19th Century Magazine Engravings

June 26, 2010

I’ve been spending time recently looking through some online copies of Scribner’s Magazine from the late 19th century editions, and pondering the loss of the fine art of the engraver’s needle. (Blessings to archive.org for placing all those old publications online.) Look also at copies of The Century magazine for more of the same.

Engraving detail


The skill of some of these artisans was extraordinary, but the credits were not always clear. In the case of this splendid engraving “John Wilson’s Home at Elleray” circa 1889, the name of the artist is only given as “Andrew.” Sometimes the credit would just be the printing company it came from, such as Bartlett & Co. It leads me to believe that the editors bought the plates from printers in advance for the article, and that the artist’s name was only known by the signature, if it had one. In this article from an 1878 Harper’s Catalog, however, it shows they had their own printing plant.

Within a few years photographs started to appear, and the engraver’s role was reduced to touch-up art on the brighter values that photo printing at that time couldn’t handle. The quality of the work declined noticeably. As printing technology improved, their services were no longer required.

In order to reproduce some of these engravings as an ink drawing using the smallest quill point would mean scaling the image at least 5 or 6 times larger than its original printed size. A letter-sized engraving would wind up being 4 or 5 feet. I actually rather like the idea of that, but that would be quite a load of ink. Remember that these engravers worked at print size using tiny needles. It must have made them cross-eyed.



  1. Beautiful engravings!!

  2. Hi David;

    Is there any information on how old these artists were when they had to stop the engraving? Thinking here of the carpet weavers in India, and aren’t or weren’t they thought to loose vision early in life?
    And the light conditions – wonder if they worked outdoors and if so if that helped.

    By the way, have you ever had this experience earlier in your career? Someone asked me to complete a 3’x2 l/2′ oil of a reproduction begun by someone else. It was of a Tamara de Lempicke arrangement of calla lilies.

    The completion took many hours, much more than I expected because things were way out of whack anatomically (and different from the original) and partly because I’m an intermediate painter, not a master of the craft. And there was the real problem of my style of realistic painting and the art deco didn’t work easily together.

    Now they have it back and while everyone I know who is a painter thinks it’s really good, the owners have given a muted response. They are neighbours and
    enjoy art, but don’t know a terrific amount about it.
    Anyway I feel kind of let down and embarrassed. I think I’ll just let it go, rather than ask them if they really really really like it. Anyway thanks for letting me express what’s been rather upsetting recently.


    • Nancy, I haven’t any information on these artists to share. As I mentioned, sometimes just finding out their names is difficult. That link to the Harper’s Catalog article gives you some idea of their working conditions. They certainly didn’t work outside.

      When working on a production line in an art studio, I would often finish work designed or touched by others, feeling the best thing for it would be to start it over from scratch, but that wouldn’t be acceptable. Unfortunately, work that starts off badly will end up badly. Even if it’s some other artist’s fault, if you accepted the job you get the blame. My suggestion is to toughen up and let it go. It may likely come up in conversation at some point where they’ll hopefully tell you how much they appreciate it.

      • Yes, I’ll check out the Harper’s Catalog, and as well thank you David for your realistic view of toughening up a bit and letting it go. Also your experience on the production line helps me understand the problem better.

        At least now I know how to paint calla lilies – for better or worse. Cheers,

  3. […] Here are a few more examples of the fine engravings I found digging around the archive.org site, these coming from the 1890 edition as I recall. I’m including some cropped closeups. |Link to previous post| […]

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