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Etched in Steel

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by Sheri Boggs


The works in "Shakespeare Prints: Published by Boydell" would be amazing even if they had been limned in straightforward pen and ink. But these are prints, and the painstaking process of their creation adds another level of appreciation. "These prints are a tour de force of late 18th-century English engraving," explains Scott Patnode, director of the Jundt Art Museum and co-curator of the Shakespeare prints show. "The artist is only working with black ink and white paper, but look at the range of value from light to dark the artist was able to achieve. It's really stunning work."


The process is similar to drawing, in that the images are sketched into a steel plate with an engraving tool. Unlike relief printing processes, in engraving, the amount of engraving dictates the gray value in the finished piece. The ink slips into the cut marks and crevices of the etching, and then is transferred to the thick, heavy paper when the plate and paper are rolled through a press.


"You could equate the quality of engraving in this show with the engraving you might find on a dollar bill," says Patnode. "What's remarkable is when you realize that the artist is drawing this freehand in the steel. It's incredibly detailed and precise."


From an art history perspective, these prints are fascinating in their references to earlier works. In addition to the strong imagery of Renaissance "deposition" paintings in Richard III, there is also an emphasis on classical Greek and Roman sculptural art.


"These pieces are neoclassical, certainly in the sense of their treatment of the figures. Many are dressed in the fashion of Greek gods and goddesses, depending on the specific figures," Patnode says. "The furnishings have a distinct classical line as well. You can see it in the engravers' treatment of draperies and in the lines of the furniture."


While some of the pieces (particularly Henry VIII's deliberate visual reference to Hans Holbein's famous portrait of the portly, oft-married monarch) clearly refer to earlier styles of art, these are very much engravings of their own era. The faces and figures of the characters embody the sweeping heroism or passions of the Romantic Age, and in some instances, the piled-high hairdos could just as easily be found in the court of King George III as in the court of any Tudor king.


"They tend to be period pieces of that time," says Patnode. "The engravers definitely employ a baroque line in producing these works."