diagonally. Printmakers soon handed over the task to apprentices and more efficient mechanical devices were also developed. Nowadays ready-rocked plates can even be bought. Nevertheless, despite how laborious preparing the plate is, it is a lot easier and quicker to produce a mezzotint compared to the highly skilled and laborious technique of engraving. The design itself is created by scraping down and polishing with a burnisher areas of the plate. These will hold less ink and so print more lightly than the unpolished areas. The mezzotint plate is particularly prone to friction during printing. The result is that the earliest impressions are the finest and print very dark with strong definition whereas over the course of time the plate becomes worn and the resulting prints become paler.

The mezzotint was invented in the middle of the seventeenth century. Such early seventeenth century mezzotints have a generally cruder appearance and have a noticeably coarser ground than their eighteenth century counterparts, considered the golden age of the mezzotint. In the eighteenth century the plates were generally 'rocked' more thoroughly giving the prints a smoother appearance. The development from a rough to a smooth ground was relatively rapid and printmakers like Isaac Beckett (c. 1653-1688) and John Smith (1652-1743) quickly refined and perfected the technique so that a print from 1669 (by William Sherwin) is quite different to one in 1688 (by John Smith).

Some of the very early mezzotints also have an experimental character and are truly a mixture of methods involving a variety of tools. Before the development of the 'rocker' the tools were tellingly variously referred to as 'chisels', 'engins', 'files' and 'hatchers'.

Mezzotint is particularly suited for reproducing paintings and its tonal quality means it can recreate highlights, mid-greys and darks well. It is perfect for reproducing dramatic light effects and contrasts. Given its inherent 'soft' and 'smooth' character it is also ideal for reproducing textures, skin and sumptuous materials such as satins, silks, velvet and gleaming armour. The advantages of mezzotints were soon recognized by printmakers, publishers and the prominent portrait painters such as Lely, Wissing and Kneller and this ushered the unassailable link between portraiture and mezzotint in England and the French tag 'la manière anglaise'.

I want to discuss the origins of the mezzotint process and its early history, although this is a fairly well-trodden story in the specialist literature. Tracing the history broad patterns can be observed. The early prints are essentially experimental and amateur; the technique was kept a guarded secret, told only to an elite few and certainly not to printmakers. The next phase of mezzotints evolution sees further improvements to the rocker, the involvement of professional foreign printmakers and the transmission of the technique between Amsterdam, London and Paris. The take off phase of the mezzotint occurs in the 1680s when London came to the fore as a centre of printmaking and an influx of foreign and new native printmakers and a number of innovative publishers such as Alexander Browne (active 1659-1706) and Richard Tompson (active 1659-1693) with the backing of artists at last took the initiative to commercially exploit and market the mezzotint. The influx of so many Dutch and French artists and printmakers is fascinating. London was attractive to the foreign printmakers because English printmakers were simply not as skilled as them. For Dutch printmakers and artists - Abraham Hondius, the van de Veldes and Jan Wyck - London was attractive because of the relative economic recovery and stability that followed the restoration of the monarchy, and it was a shelter as Louis XIV had invaded the Netherlands in 1672. This was also around the time of the arrival of the persecuted French Protestants or Huguenots.

The invention of the mezzotint process is particularly associated with Ludwig von Siegen (1609-c.1680), an obscure name but certainly a name familiar in the history of printmaking, but also with Prince Rupert, Count Palatine (1619-1682) also known as 'Rupert of the Rhine' a much more famous individual perhaps best known as the exiled Palatinate Prince and dashing Royalist Cavalry Commander during the English Civil War. Von Siegen was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of Prince Rupert's cousin His Royal Highness William VI of Hesse-Cassel. He acted as a personal aide, secretary, armed guard and companion to the nobleman - he was also an amateur printmaker. He was well educated and of some status and not the 'mere soldier' as John Evelyn described him, so that an encounter with Prince Rupert could well have taken place. In 1642 he devised a roulette, an instrument for mechanically scoring a plate with dotted lines which produced prints with softened outlines and black backgrounds with a painterly chiaroscuro quality. Using this novel method of printmaking von Siegen made a rather stiff portrait of William VI's mother, Amelia Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse (Hollstein German LIX, 7) and he sent a proof to William with a covering letter explaining the process. On close examination of the print it appears technically crude and unorthodox, yet nonetheless original. It appears that he mainly worked from light to dark - positively and additively - but it is not a mezzotint proper as neither a rocker or burnisher were employed. The lettered impression carries a dedication to William VI and the print was therefore an act of self-promotion. Von Siegen also made a print of Rupert's mother Elizabeth Stuart, the 'Winter' Queen of Bohemia after Gerrit van Honthorst (Hollstein German LIX, 8) dated 1643.

In 1657 Rupert was in Frankfurt but he also visited his cousin William in Cassel. Both were interested in experimentation. Rupert was in exile with no realm to rule and plenty of time on his hands and could afford to dabble. A series of letters between Rupert and William after the meeting suggests that they had looked into von Siegen's curious new technique. However, Rupert had evidently looked into the tools that von Siegen had used and invented his own. Evelyn called these a 'hatcher' and a 'style' (undoubtedly the rocker and burnisher). It seems that Rupert must have recognized that the implements von Siegen used were inadequate and that a better tool would produce a denser ground and would result in a better image.
Whether Rupert and Von Siegen actually met face-to-face is a moot point - it has been suggested in the literature that they could have met in 1654 either in Brussels or Vienna but this has also been categorically refuted. In any case Prince Rupert certainly for a short while was very enthusiastic with the process and produced at least two masterpieces of the technique, described as 'vigorous but technically imperfect prints' - the truly very large and remarkable The Great Executioner (Hollstein German XXXVI, 14) after a painting by an imitator of Jusepe de Ribera and The Standard Bearer (Hollstein German XXXVI, 16) after a painting by Pietro della Vecchia both made in 1658.

Rupert employed an assistant, Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677), to help him in his printmaking ventures but the precise details of the relationship between the two is also intriguing and somewhat foggy. They must have encountered one another in Frankfurt and Vaillant must have helped the Prince on the more arduous aspects of his printmaking experiments, namely rocking the ground. Vaillant is one of the first professional printmakers to specialize in the technique. Vaillant's mezzotint oeuvre is sizeable and he was a wonderful printmaker, the first to use mezzotints as a medium for fine prints such as the beautiful mezzotints of a Boy drawing in a studio (Hollstein 96), Boy Drawing a bust of the Roman Emperor Vitellius (Hollstein 97) and the Boy seated in a studio (Hollstein 98). His prints are particularly impressive and exploit to the full the rich black and velvety tonal effects that can be achieved. Vaillant was so the story goes forbidden to divulge the secret of mezzotint by Rupert and there are plausible anecdotal stories that the secret was leaked by Vaillant's own assistant. Nevertheless, the advanced printmakers in Amsterdam and Paris, could have worked out the principals of the process eventually simply through the careful examination of an impression, and through trial and error; novelties with potential useful applications always excite curiosity. Through the success of Vaillant mezzotint was taken up by a number of printmakers but most notably Abraham Blooteling (1640-1690) and Gerard Valck (1651/2-1726).

Prince Rupert went to London in 1660. His presence in London did not lead to the immediate introduction of the mezzotint. Rupert was among the earliest members of the Royal Society and part of the intellectual milieu that included such brilliant men as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. Rupert's name is not only associated with the invention of mezzotint but also with 'Prince Rupert Drops', bubbles of glass with unusual qualities. The Royal Rupert was in the charmed Royal entourage of King Charles II and the Duke of York and met frequently with virtuosi with wide-ranging intellectual interests such as John Evelyn, with whom he shared the secret of mezzotint. Evelyn was a scholar, connoisseur, bibliophile and horticulturalist, as well as a writer. He was a friend of Pepys - and he was another diarist. From Evelyn's diary and papers, now in the British Library, we know the precise date when Rupert showed the technique to Evelyn: 24th February 1661 and again on the 13th March. Evelyn went on to mention the process in his Sculptura, or the history and art of Chalcography and engraving in copper published in 1662 under the heading 'Of the new way of Engraving, or Mezzo Tinto, Invented, and communicated by his Highnesse Prince RUPERT, Count Palatine of Rhyne, &c.'. The Sculptura is significant as the first published book on prints rather than a technical manual on printmaking. Incidentally, that same year William Faithorne published a translation of the Parisian printmaker Abraham Bosse's treatise titled The Art of Graveing and Etching. Unfortunately Evelyn left the precise details of how to make a mezzotint 'ænigmatical'. Nevertheless the small volume did contain a specimen of the art by Rupert no doubt intended to intrigue purchasers; this print has the distinction of being the first published mezzotint in England. The specimen was the Little Executioner (Hollstein German XXXVI, 15), a reduced-scale version of the Large Executioner. Overall, Evelyn's Sculptura must have done much to raise the awareness of the mezzotint in London.

Evelyn in turn showed the technique to Pepys on 5 November 1665. However, Prince Rupert and Evelyn effectively conspired to keep the process secret and only divulged it to a chosen few. Evelyn's justification was that he wished the technique should not be 'prostituted' or cheaply 'expos'd'. Although he had written that he was willing, 'by his Highnesse's permission, to gratify any curious and worthy person with as full and perfect a demonstration of the entire art' as he could this permission did not extend to printmakers. Evidently gentlemen amateurs could be told, but craftsmen and professionals could not as William Faithorne, easily the most significant native engraver at this time was apparently refused a demonstration. Significantly some years later Faithorne's son did learn the technique and became a prolific mezzotinter working mainly for the publisher Edward Cooper (died 1725).

1669 is a key date in the history of English mezzotints. It was in that year that William Sherwin (c. 1645-after 1709) made the celebrated first dated mezzotint, a portrait of Charles II. Sherwin was a very capable engraver and also of an inventive and entrepreneurial mind. He made 20 mezzotints. The portrait of King Charles II (Chaloner Smith 10) carries a significant dedication, typically cringing, to Prince Rupert, acknowledging Rupert's role: this specimen divulged to him through the grace and favour of Your Highness, as his servant although unworthy of the name, yet dignified by it, is most humbly dedicated by William Sherwin.

It is exceedingly rare and the National Portrait Gallery does not own an impression. Sherwin's plate is in fact one of a pair and he also made a plate of the King's Queen Catherine of Braganza (Chaloner Smith 7) undated but surely the same year. There are nevertheless some mezzotints that were probably made before 1669 but they simply do not carry a date. In 1669 too Alexander Browne, drawing master, published his Ars Pictoria with an account of the 'mezo tinto' process. The volume has a section entitled 'The Manner or Way of Mezo Tinto' - and it is the fullest published contemporary account. It provided much more practical guidance but the vital piece of information about the 'rocker' was withheld.

Many of the earliest mezzotint specimens are puzzling, by anonymous amateurs and undated. Evelyn may have tried his hands at making a mezzotint, for he had also made etchings, and perhaps other members of the Royal Society did too - there has been much speculation whether Christopher Wren made any. Some of the mezzotints by the interesting amateur artist Francis Place (1647-1728) who came from York are among the very earliest. Antony Griffiths mentions a plate of A Tavern Scene after Brouwer published by John Overton that owing to the address must have been published between 1666-7 around the time of the Great Fire. Place only made a small number of mezzotints and it is likely that he was inhibited from exploiting the process owing to the Prince's strictures.

A vital impetus to mezzotint was the involvement of Sir Peter Lely. Lely must have heard about the new and fashionable technique of mezzotint and followed its development with interest. As the leading artist and heir to Van Dyck he would have constantly entertained thoughts of his current and future reputation and seen that high quality prints were crucial - and besides were quite lucrative. But broadly speaking, although it remains to be tested, Lely was not especially engaged in printmaking until quite late in his career for there are relatively few good engravings after his work (apart from an outstanding engraving by Faithorne made in 1666 of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine [Fagan p. 27; O'Donoghue 9; Macleod and Marciari Alexander 34], mentioned by and admired by Pepys). Arguably the best prints after his works are the mezzotints produced at the very end of his life in the late 1670s and 1680s by Blooteling and those published by Browne and Tompson.

The prints by Abraham Blooteling are particularly outstanding and Lely and Blooteling must have worked in close collaboration. Blooteling first came to London in 1673 - possibly brought over by Prince Rupert. He proceeded to make three outstanding and very large life-sized mezzotints after Lely of King Charles II (Hollstein 153), the Duke of York (Hollstein 171; Griffiths 1998, 152) and the Duke of Monmouth (Hollstein 186; Griffiths 1998, 153). These were made at roughly the same time and were probably spurred by the stupendous engravings by the French engraver of Dutch origins Peter Vandrebanc (1649-1697) such as the portrait of Charles II dated 1675 (Griffiths 1998, 148) after Henri Gascar (1634/5-1701), who for a period of five years had been a rival to Lely. Another challenge to Lely were Gascar's mezzotints in unusual formats after his work, such as the portrait of the mistress of the King, Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth (Griffiths 1998, 147). There seems to have been a competition who could make the biggest, best and most innovative prints.

The obscure amateur artist Edward Luttrell (documented 1680-1737), perhaps best known as a pastellist, should also be mentioned at this stage as a practitioner of early mezzotints. His earliest mezzotints have been dated to around 1679-80. He even wrote a treatise in 1683, never published, that included a very full account of the process that finally gave away details of the 'roules' and recommending where to buy them. Luttrell gave George Vertue, famous for his seminal note-books on British art, a long account of his role in discovering the secret of mezzotint. To précis Luttrell he claimed that he had a 'mechanical head' and that he 'set his wits' on finding the 'new invention' and method of laying the ground (which was then a mighty secret) being done by Blooteling. At the same time the printseller and publisher John Lloyd thought of a more direct method and ended up bribing Blooteling's assistant - Abraham de Blois. So just as Vaillant's assistant probably spilled the beans helping spread the technique on the continent Blooteling's assistant also talked and in so doing helped to spread the technique in England. However, Lloyd refused to communicate it to Luttrell but showed it to the young printmaker Isaac Beckett. Luttrell eventually learnt the technique from the Dutch printmaker Jan van Somer (active 1660-after 1687), who is the likely mezzotinter of the Browne and Tompson plates. Luttrell proceeded to make his first plate of a woman farting out a candle, which 'sold mightily'. Sadly this print remains to be identified.

In 1680 Lely died and Blooteling left for the Netherlands. Tompson's mezzotints were already circulating followed by Browne's around 1684. Cumulatively the Tompson-Browne prints must have seemed sensational to contemporaries. More than just portrait 'heads' they were faithful reproductions of Lely's entire paintings and the number of them points to an ambitious and planned programme of print production comparable to Van Dyck's famous engraved uniform series of portrait prints known as the Iconography of the 1630s.

Additional bibliography
H. W. Diamond, On the earliest specimens of Mezzotinto Engraving, London 1838
L. de Laborde, Histoire de la gravure en manière noire, Paris 1839
A. M. Hind, 'Studies in English Engraving, IV', 'Prince Rupert and the beginnings of Mezzotint', The Connoisseur, XCII, December 1933, pp. 382-391

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