Chiara Betti, DPhil student on the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme
Most of us imagine libraries as repositories of books, manuscripts, and paper things. However, library collections are much more diverse than this. For example, the Bodleian Library not only preserves precious manuscripts and printed books but holds prints, paintings, printing plates and blocks, and even embroidery samples. And until the beginning of the twentieth century, you could also find marble sculptures and wax seals in the Bodleian collections.* However, libraries have sometimes struggled with the practicalities and the purpose of preserving objects such as printing surfaces, which are after all the tools used to make books, rather than books themselves. Why should libraries preserve printing plates? How can they be understood and integrated with the rest of the collections?
My doctorate focuses on the unique collection of printing plates amassed by the British antiquary Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755). The antiquary’s life mission was to preserve artefacts, manuscripts, books, and curiosities of historical relevance in the hope that future generations might learn from those objects. Thanks to contemporary accounts, we know that his London house was so crammed with objects of any sorts that he resorted to living in the attic, with the result that he could not even hear visitors knocking at his door!
Rawlinson was an extremely generous collector and often lent items from his collections. Shipping printed reproductions of those items was much more straightforward. While still an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford, Rawlinson commissioned his first engraved copper plate from Michael Burghers (c.1647/8–1727), an engraver for the Oxford University Press, in 1710. Rawlinson could reach a much wider audience with impressions from a single copper plate, with fewer risks of never seeing his possessions returned.
In many aspects, Rawlinson’s commitment to reproducing and documenting valuable artworks and manuscripts can be seen as an antecedent of modern digitisation campaigns of museum and library collections. Echoing his mission to “collect and preserve”, the Bodleian Library has embarked on a crucial project that will produce many dozens of super-high-resolution images of some of the library’s treasures. ARCHiOx –Analysis and Recording of Cultural Heritage in Oxford – is a collaborative project that originated from the partnership of the Bodleian Libraries and the Madrid-based Factum Foundation. Since February 2022, the Bodleian’s Imaging Studio has been photographing items selected by the Bodleian curators and staff, starting with the Rawlinson copper plates. For a detailed description of the digitisation process, the reader is invited to refer to John Barrett’s recent blog about ARCHiOx. In brief, John and his team are creating 3D recordings that allow us to study in detail and measure the objects photographed. This imaging technique, which can capture textural details, represents a significant step forward in the study of printing plates and, in general, of the materiality of objects.
Why should we preserve and study printing equipment? Copper printing plates (and woodblocks and lithograph stones) are a repository of information about the manual processes of creation and revision, often not acquirable from the impressions. Three examples here, images of copper plates obtained with the help of John Barrett in the Bodleian Imaging Studio, will elucidate how they help us to learn more about our print collections.
The Invidia plates: two sides to a story
The above three small plates giving views of Rome are from a series of twelve copper plates copied after much larger Italian engravings depicting the same subjects. However, these three plates have more in common than one might expect. Their reverse is etched with an old design, indicating that they were formerly part of the same larger copper plate that was then re-used and cut up to make new engravings. The other side of these plates shows a naked female figure with Medusa-like hair, a man dressed in Elizabethan fashion, and another man with a hat standing in front of a building. If we place the three plates next to one another as in a jigsaw, a new image appears. In this case, technology provides a more efficient alternative to manually aligning the plates.
The image above was obtained by stitching together the images of the three reverses, and the results are impressive. This image can be used to run online searches to try to identify other impressions of this plate or designs from which it was copied. So far, even with these methods, I have not found any impressions, but my research continues with the hope of solving the mystery of this “puzzle plate”. The absence of impressions might even suggest that the plate was made for decorative purposes rather than printing. It is hoped that further research will shed light on the route of this copper plate from the ‘Invidia’ design to the small views of Roman sites shown above. These tools for printmaking had an industrial history, linking one engraver and publisher to another through the re-use of materials.
The De Passe family: portraying royalty
The Rawlinson collection of plates features many famous engravers from the 17th and 18th centuries, including members of the famous Dutch family De Passe.
Copper plates like the portrait of King James I and Henry Prince of Wales have an enormous historical value as not many 17th-century printing plates survive today. The engraved portraits are representations of monarchy attempting to assert its importance. The printing plates let us look behind the techniques and materials that were used to achieve this.
Digitising these objects ensures their preservation while making them accessible to a broader audience. In fact, while studying the objects in the flesh is irreplaceable and essential for the researcher, the reality is that accessing printing plates is not always straightforward. On average, printing plates are much heavier than books, and, unlike most books, their handling requires gloves (to prevent oils from our skin corroding the metal) and much care. High-resolution images enhance the possibilities for the study of these objects.
Studying mezzotint plates: seeing through time
A favoured method for making print portraits was the mezzotint process. Mezzotint plates rarely survive because of the limited number of impressions they can yield. The few existing examples in the Rawlinson collection confirm that the plates are too worn out to see the details of the images on them. However, the images produced by ARCHiOx slightly improve our chances of studying the way these plates were made. For instance, the plate with the portrait of Madame Plowden is hardly legible with the naked eye because it is extremely worn out and is covered with a thick layer of dirt and residual ink. Thanks to the advanced imaging provided by ARCHiOx, we can decipher the image and see that many details were etched into the plate to enhance the delicate shading provided by the mezzotint process.
Science and Humanities
Those familiar with copper plates will be aware of how challenging it is to study them, even when you have them in your hands. They are often preserved in a poor state, with residual ink in the engraved lines or evident signs of oxidisation which obscures the image. However, once printing plates have undergone a process of cleaning and conservation, the polished copper is highly reflective, making it almost impossible to photograph it. Advanced imaging techniques such as those developed by ARCHiOx allow us to observe and study printing plates in unprecedented detail. Moreover, the presence of ink in the grooves is no longer an issue – if anything, it is an advantage as a perfectly polished surface would not be suitable for this kind of photography.
Copper plates belong to the category of “difficult objects” preserved by libraries and archives. They are not printed material, nor really 2D artworks, and often fall beyond the expertise of the curators and conservators. As a result, printing technologies are sometimes left out of catalogues and digitisation programmes, making it difficult for a researcher to obtain information through the usual library channels. My research and the valuable work of the Bodleian Imaging Studio and the Digital Bodleian will finally close a gap, starting with the Rawlinson copper plates, just one of the collections of printing surfaces held by the Bodleian Libraries.
The results obtained by ARCHiOx will transform this research. The ARCHiOx imaging not only produces high-resolution images but enables researchers to measure details on the objects’ surfaces. For instance, it is possible to measure the distance between engraved lines as well as their depth. Thanks to the generous support of SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), which allows me to conduct detailed analyses of some of the Rawlinson copper plates, we have been able to compare the accuracy of the ARCHiOx technology to that of optical 3D microscopes. For example, using the Alicona Infinite Focus 3D Profilometer at LIMA (Engineering Science, Oxford), I measured the distance between parallel lines on copper plates engraved by various artists to establish the differences in techniques and skills. The same measurements were taken on the ARCHiOx, and the results are consistent with those of the 3D profilometer.
The results so far obtained with ARCHiOx and the Engineering Department are promising. They will reshape our understanding and appreciation of print technologies as tools for researching book and art history, the history of collecting and heritage science.
With thanks for his assistance in writing this article:
John Barrett, Bodleian Library’s Senior Photographer and ARCHiOx Technical Lead for the Bodleian.
* Transfer of the seals and seal matrices to the Ashmolean: Bodleian Library, ‘Index to Rawlinson [Monastic] Matrices, [C18]’. Library Records e. 382; Bodleian Library, ‘Transfers to the Ashmolean and Other Institutions (1863)’. Library Records d. 1180. Marbles: https://collections.ashmolean.org/collection/search/per_page/25/offset/25/sort_by/relevance/object/45098 Also see Jeremy Coote, ‘An ‘Unimportant’ Inscription: The Antiquarian and Institutional History of a ‘Muscovite’ Cup in the Rawlinson Bequest of 1755’, The Bodleian Library Record, 30 (nos 1-2 April to October), (2017), pp. 16-40
This blog was prompted by Chiara Betti’s doctoral research on the Rawlinson copper plates. Readers with an interest in Chiara’s research are encouraged to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The research is funded by the AHRC through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership. See: https://www.glam.ox.ac.uk/early-modern-copper-plates-bodleian-libraries