In the third podcast in the series, BOOKNESS talks to poet and artist Stephen Emmerson about his work Translation of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, a paperback novel ‘translated’ into mushrooms.
A series of exciting inscriptions, almost invisible to the naked eye, have been discovered in the margins of an important eighth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 30. Revealed through state-of-the-art 3D recording technology by the ARCHiOx project, these marginal annotations provide tantalising new insights into this manuscript’s history and its links to women, in particular, to a woman called Eadburg.
Introducing Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 30
Bodleian Library, MS. Selden Supra 30 is a copy of the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the New Testament, written in Latin. It is a small volume, measuring only 229 x 176 mm (only slightly bigger than an A5 piece of paper).
Like most surviving manuscripts from this period, MS. Selden Supra 30 does not contain a formal colophon or scribal note recording when, where, and by whom it was made.
However, certain features of this manuscript, including the style of uncial script used to copy the text, demonstrate that it was produced in England, most likely somewhere in the kingdom of Kent, probably in the first half of the eighth century (i.e., between c. 700 and c. 750 AD).
MS. Selden Supra 30 was certainly in Kent by the fourteenth century when a shelf mark was added to p. 1 showing that it was then in the library of the monastery of St Augustine’s in Canterbury.
Prayers added to p. 70, which was originally left blank, suggest, however, that very early in its history MS. Selden Supra 30 was owned and used by a woman.
These prayers were copied in the same type of script as the rest of the manuscript but by a different scribe to the two responsible for copying its main text.
The first prayer is a petition to God made by an anonymous woman, described as God’s “unworthy servant” (indignam famulam).
This strongly suggests that, at the time the prayer was added, MS. Selden Supra 30 was being used by a woman, or a group of women. The prayer may have been copied into the manuscript by a female scribe.
The formula of this prayer is unique and does not survive in any other manuscript. It could have been composed by the petitioner herself.
In 1935, in the first edition of Vol. 2 of Codices Latini Antiquiores, Elias Avery Lowe, then a Reader in Palaeography at the University of Oxford, suggested that another addition made to MS. Selden Supra 30 could provide further evidence of its links to women.
Lowe recorded, for the first time in print, that the letters EADB and +E+ had been incised into the lower margin of p. 47. He noticed that the letters had been cut into the parchment with force, apparently using a knife, slicing through the upper surface of the membrane.
Lowe suggested that these letters were abbreviated forms of the female name Eadburh/Eadburg.
Studying MS. Selden Supra 30 in the Weston Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room in 2022, Jessica Hodgkinson, a PhD student at the University of Leicester, funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities consortium, spotted another inscription in the lower margin of p. 18. This inscription had never been noticed before. It was very small and almost invisible to the naked eye but appeared to contain Eadburg’s name written in full.
State-of-the-art technology has now not only confirmed this new inscription, but revealed several other instances of Eadburg’s name, alongside many more early marginal additions, incised into the parchment of MS Selden Supra 30. These discoveries provide new and exciting insights into the use of this book by a woman called Eadburg in eighth-century England.
Recording the inscriptions by John Barrett
Scratched markings on the surface of a page are usually photographed using a single light positioned at a low angle. This simple principle is termed raking light. However, through recordings made for ARCHiOx, it has been demonstrated that scratched markings may be far more effectively recorded using a technique called photometric stereo.
The photometric stereo workflow adopted for ARCHiOx uses 2D images to record and store 3D information. These images map the direction and height of the original’s surface, and are processed into renders showing only the relief of the original with the tone and colour removed.
Renders produced using a photometric stereo workflow are superior to raked light images in three ways:
A 3D render lacks the excessive contrast of a raked light image making markings easier to discern. Through the use of software, it is possible to re-light renders virtually, giving complete control over the intensity of the shadow and highlight over the recorded relief of the original.
The ability to filter for different textural frequencies makes it possible to separate the scratched markings from the texture of material on which the markings have been made.
Renders can be re-lit virtually from any direction or height making it possible to reveal markings made along any angle.
In addition, the depth of a marking can be measured by examining a cross-section through it. The profile may also provide clues regarding the mark-making tool, in this case a drypoint stylus.
A photometric stereo recording of the near-invisible inscription on p. 18 was captured in May 2022.
The Selene, a prototype imaging system designed and built by the Factum Foundation, project partner for ARCHiOx, was used for the recording.
Multiple images were captured from the inscription before being processed, filtered, and enhanced. The resulting high-resolution shaded render shows only the three-dimensional surface of the page. Through this new image, the drypoint inscription has been recorded successfully for the first time.
Subsequent analysis and processing, overseen by Jorge Cano, designer of the Selene, led to a new set of renders which enhance the markings further. These new images were created by compiling renders, re-lit virtually from multiple directions, and using a process called principal component analysis, or PCA.
The lines which form this inscription are incredibly shallow. Even the most prominent are only 15-20 microns in depth, perhaps equivalent to less than a fifth of the width of a human hair. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the inscription is simply absent from a conventionally-lit colour image of this page.
Processing the data using computational methods has revealed an astonishing amount but analogue (i.e., human) intervention has still been required to digitally annotate the image to clarify the reading. Despite attempts to filter specifically for the inscription, shading from the texture of the parchment and its many tiny creases have proved almost impossible to remove. This makes it difficult in some areas, to rule-in or rule-out the presence of lines. An objective and cautious approach has been taken with the digital annotation. This has involved multiple imaging colleagues working independently to contribute to a set of annotations which could then be compared. Finally, the renders and digitally annotated images were shared with the researchers, allowing them to make their own observations and annotations with the benefit of context.
Subsequent recordings made for ARCHiOx have revealed that Eadburg’s name is spelled out in full five times on five different pages of MS. Selden Supra 30 (pp. 1, 2, 3, 12, and 18). On some of these pages, and elsewhere in the book, other abbreviated forms of this name, including E, EAD, or EADB, are also present.
Reading the inscriptions
The discovery of Eadburg’s full name etched several times into the manuscript’s margins definitively confirms Lowe’s theory that the letters previously identified on p. 47 are, indeed, abbreviations of the same name.
Eadburg’s name was copied out using letterforms common to all the newly identified inscriptions. The form of the A (an oblique line with an oval bow on the left) and the angular U and G are distinctive. This suggests that the same scribe may have made all of these additions. If so, it is at least possible that the scribe was Eadburg herself.
Readers and owners of early medieval manuscripts, both men and women, sometimes added their names to books, usually in ink, but occasionally, as here, in drypoint. Another early eighth-century example is the ink inscription that records, in Old English, that Abbess Cuthswitha owned a copy of Jerome’s commentary on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes (now Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek, M. p. th. q. 2, fol. 1r).
Eadburg’s name could also be a mark of ownership or evidence of reading. Although small in scale, and faint, someone, perhaps Eadburg herself, was evidently keen to preserve her name in the pages of this book to be seen by subsequent readers. What is unusual about Eadburg’s name, however, is that it appears here, in full or in abbreviated forms, 15 times.
Eadburg’s name is written on the opening page of the manuscript (p. 1). It overlaps part of the top of the enlarged decorated initial P which begins the text. Here, her name is preceded by a cross (+).
A series of ARCHiOx recordings of p. 1 of MS. Selden Supra 30:
The decision to etch the name over the top of the first letter of the text must have been deliberate. It establishes Eadburg’s presence in the book from the outset and connects her name intimately with the biblical text it contains.
On p. 2, her name is framed by a cartouche.
On p. 18, Eadburg’s name forms part of a multi-word inscription added to the lower margin. Here also, her name is preceded by a cross. Some of the following letters are easy to see, whilst others, especially those towards the end of the inscription, are difficult to make out, even with the benefit of the new visualisation techniques.
The most recent and clearest recording taken of the inscription, enhanced through virtual relighting, image stacking, and principal component analysis, appears to show, however, that, among the visible letters, there is a wynn (Ƿ), the Old English letter for W. This letter can be distinguished from the Rs in the inscription, including in the name Eadburg, by the form of the bow which is pointed and extends further down the vertical line of the letter than on R. The presence of a wynn shows that the inscription was written, not in Latin, but in the Old English vernacular language.
This inscription probably comprises three words. The name Eadburg is the subject of the statement, so we might reasonably expect the other letters to include a verb followed by the object.
A preliminary reading of the inscription is:
+ EaDBURG BIREð CǷ….N
+ Eadburg bears [cw….n]
Most of the letters in what appears to be the third and final word are unclear, with only CW– at the beginning and -N at the end remaining legible.
One Old English noun that could fill this position is cwærtern, meaning ‘prison’. Interestingly, the inscription is positioned beneath the beginning of the text of Acts 5:18 which describes the imprisonment of the Apostles by the high priest of the Temple and his followers because they had continued to preach the Gospel (…et injecerunt manus in Apostolos et posuerunt eos in custodia publica). If cwærtern is the third word in the inscription on p. 18, perhaps Eadburg sought to mirror the text, associating herself with the Apostles in their imprisonment.
Deciphering the drawings
Alongside Eadburg’s name, several intriguing drypoint drawings have also been discovered. Some are clearly human figures, though further investigation is needed to establish exactly who or what they depict. All the figures are very small. Several seem to have been made by incising a line around a thumb or finger to form the outline of the figure.
The scene added to the lower margin of p. 11, which features at least three figures, may also include two E‘s. There appears to be an E, preceded by a cross, to the left of the first figure, and a second E, followed by a wynn (Ƿ) between the second and third figures. Could Eadburg have drawn this scene in drypoint and signed her work with her initial, as found elsewhere in the manuscript?
Eadburg’s name or initials are etched into several pages, sometimes next to contemporaneous dry-point drawings. But who was she? More work on the newly discovered additions may bring us closer to answering this question.
We know of nine women called Eadburg living in England at some point between the seventh and tenth centuries (for details see the online Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England). Other sources provide some tantalising clues that might help identify the Eadburg of MS. Selden Supra 30.
Charter evidence suggests that a woman called Eadburg was abbess of a female religious community at Minster-in-Thanet, in Kent from at least 733 until her death sometime between 748 and 761. As Lowe suggested in 1935, her dates and location correspond with the palaeographic assessment of the script of MS Selden Supra 30.
Abbess Eadburg of Minster-in-Thanet may also be the woman of the same name who corresponded with Boniface, the West Saxon missionary bishop and Church reformer. He became archbishop of Mainz in 732 and was martyred by pagans in Frisia in 754. Surviving letters show that Boniface held Eadburg in high esteem and that she sent books to him in Francia. He commissioned from her a deluxe copy of St Peter’s Epistles to be written in gold.
Boniface’s friend clearly had access to manuscripts and the means to make them. As such she is an especially strong candidate for the woman whose name was etched into the margins of MS. Selden Supra 30.
John Barrett is Bodleian Library’s Senior Photographer and ARCHiOx Technical Lead for the Bodleian.
Jessica Hodgkinson is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester funded by the Midlands4Cities doctoral training partnership. Her research explores the participation of women in early medieval book culture in Western Europe through the analysis of surviving manuscripts commissioned, copied, owned and/or used by them.
With special thanks to Jorge Cano, designer and engineer for Factum Arte and the Factum Foundation, for his work on enhancing the recording of p. 18, to Dr Philip A. Shaw, Teaching Fellow in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, for helping to decipher the Old English of this inscription, and to Professor Jo Story and Dr Erin T Dailey at the University of Leicester for their guidance and suggestions.
It’s a book as much as it is an art object … as a book, read it, interact with it, touch its pages, infuse its pages with your warmth … from the art experience, I guess it’s more about the audiences way of how they want to interact with it …
I’ve always been interested in interactive books since I was little, I am neurodiverse myself so it’s easier for me … to engage with books that … use different senses because they would capture my entire focus.
It is an artwork that is supposed to be touched and it’s supposed to wear and tear … as you start to expose and touch … as you’re reading the content, it becomes more familiar with you …
This is already basically a book … these things look like pages, they’re kind of packed together, there’s an order, all I really did was bind those together and give them the cover. I thought it was interesting how it just becomes a book through that process
This image of the Bodleian’s “pristine” copy of 20 Slices was taken by the Conservation team in May 2021 as part of the documentation of the object to record its condition.
I think of it as a book. But I also have a very broad definition of a book
BOOKNESS is a podcast series that wanders into the Bodleian Library’s collection of artists’ books, pokes around a bit and asks ‘what’s all this then?’
In the series we will be talking to artists, makers, researchers and curators and pondering matters such as what makes a book a book, anyway? What happens if a book is made of something that decays? Are there any limits to what a library can collect? And, of course, what does this book smell like?
BOOKNESS is hosted by conservator Alice Evans and librarian Jo Maddocks, and the release of this series coincides with the final month of the Bodleian Library’s Sensational Books exhibition, which is showing at the Weston Library until the 4th December 2022. It’s brought to you by the Bodleian Library’s Centre for the Study of the Book and has been supported by a generous donation to the Bodleian Bibliographical Press.
In this introductory episode, BOOKNESS is joined by Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections, and Professors Emma Smith and Adam Smyth, to set the scene of the Bodleian’s artists’ books collection and some of the ways these objects can be used and thought about.
… artists’ books reflect on ‘bookness’ … they are metabooks, they are books about books … they are about the book form …
The following artists’ books from the Bodleian collection are mentioned in this episode…
Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:
You can read the full definition of ‘artists’ books’ from the Library of Congress here (.pdf)
The Bodleian oath is taken by all new staff and readers. The current version, in use since 1970, reads: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” If you want that on a Tea Towel we can make it happen.
The next edition of Inscription on ‘Folds’ is out later this month.
The prize will be of two parts: a payment of £600 to the winner, and an allowance of £300 for a book to be purchased for the Bodleian Library’s collections, selected by the winner in co-operation with the Bodleian’s Curator of Rare Books.
Lucy Bayley, Academic Engagement with Special Collections
The simplest forms can carry the most profound and difficult messages. Beyond the Pale is a new display of prints in the Proscholium (entrance hall of the Old Bodleian Library, Oxford) responding to the ‘black square’.
Beyond the Pale consists of responses invited by the Bodleian Bibliographical Press in parallel to a historical display taking place in the Weston Library – Foreshadowed – curated by Andrew Spira, exploring precursors to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), a painting created to bring art history to an end. In Foreshadowed, items drawn from Bodleian Special Collections range from Robert Fludd’s 17th-century representation of the universe as a black square, to the black pages used in mourning the death of a monarch, to use of black pages in 19th-century magazines as an absurdity, a negation of meaning.
As a contemporary equivalent, the prints in Beyond the Pale connect to a range of themes. There are expressions of mourning, of personal loss, of grief for the environment, or anger at political conflict and repression, or playful encouragements to recalibrate our vision of ‘black’. These simple shapes are far from static or lifeless. Several embody references to arts and performance-music, ceramics, drawing, reading, and printing itself. Others, with an inviting tactile surface, tempt the viewer to transgress the square.
Historically, the black square appeared in publications as an expression of mourning. In the prints displayed in Beyond the Pale, there is likewise a theme of melancholy prompted by the black square as a space for reflection. Bridget Bowie’s collograph Unfolded, printed onto the pages of an old book with personal significance, for example, shows the black square as a space to reflect on the loss of a close friend. “I am interested in how we process our emotional responses to loss, places, objects of significance, and the passage of time. I don’t attempt to replace things, but explore how we can find the positive in what remains.”
The pages of a book have also become the basis for the monoprint Motion on Curved Paths by Emily Lucas. Printed on encyclopaedia paper with elements of stitching, at the top you can make out the line, ‘there is a terrible tendency to talk about it.’ For John McDowell, the use of a text as well as a connection to melancholy is made through the pooling of ink from 17th-century printed text of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. In this case the black square has been transformed into a single solid black circle, laid sequentially in the book.
For others, the black square becomes a reflection on political conflict and censorship. Elizabeth Fraser has responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Bomb-like ornaments are nestled in the gaps of a wall of black rectangles created from the backs of woodtype. Another sea of black forms is evoked in a linoblock print by Anouska Brooks. In Corrine Welch’s printed and embroidered scroll, the black square or rectangle stands for redaction in public documents. Welch has created a reverse redaction of Priti Patel’s UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, in Kigali on 14 April 2022. Welch writes:
‘The speech is digitally printed onto fabric and made into a scroll to illustrate the performative nature of the announcement of this conspicuously ‘tough approach’ to immigration. The reverse redaction is created by hand-embroidered tally marks revealing the hidden reality of the message. The tallies represent the thousands of individuals whose lives will be impacted by this unworkable and unethical policy.’
Many of the printmakers – William Alderson, Marina Debattista, John Christopher and Jemima Valentine and Harrison Taylor, included – have taken direct inspiration from Kasimir Malevich. Harrison Taylor’s block print recalls the cracking paint on the surface Malevich’s ‘Black Square’. Bringing ideas of wounding and healing, the page has been torn and stitched back up. There is a purposeful imperfection in the black revealing the texture of the print and giving it an elusive quality. For John Christopher and Jemima Valentine-Lake the reference to Malevich is a playful one, reimagining the artist not as a modernist but as someone who ‘secretly loved ornaments’.
For some the black square is a playful encouragement for both maker and reader. Isobel Lewis’s flag book, picutred above, is made to be handled. Created in letterpress, it’s filled with different words for black. Read it through or fan it out into different forms. Turn the pages of Paul Hatcher’s booklet Evolutions and see changes in the medlar block as he carved into, and printed with it. Patrick Goossens visualises the printing of the black square on a hand-press, portraying the press itself. Using etching, Claire Bayley imagines one black square seeping ink into a white square.
This sense of action is interpreted through references to performance by other artists. In The Mile Long Lane As Measured By My Body, by Alice Hackney the artist’s body becomes an imprint into a black square. Each layer of black is created by the view every quarter of a mile on the walk very familiar to the artist. For Sarah Bodman, it was a performance event during the pandemic in 2020 that led to Inside Stories, one page from her experimental book project Read With Me.
There are connections to ceramics (Graeme Hughes takes inspiration from a 3rd BC greenware bowl from the Ashmolean Collection), to film (Sophia Missaghian-Schirazi’s print is a proposal for a fictional movie poster called Sprig Thief), and to music. Linda Parr reimagines an alternative Black Album, referencing artist Richard Hamilton’s famous cover for the Beatles’ White Album. In a more whimsical way, Heidi Mozingo takes the black square to be the rests in music composition, as well as the rectangle form of the music stand, referring to Mozart’s statement that ‘the music is not in the notes but in the silence in between.’
Winning entries are: Linda Parr, Black Album, Monotype 1/1, Hawthorn dense black ink on Somerset smooth paper, 2022, Corinne Welch, The Hand of Friendship, fabric scroll – digital print and hand embroidery, 2022, and Harrison Taylor, Untitled, woodcut and stitching on paper, 2022.
The judges for Beyond the Pale: Chris Fletcher, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Jo Maddocks, Patrick Wildgust, Andrew Spira and Peter Lawrence
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
How does it change our understanding of a book when we come physically close to the materials it was created from? How does it change your perception to reflect not just on the words but the skills, processes, individuals, practices and modes of production that are enfolded into how a book was written, created, published, circulated and collected?
Courses and workshops in the Bibliographical Press at the Bodleian bring to life the technical and material history of books. A course on fiction or literature can, for example, be brought together with an opportunity to learn about the mechanical and material processes. This can be way to place historical, theoretical, structural reflections in a material-based physical and social reality. One example of this combined historical and material-based approach to learning are recent events on Tristram Shandy.
On 27 May, in The Making of Tristram Shandy, Dr. Helen Williams, Associate Professor of English Literature and a British Academy Innovation Fellow, Northumbria University and Dr.Elizabeth Savage, Senior Lecturer in Book History and Communications, Institute of English Studies, University of London gave a lecture (in person and online) on the visual, physical and conceptual features of this unique book.
The following day in the Bibliographical Press a workshop took place with three specialists, Louise Brockman (paper marbler), Peter Lawrence (wood engraver) and Richard Lawrence (letterpress). Students were introduced to some of the skills and techniques that went into the making of the Tristram Shandy and working collectively, with the eighteenth century book as the historic starting point, the group created a concertina publication.
Both events were organised by Centre of the Study of the Book and Novel Impressions, a project run by Helen Williams (Northumbria University) and funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards, which provides a series of research- and practice-led events that aim to create a network of early career researchers, printers, and curators producing print workshops for public audiences inspired by eighteenth-century literature. This particular event was supported by the Institute of English Studies, the Bodleian Library, and Book and Print Initiative.
During the workshop, we spoke to Richard, Louise and Peter about the skills they use in marbling, engraving and letterpress, and how they approached devising the workshop. Highlights from our conversation are shared below.
MeEt the practitioners
Louise Brockman, Paper Marbler
Can you talk us through the process of creating a marbled page for a publication? What materials do you use?
I use gouache paints, as I like the bright opaque colours. These paints are floated on a tank containing a ‘seaweed size’, a powder that has been blended with hot water to make a slightly gelatinous liquid. The paints are then manipulated into patterns using a stylus or comb to make a pattern and picked up on a sheet of paper that has been pre-treated with a mordant (a substance that allows dyes or paints to stick to paper or fabric).
For a specific publication I would discuss the requirements with the customer and come up with a selection of designs based on their pattern and colour preferences.
In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne commissioned marbled pages, these appear in different ways in different editions [see below]. What did you notice about the marbling in these publications?
In the copies that I have seen I have noticed that patterns are quite simple. This makes commercial sense if you are producing many pages, as to make a complicated design would entail more time and effort with more possibility of wastage.
How did you develop an approach to marbling for this workshop based on Tristram Shandy?
If you observe the pages in Tristram Shandy you can see the fold lines. This is vey unusual, so rather than marbling the whole page, which is what paper marblers do on the whole, only the middle section of the page has been marbled. The folding was a way to keep the rest of the page away from the tank and remain blank. I did quite a few tests on the best way to carry this out and found that the marbling was more successful with the sheet folded out of the way completely. I tried pressing a sheet after marbling and drying and the fold lines were still visible, I suspect this was probably how the pages were folded and marbled in Tristram Shandy, as the lines around the marbling are pretty crisp on the copies I have seen and, as mentioned previously, the folds are still visible.
Because of this the workshop attendees had the experience of their first ever marbled sheet being carried out in a slightly more complicated way than it would normally be. They all managed very well and we produced some lovely papers during the session.
Peter Lawrence, Wood Engraver
Can you tell us about the sorts of wood that would have been used for engraving in the eighteenth century?
Traditionally, the wood of choice has always been boxwood. Thomas Bewick, at the end of the 18th century, pioneered working on the cross-section of boxwood blocks which being so slow growing and therefore with its rings so tightly packed together, could replicate the hardness of metal. This meant he could engrave in all directions across the grain and produce fine marks not possible with woodcuts that are cut with broader tools on softer, long-grained wood.
Boxwood ‘rounds’, cut across the trunk, are not large. That means a rectangular block cut from the centre will only be a few centimetres across. To make a larger print, blocks are glued together, which is therefore more costly. Many current engravers work on lemonwood blocks, which has a slightly more open grain. Lemonwood blocks are generally larger, and so cheaper to make into larger composite blocks.
All blocks are made ‘type-high’ to sit on the press and be printed in the same pass as metal type. Apart from the fact that boxwood was cheaper than metal to use, it was the fact that text and images could be printed together in publications in the 19th century, without the expense of tipping-in separate intaglio printed images, that made wood engraving so attractive.
What kind of tools would be needed?
There are five basic wood engraving tools – spitstickers, gravers, tint tools, round and square scorpers. Each has a particular use, or more than one use, in producing lines and stipples. They have different shaped pointed ends and each come in a series of sizes… To print by hand we just need, in addition, a small roller, a thick book, some talc, a spoon and some Japanese paper.
There are what could be wood engravings in ‘Thomas Shandy’. What did you notice about them?
Not being familiar with the diagrams in Shandy, I assumed from their date, the mid-18th century, that they would be woodcuts. However, having copied and created a couple of lines myself, I know that with wood engraving those tight curves would certainly have been easier. So the jury is out, but I’d say they are more likely to be wood engravings. They are certainly relief prints, the woodblocks sitting within the page of type.
The printed lines have a varying thickness. The engraver would have copied exactly the drawing supplied by Sterne which, if done with a metal pen nib, would have naturally created a variation in thickness due to varying pressure. Of course a skilled engraver could have ‘corrected’ that variation had he/she been asked to.
How did you develop an approach to wood engraving for the workshop that replicated the process that might have been used at the time?
Each student was supplied with a block, just over the width of one of the plotlines. I showed them two lines that I had cut, copying the originals. The students each drew a line across the width of their block. I supplied a range of tools. The idea was to cut either side of their line, first with a fine tool, then clearing more with a broader tool. We only needed to cut enough wood away to reveal the line, but it became obvious to everyone how much effort there was to clear the backgrounds for the original blocks. The wood around the lines has to be lowered enough not to pick up ink in the printing. With a wooden press, using dampened paper this was probably more more difficult than with later iron presses.
Richard Lawrence, Letterpress Printer
What are some of the unique features of Tristram Shandy, from the perspective of the letterpress?
Most of what appears in Tristram Shandy had been done in other books before, but it was highly unusual to do these things in a ‘novel’. Examples include various small illustrations incorporated in the text. One of the more challenging things is the black page. Laying down that much ink using a wooden handpress is a challenge which explains why it was not very black. Similarly the marbled page is a challenge of logistics to provide that many copies.
What would it take to put together a single sheet in a publication in the eighteenth century ?
What size paper do you have? What size machine do you have? How many pages will the sheet be folded into? These three questions give the basic dimensions of line length etc. Is it possible to print work and turn to reduce the number of impressions? What type do you have enough of for the publication? (Not always anything but Hobson’s choice). Are there any special sorts (accented characters etc.)? And what will you do about them? Are there any illustrations to incorporate? Who will produce them?
What do students learn from setting type?
They perhaps learn what a slow and fiddly business it is and that type is responsible for the look of the page. It also limits how many pages can be printed at any one time. It is also the most expensive part of the equipment of a printer. Students might also learn that compositors (typesetters) do alter small details of the author’s work (spelling, italicization, etc.)in the course of their work. (Sterne may have been an exception in requiring the compositors to adhere to his manuscript more closely.)
Typesetting might also bring home to students that the people printing a book have all sorts of concerns about the process that means they are largely divorced from the content. While there might well be some element of craft pride in doing a good job, printers printed because they got paid, not for the love of the words/text.
Can you tell us about the idea for the concertina publication?
Peter Smith, a wood engraver who works from a studio at St Bride Foundation in London, came up with the idea before the pandemic and was gracious enough to allow it to be used by this group. It is ingenious because it only involves printing one side of a sheet so eliminating the usual drying time required before printing the reverse of a sheet.
For more information about courses and workshops in the Bibliographical Press, please contact email@example.com.
Selected editions of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman are currently of view in Sensational Books, 27 May – 4 December 2022, Weston Library.
The editor has added titles to the sonnets. This sets up your expectation of what the poem is about. We noticed that in the first edition the sonnets are just numbered, with no titles.
Sonnet 57 (2016). Michael Hurley, Titivilus Press, Memphis, Tennessee, 2016 Black type with a coloured half border, 27 cm. height. On the verso is a reproduction of the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, from the First Folio edition of his plays.
Before we saw the first edition, this is what we thought a Shakespeare book ‘should’ look like, with old-fashioned type and decorative borders.
Sonnet 61 (2016). Linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, 2016
This combines image and the text, all printed from linocut. The words of the sonnet are incorporated into a beautiful image.
Sonnet 110 (2016). Pixel Press, Stoke Newington, London, 2016. A moveable. The words of the dedication and a closed eye are seen at first, but when you move the tab, the eye opens and the words of the sonnet appear in windows.