Steel Engraving

The term "Steel Engraving" has been so much used that one is apt to think of it as an art in itself. But it is simply a line-engraving on steel instead of copper. It seems well, however, here to treat it separately, since certain things characteristic of Steel Engraving arose, caused partly by the change of metal and partly by the utilitarian reason for the change. Daniel Hopfer and Durer, early in the 16th century, used iron for etching, but it probably never was used for engraving until three hundred years after, when Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), of Newburyport, Massachusetts, invented a process of softening the metal for the purpose of engraving and hardening it for the purpose of printing. Perkins thus made Steel Engravings possible, but his invention was really an attempt to prevent forgery of bank notes, not to promote the graphic arts. He used thick blocks of steel, not the regulation plates of the old copperplate, line engravers, that could be "knocked up" from the back in the event of necessary changes. His invention was patented in the United States in 1799, and in England in 1810. Perkin's patent attracted attention in London and a number of engravers brought their minds to bear on the subject. A little later an art society offered a medal for "the best specimen of engraving on a steel plate." The result was that by 1821 Charles Warrne, Charles Heath, William Say, David Lucas, Charles Turner, and Thomas Lupton had made more or less satisfactory engravings on steel plates. Of these, however, Warren's engraving, The Broken China Jar, was the only one done in line, hence it was probably the first Steel Engraving in the sense in which the term is used here. From that time until about 1870 steel fought an ever-winning fight with copper. When, however, steel faced copper plates and electrotypes came into use, making it possible to use copper for comparatively large editions, the older and better loved metal regained somewhat its lost prestige. he publishers of the 19th century who resorted to steel for their line-engravings did so frankly because more imporessions could be struck from the harder metal. The task of engraving was less agreeable but no more difficult (see Line Engraving) because this was done before the steel was hardened. Following up the idea of expediency, the lines were more firmly cut. Craftsmen were urded to think of good printing quality in plates that were to have "a clean wipe," for rapid printing with coal black ink, on a less desirable grade of paper. This intensive business efficiency was overdone and the swing is now in the opposite direction. Engravers are earnestly sought who have artistic ability and are urged to let this appear in their work. he differences between a line-engraving executed on copper and a Steel Engraving are extremely subtle, but they are real and came as the result of the materials used and the stressing of commercialism. Steel engravers were good draughtsmen but extremely matter-of-fact and slavish in their adherence to copy. They were not allowed the freedom of interpretation that the older copper plate men enjoyed. They used ruling machines for places, such as the sky, where an even tone was wanted, and later machines were developed that cut the lines for several other portions of the compositions, all of which only further served to take from the work all spontaneity and intensified its mechancial appearence. Steel Engravings are usually unsympathetically printed in ink that lacks warmth, and they have about them an air of crisp, cold self-righteousness. Steel Engravings often show no plate mark because this, being indented, made the manufacturing of large editions a bit more difficult.