LIBRARY.. Original Prints
Firstly, an 'original print' is not a contradiction. ORIGINAL PRINTS are from the original engraved, etched or lithographed plate.
Think of the print (most commonly an engraving or lithograph) as being the process; and the term "original" to indicate that it is an original in that it was made/taken/struck/pulled from the printing plate, whether a block of wood or stone, or a plate of metal. The original print may have been published hundreds of years ago; but it could also have been printed yesterday. The date mentioned in a description of a particular print indicates the actual date of printing. In the case of many groups of images, they would have been created over a period of years and the books, folios or atlases in which they were to be circulated could also have been published over a period of years. As the exact date is sometimes difficult of know ‘circa’ is used, followed by a year (as in circa 1777 or c1777). Just as ‘antique’ means that an item is over 100 years old, ‘circa’ means 'around' and indicates a span of 20 years.
There are two identical original prints (of the same image and date - taken from the same plate), there is always a slight, though often almost imperceptible difference between the works. Perhaps there is a variation in the depth of ink tone or in the definition of the engraving; or if hand-coloured, the depth or tone of colour will differ slightly, or perhaps the life of the print has caused varying discolouration of the paper. Sometimes the condition of the printing plate deteriorated during the period of printing. This depended on the quality of the material used for the plate as well as the number of prints made. The carving of images on woodblocks was discontinued for this reason. Copper was also a relatively soft metal used for plates. Each print’s value is affected by its condition.
The earliest printing was found in China, dated to AD8, and used by Buddhist monks, but printmaking in Europe began late in the 13th century. Many antique prints are very rare, not only because of their age, but also when they were done for a grand publication or were from a short print run. Early printmaking made information and illustrations available, where previously knowledge would depend on individual access to an item. Each impression taken from the original plate is considered to be original artwork, yet the fact that there are a number of impressions taken from the one plate enables a far greater distribution and at a far lower price than for a one-off watercolour or painting. This ensures that original prints remain an attractive proposition for the art lover on modest means.
Engravers usually specialized in a particular subject or style for which they gained a reputation, and their prints became popular with collectors. Some engraved prints were used to enhance the name of a budding artist, or to increase the fame of artists whose reputation was already established for their watercolours or oil paintings. A well-known artist who was contracted to a gallery, would sometimes do engravings under a pseudonym, not only for artistic freedom, but also to supplement his income. The ability of many early women artists was not recognized. Women artists flourished because of the popularity of their engravings or lithographs. they were particularly prominent with illustrations of nature. John Gould’s wife Elizabeth drew over 600 beautiful large lithographic plates of birds for her famous husband’s grand publications (as well as give birth to their eight children).
Copperplate engraving was the main method of producing illustrations in the eighteenth century which was the pinnacle of fine antique print production. By the end of the eighteenth century the finest illustrations were mainly contained within expensive books that only the wealthy could afford. Grand colour plate books became popular during the early part of the nineteenth century, and by the middle of the century, the range of beautifully illustrated subjects was limitless. From the voyages of discovery, classical discoveries of earlier times, the development of architecture, topographical views, battles from around the world, the discovery of new specimens of flora and fauna, sporting pursuits, pastimes, fashions and formal portraits, … every imaginable subject was covered.
Demand for entertainment and knowledge was catered for as less expensive paper and printing techniques were developed. The nineteenth century saw the return of the woodcut and wood engraving that were much less expensive, but also less durable processes, to illustrate periodicals for wider and more frequent circulation. Over the years, the variations of style with the different printing processes in portraying one individual subject, provide a fascinating study.
The variety of subject and style of antique prints is enormous, offering wide possibilities for an absorbing interest – and perhaps a fine collection? This pleasure spreads to others when you hang them on the wall and share your enthusiasm. Antique prints and maps look good in either traditional or modern décor - in the workplace or the home. If we are lucky enough to find an image we love, we can always find a place on the wall, to give pleasure for years! Ongoing fascination can lie not only in the early method of producing the artwork, but also in the sometimes questionable or humorous artistic(?) interpretation of the subject involved - as in an engraving of an unfamiliar newly-discovered animal, a map of an inaccurate newly-charted coastline that has since been proved wrong, or even fashionable clothes or caricatures with social comment.
Interest in a subject matter does not always guarantee a happy collector however. The most desirable result comes with the ability to purchase from a reputable dealer who is able to widen the knowledge and appreciation of the buyer by providing relevant information about the selection, and offering a variety of suggestions for consideration. Whilst a familiarity with the specialized field of antique maps and prints is not a pre-purchase requirement, appreciation and enjoyment is usually enhanced by some knowledge of the source of any image, and an understanding of the method of production. [See Printmaking Methods in this Library.] Antique prints will always retain their appeal in future centuries – as they steadily become rarer.
Rarity of antique prints
Prints are often the best-known works by some of the world's greatest artists - as is the case with Albrecht Durer. When it is not possible to find, or be able to afford, the first edition of an artist’s work (e.g. Albrecht Durer or William Hogarth), their work has such appeal and ongoing relevance that there are antique prints that were published over hundreds of years since – which makes them available at a much lower cost with the same beauty and inimitable social comment. Today, the earliest prints that are likely to be available are from 17th century or later. The earliest ones were printed on hand-made paper which was an expensive commodity. From 17th century nature studies were usually hand-coloured with natural ochres made from minerals and vegetables. These early colours, and the gouache colour of classical engravings, endure much better than modern printing inks.
Over the centuries the methods of printmaking have changed because of demands for greater print runs to circulate to a larger population, and because of the expensiveness of skillful engravers and the length of time taken to do the work. This is why early antique prints will always be appreciated. Camera images now replicate in a brief second. Lacking the personal painstaking skill required in previous centuries, they do not offer so much interest.
Appraisal of antique prints and antique maps
The value of an antique print or map is established by many factors. The most important factors are rarity, quality and condition. The better quality and more easily recognized items are more in demand, particularly if the engraver or lithographer, or artist or mapmaker is well-known or highly regarded. On the other hand demand for a particular print or map will vary depending on subject matter popularity in a particular location, so this can also be a factor in the price. Of most importance in your selection should be the appeal a particular item has for you.
The earlier prints produced from any plate often have greater clarity of detail, as the surface has not deteriorated through the pressure of printing and the ink is taken up better in the engraved or etched grooves of the plate. While this could affect value to a certain extent, if an antique map or print is extremely rare and an important subject it would probably not affect the price too much. Inevitably, the better quality and more relevant, easily recognized items will be more in demand, which will also affect their value.
Ideally antique maps and prints should be in good condition and free of 'foxing' (the small yellowish-brown marks from dust or other foreign bodies), and other imperfections. Because of the fragility of paper this is not always possible; and in some parts of the world evidence of age is actually revered.
With regards colour of antique prints and maps, purists prefer contemporary colour (that is from the time of publication). Once a map or print is framed it is not always easy to discern when colour was done, and well-rendered later hand-colour is often preferred for more decorative artwork to hang on the wall. I love antique prints that leave sections uncoloured so that the engraving can be seen (particularly in the case of flora and fauna). The addition of suitable colour, complimentary to the style of a map or print, more often adds to its value – as has been proven at auction many times.
You should go with your individual preference and requirements. The most important thing is that you enjoy your artwork. And let’s face it, if you buy what you like, it’s unlikely you will want to sell it – unless you decide to exchange it for others you like better. It is not common that an investment can be enjoyed as much as antique artwork – especially if it is on display, framed with conservation materials to preserve it well.
Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration
The most important thing to remember in preserving artwork in its optimum state, is to use only conservation materials when framing or handling. When storing rare and fragile loose-leaf items such as antique maps and prints, it is wise to seal them in an acid-free conservation product, to protect from contamination of fungi from the damp, or foreign chemicals or insects penetrating the fibres of the paper. Foxing is a particular problem in tropical climates, where the warm, humid climate can lead to rapid deterioration of paper artwork if it is not protected. Conservation envelopes and ‘acid-free’ tissue and boxes are available. Ask your specialist stationer… or consult Dr Google.
Artwork should always be framed with conservation materials. They are a little more expensive, but should be available from any professional picture framer. Ensure your artwork remains properly sealed against changes in humidity (as in a bathroom) and to protect from invasive insects. At the very least, the corners of a frame's moulding should be closely joined and the back of the frame sealed along its edges with an acid-free tape. Most importantly, the mount-board or passepartout that touches the actual print or map, should be ‘acid-free’ (i.e. not made from wood pulp), and the paper of the artwork should not be touching the glass. Now that conservation glass is widely available, you are able to prevent paper deterioration or colour fading, and maintain the condition of your artwork as it is when acquired. Museum glass is currently of the highest standard.
If manually handling prints it is always wise to wash hands with soap first. Unfortunately, hands continuously exude oil and pick up dust, and consequently stain paper – particularly the more absorbent papers. The result may not show for many years, but can annoy long after the mishandling. Cotton gloves are worn when handling archival material in museums, and should be used when handling your precious prints. Smudging of printing ink or colour can also damage a print.
Prints should be handled carefully by the edges. Paper is a fragile commodity and may be brittle, particularly along the edges, and particularly when old. Beware of slight extremity tears which are more vulnerable to damage. Do not bend or dint the prints, as this also can leave a permanent mark. Any damage will affect the ultimate value of a map or print.
Many early works have been restored over the years. Repairs to paper tears when done correctly are virtually undetectable. When a repair is poorly done, perhaps with non-conservation materials, it not only looks bad, the ‘restoration’ itself can cause further damage. Any damage and/or subsequent repair will, of course, affect the value; but obviously if a repair can preserve a work and prevent further deterioration it should be done. Specialist conservators are available in most capital cities around the world. If in doubt, approach your local antique print dealer, museum or art gallery for advice or reference.
If in doubt, or if you would like further information, take your artwork to your local antique print dealer, museum or art gallery for advice or reference. If this is impracticable, let your fingers do the walking and telephone or email. Antique prints can cost as little as $30 or many thousands of dollars. Either can be equally precious to the owner. The most important thing is to enjoy them!