Georgian prints covered an enormous variety of subjects; hugely popular in their own time, they are just as keenly sought after by many of today's enthusiasts.
Prints provided an ideal opportunity to decorate a number of different rooms fairly inexpensively. Prints were glued to the wall and framed with decorative garlands and bows - a fine alternative to using wallpaper.
Georgian gentlemen were avid collectors of prints. These were the only widely available source of pictorial material, other than original drawings and paintings, and were equally important to connoisseurs of the arts, amateur botanists, tourists with a taste for the picturesque, and admirers of pretty actresses.
Italian, French and Swiss prints, taken from engravings, were greatly admired in the 18th century, and an international trade in them flourished in Europe. But the period was also the golden age of British printmaking and the galleries of John Boydell in the last quarter of the century, and of Rudolf Ackermann in the Regency period, were among the sights of London that tourists flocked to see.
Mezzotint had recently become popular in Britain. A form of intaglio printing, like engraving and etching, mezzotint involves ink being transferred to paper from grooves cut into a copper plate. But instead of engraving lines on a smooth plate, the mezzotinter first roughened it to produce a textured surface which printed a velvety, uniform black. The roughened ground was then scraped away to produce a graduation of tone, from black to white. In this way the subtle effects of light in an oil painting could be reproduced in print.
ENGRAVING AND ETCHING
Line engraving, in which the design was cut directly into the plate, and etching, where the design was scratched through a wax-covered plate which was then immersed in acid that ate into the copper, were still used, and after 1770, two other techniques became popular:
stipple engraving and aquatint. Stipple offered a convenient way of creating tonal effects by means of a toothed cutting wheel, producing a mezzotint effect more quickly and easily.
Aquatint enabled the softer tones of watercolour paintings to be reproduced in print. A copper plate covered with resin granules was drawn on and then dipped in etching fluid. To produce prints more quickly, two or more of these techniques were often used together.
Maps, landscapes and views of towns were popular subjects, while portraits of royalty and celebrated thespians had the same appeal then as today's Press photographs. Sporting and political prints were beginning a vogue that was to last right through the reign of Queen Victoria, and the period also saw the birth of the fashion plate.
Hogarth remains the best known figure from the time and the prints taken from his paintings resulted in some of the most abiding images of life in 18th-century Britain.
GEORGIAN ART COLLECTOR's NOTES
Learning to judge the quality of a print, which is the surest way of establishing its authorship and age, takes time and a good eye. It is worth making many comparisons of similar prints before
risking any large investment. It is pointless spending a lot of money for a bad print when there are still many good-quality 18th century prints to be had at relatively cheap prices from reputable specialist dealers.
Just what constitutes an 'original' print can be confusing, but is important because it reflects on the price you pay. This is an old problem. In some cases the painter of a work would make an engraved copy but, more commonly, an agreement was made with a professional engraver to reproduce it. Once a print was
published, however, there was nothing to stop another publisher from having a copy engraved and cashing in on its success. Although the two copies might be contemporary, only the licensed copier and the first print run can be considered 'original'.
A further problem is that popular prints were reissued from a plate until the plate wore out. Then, a new copy of the plate might have been made and a new set of prints released. While such prints may claim to be 'from an original engraving', neither the plate nor the print are true originals.
In trying to establish the age of prints, there are guides, like the watermarks of the papermakers of the time and the distinctive woven pattern of old paper. However, the faker of fine prints has long mastered such hurdles. The ageing of old paper is more difficult to counterfeit, so this may give a rough indication of how old a print is.
The condition of prints depends on how they have been kept, and some of the better mounted ones are remarkably well preserved. Mounted prints retain their value as long as the mount does not obscure the plate mark - the indentation of the paper around the printed edge - which is produced in all intagho printing, when the print paper is pressed on to the plate. This also causes the inked lines to stand out, almost in relief. Trimming a print to fit a mount by removing the plate mark is looked on as vandalism by serious collectors and reduces a print's value.
You'll find some antique postcards in on-line auctions, but retail
availability is quite limited, with only a few stores scattered around the nation.