Open Up the Worlds
of the Past
the Middle Ages forward, it is possible to find prints illustrating practically every area
of the globe and every human activity. Prints were both artistic expression and a
means of recording daily life, much as photography is today. They are beautiful to
look at and intellectually stimulating. Prints are collected for their intrinsic
fascination or may be used in decorating to impart a distinctive personalized character.
What is a Print?
"Print" is a generic term used to describe multiples of
the same image produced from a common source or 'matrix' (typically wood, metal or
stone). Thus a photograph, a printed road map, and an engraving hand-produced by the
artist are all examples of prints. Antique prints and maps were produced by techniques
where the matrix was worked by hand (as opposed to photo-mechanical methods which became
common from the late 19th century), and this is immediately apparent in the quality of the
looking at antique prints and maps you need to be able to identify the different methods
employed to make a print, and to distinguish between a genuinely old print and a modern
reproduction of an old print.
How Were Antique Prints Produced?
methods of producing antique prints fall into three general categories:
The areas to be inked and printed are left standing in relief after the rest of the block
(typically wood or linoleum) has been cut away. Examples: woodcuts and wood engravings.
The areas to be printed are cut or incised into a metal plate by a variety of techniques.
Ink is applied to the incisions into the plate and the surface is wiped clean. The
print is produced by applying damp paper to the surface and running it through a press,
forcing the ink from the incisions. Examples: engraving, etching, aquatint,
mezzotint, drypoint. Typically, a plate mark (an indentation in the paper due to the
pressure needed to pull the ink out of the incisions) identifies the intaglio
With lithography, the main example of this process, the image is drawn on finely grained
limestone or on a metal plate with a greasy pencil, crayon or ink. The stone is
treated with a chemical solution, dampened, and then inked. The ink is attracted to
the greasy crayon marks but repelled by the dampened areas. When paper is placed on
the stone and both run through a press, the image is transferred, from a flat surface.
What is an "Original"
processes that are today associated with "fine art" were once used to provide
illustrations for books, newspapers and magazines as well as for individually published
prints. When these "commercial art" processes were replaced by
photographic reproduction, lithography, wood engraving etc. became the exclusive
techniques of "fine art". The distinction was solidified by the
introduction of such concepts as the signed "limited edition" print (where
the artist signs and numbers each print) and the emphasis on an "original"
print (where the artist produces the "block", the source of all subsequent
images). Prior to the late nineteenth century, there was not this importance attached
to the artist producing the printing block; rather, artisans skilled in this process
were routinely employed.
How do you Distinguish a Genuine
Old Print from a Modern Reproduction?
more you look at old prints the easier this becomes. Most reproductions of old
prints produced by modern means have a flat appearance which contrasts with the crispness
and depth of tone of the old print. It is this quality of printing which will
make you gravitate to the genuine old print.
Look at the print through a magnifying glass. The majority of reproductions of old
prints are produced by photomechanical means and can easily be distinguished by the
pattern of lines and dots visible through the magnifying glass. A regular grid
pattern of dots indicates a photo-offset reproduction. Of course, prints produced
since the late 19th century may have originally been printed by this technique. A more
recent development in color reproduction is xeroxing. When seen in
magnification, a color xerox print is identified by parallel lines of color.
Examine old prints and become familiar with the look of different techniques. Lithographs
have an irregular granular pattern (contrast the granular look of a genuine old Currier
and Ives print with the dot grid pattern of a twentieth century Currier and Ives
calendar print). Engravings and wood engravings are both linear in pattern --
reproductions of these processes lack the crispness of the original. (The book by Bamber
Gascoigne listed below has excellent illustrations showing the distinguishing
characteristics of different print techniques).
2. Examine the paper. The
paper used at different times and places has a distinctive look and feel. Watermarks
in the paper help to identify the age of the print. This type of knowledge is gained
by experience examining old prints, and is one reason why buying a costly framed print
(where the paper cannot be examined) from other than a reputable dealer can be a risky
What Makes a Print Valuable?
old print produced by one of the methods described above has an intrinsic value which a
modern photo-offset reproduction does not.
Factors which influence value are subject matter, artist or printmaker, quality of
technique, scarcity and, of course, condition. Problems of condition include tears, foxing
(small brown spots), mildew, waterstains and holes. A paper conservator should
be consulted to determine what can be done to restore a damaged print.
the purist will always value the print in its original state, modern handcoloring, if
skillfully applied, may enhance the value of a commonly available black and white image.
How do I Care for My Antique
paper on which prints were produced varies greatly in quality and durability, but if kept
under proper conditions (no extremes of temperature or humidity and out of direct
sunlight), pre-twentieth century paper is amazingly durable. The following are a few
suggestions for print care, but please consult a paper conservator or qualified framer for
more detailed information.
A print should be handled using both hands, to give adequate support and to prevent
- Although all old prints were not produced on acid-free paper, keeping them
in an acid-free environment will aid their longevity. Offending "acid"
materials include framing materials of an earlier era. Often rematting,
if not reframing, will help preserve a precious print.
- Do not use staples, paperclips or adhesive or "scotch" tape
on old prints.
- Prints should never be exposed to direct sunlight; the use of an
ultra-violet filtering glass or plexiglass is highly recommended to minimize fading.
Abbreviations found on old prints:
del. delineavit (Latin, drew it), denotes
the artist's name
lith. denotes the lithographer's name
pinx.: pinxit (Latin, painted it), denotes
the artist's name
sc., sculp. sculpsit, (Latin, engraved by),
denotes the engraver's name;
interchangeable with eng. (English, engraved)
Generally, the artist's name is noted at the bottom left of a print, the maker of the
printblock at the right.
chromolithograph - a
lithograph printed in color, using different stones or plates for each color
foxing - brownish
spots on the paper, with a number of causes, including dampness, fungus, and paper
restrike - a print
"struck" (ie printed) from the original block (usually a metal plate) but
at a later time than the original edition. Restrikes are particularly common with such
images as British hunting scenes, which have routinely been reprinted over the years since
they were first published.
Gascoigne, B. - How to Identify Prints
A complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to ink jet.
Thames & Hudson 1986.
Griffiths, Antony - Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction
to the History and Techniques. 1980.
Hults, Linda - The Print in the Western World.
University of Wisconsin.
Wilder, F. L. - How to Identify Old Prints.
Ivins, W.M. - How Prints Look.
Beacon Press 1964.
Hughes, Therle - Prints for the Collector.
Rix, M. - The Art of Botanical Illustration.
Arch Cape Press 1990.
Dance, S.P. - The Art of Natural History.
Arch Cape Press 1990.
van de Gohm, R. - Antique Maps for the Collector.
Moreland, C. & D. Bannister - Antique Maps.
Schwartz, S. & R. Ehrenberg - The Mapping of America.
This article is used here by kind permission of the author
Elisabeth Burdon, www.oldimprints.com.
Copyright 1992 Elisabeth Burdon