Sunday, April 26, 2015

Amazing Victorians

 Who's dour and stodgy?

Much criticized, and often stereotyped as a dour, stodgy era, the Victorian period actually exploded with vibrant art and scientific discoveries, fueled by the inquisitiveness and varied passions of the people during that time.

I love the Victorians; their art, literature, and curiosity!
And I especially love the art of Sir John Tenniel, most famous for his illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice books, but a contributor to Punch magazine as well.

But getting those incredible illustrations transferred to a printing press was a complex task, made possible by brilliant scientific discoveries of the age--in this case, engraving and electrotyping.

Preliminary drawing for Father William by Sir John Tenniel.
(Image from Tenniel's Alice, 1978, The President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Tenniel's illustrations were meticulously hand-drawn, using very hard 6h pencils--especially made for him. He worked in the "facsimile-style" for engraving; drawing directly onto the surface of the wood block before sending it to the engravers.  First, Tenniel worked up his composition, transferred the drawing via tracing paper directly onto a boxwood block, and then finished the detailed line-work. When completed, the block was sent to the talented engravers, the Brothers Dalziel, who carefully preserved the style of the artist while cutting the design into the wood.

 But the demands of high-quantity printing would wear down an engraved block.

The solution: Electrotyping, discovered in the early part of the nineteenth century, and perfected by the Victorians.
It was a fantastic invention--basically transforming the wood engraving into a harder, metal plate. The process: A wax mold (subsequently coated with fine graphite dust) or a lead mold was taken of the engraved block. This mold was then immersed in a bath of metal salts and H2O, along with a bar of the same metal. The mold is the cathode--connected to the negative terminal of the electric source. The metal bar--the anode--is connected to the positive electrical source.

Electrotype Diagram*
When the electric power was activated, the bath gave its metal content to the surface of the mold. The electrical current flowed through the (copper in this diagram) anode connected to the positive terminal of the electrical source, through the bath, and into the coated mold (the cathode). A metal film (the electrotype) grew onto the electrically conducting coating of the mold.

 The result: A sturdy metal engraving plate capable of many printings--amazing!

A colored version of the engraving, from a special edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published by Random House in 1946.

 So, who's dour and stodgy?
(Photo ca. 1883-1886, by Eadweard Muybridge)

 Thanks for reading!

*"Electrotyping" by Easchiff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -


  1. Amazing VIctorian, indeed! Didn't they also have solar panels type things on the rooftops of their homes?

    1. Sort of, Miss Gladys. In the late 1800's a French engineer developed South-facing rooftop solar collectors. I seem to remember it worked, but he abandoned the project for some reason. (Could the oil lobby have been around then? I'm certain Dick Cheney most likely was, lol)

  2. That's incredible, the process that artists had to go through to reproduce their work. That's one more reason why viewing a piece of art in person is so much more of an authentic experience that seeing it on a computer screen (with the exception of specifically digital art, of course) Thanks for the insights!

    1. You are welcome, Katherine. Glad we've moved past it, although it must have been a very satisfying, if tedious, process :)


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