King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration


An etching showing a view of a bay with ships in the foreground and mountains on the land in the backgroundAn etching showing the view of the city of San Sebastian and island of Cobrus, Rio de JaneiroJohn Shillibeer was a lieutenant of the Royal Marines who sailed aboard HMS Briton on a voyage to Pitcairn in the South Pacific in 1814. The illustration on display, ‘A view of the city of San Sebastian and island of Cobrus, Rio de Janiero’, was one of several sketched on the spot by Shillibeer and later etched to accompany his account of the voyage.

The technique of etching developed in Germany in the early 16th century. The technique reached new heights in the 17th century with the work of the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), a pupil of Rubens, and that of the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), paving the way for later book illustration. Etching was less laborious than engraving, which suited commercial work, and lines could be drawn more freely, as evident in the plate on display.

Instead of using the burin, the artist or craftsman used acid to bite the design into the plate. A layer of wax was applied to the heated copper plate, forming an acid-resistant ground. The design was drawn with a needle onto the hardened coating, opening up lines in the wax to expose the copper surface underneath.

The plate was then immersed in a bath of acid to allow the chemical to bite into the exposed lines of copper. The intensity of the lines could be controlled by removing the plate and applying varnish to protect any areas sufficiently bitten, a technique known as ‘stopping out’, before re-immersing the plate in the acid.

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