About Me

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I led workshops at the British Library2003-2019, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and now teach the history of printing and history of the English language at educational institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in printmaking, performance, public engagement, curating and intervention; and I lead museum tours.


Monday, 2 December 2019

William Blake and mixed etching and engraving techniques

As is well known to Blake students, the artist was apprenticed to an engraver in his mid-teens and maintained a career as a jobbing engraver, which both gave him an income and introduced him to artists and publishers, some of whom became patrons*. Blake’s engraving work on Hayley’s Life of Cowper, published in 1803, was arduous though the results were far beyond competent; rather than thinking of this as drudgery, Blake was pleased with both the work he did and the standard of printing achieved by his wife Catherine – ‘She does [it] to admiration’. Inspection of the print shows Blake’s skill as an engraver, maintaining the curvature of broken line, and using a line of varying width in cross-hatch for nuances of form and tone. He was working at a time when engraving had reached its apogee, before the introduction of Fielding’s parallel line cutting process rendered engraving mechanistic and flat.

With this in mind it is tempting to assume that Blake kept apart the famous relief etching technique, for his own work, and the engraving, for reproducing the work of others. While visiting the recent Blake exhibition at the Tate Modern, at a time when I have been working with both engraving and etching, I spotted an interesting contrast of technique, and one which touches on a longstanding fascination with the reproduction of cross-hatch in printing.

In the title-plate for Chapter 2 of Jerusalem, which he worked on from 1804 till after 1820, two lovers embrace within the blossom of a flower lying on the surface of a pond; a leaf extends forward to the edge of the picture frame. Blake’s standard process in the work is relief etching, painting varnish onto the surface of the copper, and etching the plate in acid to leave a high flat surface which would take the ink from a brayer for contact printing, which water-colour applied afterwards (it is a process which is generally credited to Blake himself). In this image, in the area to the left of the blossom, below the title, there is an area where white line crosshatch lies on a dark background; to achieve the continuity of line (and from the Cowper portrait we can see how important and achievable this was for Blake) there were two possible processes, either to paint in all the intervening lozenge-shaped spaces, or to cut or scribe through a body area of varnish. Surely the second process would have been the instant choice of an engraver; what we do not know though, is whether the cut lines, registering as white, were done by engraving into the plate or just cutting through the varnish. Given the irregularity of the spacing between the lines it was more likely to be the latter. A few centimetres to the right the shading and form of the figure’s clothing is rendered in black line cross-hatch – in this case it is easy to assume the process here was painting the lines in varnish, so that the lozenge/square spaces in between were removed in the etching process. Just above and to the right other shading methods – dot within lozenge, and parallel line – indicate differences of form, texture and tone, both involving the scribe or graver rather than varnishing brush as the mark-making tool.

The leaf that extends to the foreground also shows a range of techniques: to the left black line cross-hatching, and to the right white line hatching. Except that close inspection brings doubt. On the left the lines do not show a continuous flow; it seems to be a net of lines, but some patches of line are thicker than others for very short distances, while others do not match up at all. Here evidently Blake was making the design by the creation of the white spaces between the lines, but how, and why? It is a technique that was used in woodcuts in the 15thand 16thcenturies, and even when Blake started working in wood-engraving in the 1820s he used the by then convention of shading and form though parallel lines rather than cross-hatch. Was he then cutting these, for Blake, irregularly shaped lozenges into the surface with a fine chisel or graver? The right-hand side of the leaf shows a cleaner flow of line, white this time, which would have been straightforward to produce using a soft varnish and a scribing tool. But the central area of the leaf moves, from right to left, from white-line cross-hatch to black-line cross-hatch, with a clear demarcation line where the lozenges change from black to white, and on to white-line parallel lines approaching the central vein of the leaf. Such design choices in such a small area show a mind thinking in advance of the moving scribing tool or graver, creating small areas of detail that indicate Blake working as thoroughly on the detail of composition as on the broad sweep of his spiritual cosmography.

*Proof of how Blake was influenced by the material he worked on as a jobbing engraver can be seen in the poem 'The Fly' in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake supplied engravings for Joseph Ritson's A Select Collection of English Songs (1783), one of which, a drinking song ‘Made extempore by a Gentleman, occasion’d by a Fly drinking out of his Cup of Ale’, supplied Blake with both theme and sentiment. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Comparative Etymology of Printmaking

What can be drawn from the etymologies of words to do with relief and intaglio printmaking? It has become noticeable to me through comparative study of the interweaving histories of the distinct methods of making prints that some methods and prints carry more cachet than others. Can etymology throw any light on the process? This was brought into focus by my coming across in …. The etymology of ‘cliché’ as the metal imprint of a wood-engraving used for stereotyping, a quick method of producing a large number of printing matrices in order to print on a number of presses simultaneously.

A list of etymologies, mainly using the Online Etymology Dictionary etymonline.com, which I have found to be reliable, and the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Print – to print, meaning to make a mark from an impression, as from a seal, is c 1350 prenten, from Old French (from which it goes into various Germanic languages); the use of prenten for ‘to set a mark on a surface’ is from the late 1300s. Caxton used enprynte for his products in 1474. ‘A print’ is from early 1600s. The source is Old French preinte, from Latin premere.

Press – Presse is found in English from c1300 presumably for a clothes press, from French via Latin pressare. But late Old English also had press for a clothes press

Relief – about 1600, from the French relief, from Italian rilievo ‘something raised’, from Latin relevare ‘to raise’.

Woodcut – ‘wood’ is from Old English wudu meaning ‘tree, trees, forest, the substance of wood’, from conjectural proto-Germanic widu

‘Cut’ is from about 1300, presumed to be from Old English non-attested cyttan. Or possibly from Scandinavian sources, via conjectural North Germanic kut (non-attested), which is the source of Swedish dialectal kuta ‘to cut’,  kuta ‘knife’, and Old Norse kuti ‘knife’; alternatively from Old French couteau ‘knife’.

Wood engraving (and engrave) – ‘engrave’ is mid 1400s, either based on French engraver, or from ‘to grave’, from the Old English grafan ‘to dig, carve’, the source of the noun ‘grave’. Similar words in Dutch, German, Gothic, and Old Norse argue a proto-Germanic grabanan (non-attested). The French engraver, according to Dauzat (Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française, Albert Dauzat, 1954) derives from the Frankish non-attested graben.

Copper – The late Old English coper was from Proto-Germanic unattested kupar (giving Middle Dutch koper, Old Norse koparr, Old High German kupfar), but these came into Germanic from coprum a variant Latin form of the Classical Latin Cyprium aes ‘Cyprian metal’.  

Etch – in English from 1630s, from Dutch etsen (and NB the common etch for copper is still called ‘Dutch mordant’, ‘mordant’ meaning ‘biting’, from Old French mordant ‘biting’, from Latin mordere ‘to bite, sting’); this is from the German ätzen ‘to etch’, from Old High German azzon ‘give to eat; cause to bite, feed’, which is from the non-attested Proto-Germanic atjanan ‘to make eat’, itself from etanan ‘eat’, from the Indo-European root ed ‘eat’. 

Drypoint –  ‘Dry’ is from Middle English drie from Old English dryge, from Proto-Germanic non-attested draugiz, the source of Middle Low German dröge, Middle Dutch druge, Dutch droog, Old High German trucchon, German trocken, Old Norse draugr); the  Germanic root is the non-attested dreug dry’.

‘Point’ is in Middle English, from the Latin punctum meaning ‘small hole made by pricking’, which developed to include any small dot. Punctum developed into Old French point ‘dot, smallest amount’ which was adopted into Middle English by about 1300. Another, reinforcing, source was the Latin pungere ‘to prick, pierce’ gave puncta, Medieval Latin for ‘a sharp tip’, which developed into Old French pointe ‘point of a weapon, vanguard of an army’, which passed into English in the 1300s. The OED’s citation for the sharp point of a tool, for the point of a compass, is 1392, but there are earlier 14thcentury citations for needles and swords.

Intaglio – This is Italian, coming into English about 1660, from the word for engraved or incised work, from intagliare ‘to cut in, engrave’.

Pull – Old English pullian ‘to pluck off, to draw out’, is of unknown origin, but perhaps related to Low German pulen ‘to remove the shell or husk’, Frisian pûlje ‘to shell peas, husk’, Middle Dutch polen ‘to peel, strip’, and Icelandic pula ‘to work hard’, Middle Dutch pōlen ‘to shell (peas, etc.)’, West Frisian piele ‘to tinker, fiddle, potter’. The OED admits that the etymology is uncertain, and the range of applications in northern Germanic languages is very, sometimes startlingly wide, but the source is clearly Germanic.

Turn – Late Old English turnian ‘to rotate, revolve’ was reinforced in Middle English by Old French torner ‘to turn away or around; draw aside, cause to turn; change, transform; turn on a lathe’. The source for both was Latin tornare ‘to polish, round off, fashion, turn on a lathe’, from the Latin tornus ‘lathe’, from Greek tornos ‘lathe, compass’; the Indo-European root was tere ‘to rub, turn’. 

Burin – The French burin was cognate with the Italian bolino and borino, Spanish buril, Portuguese buril, and Old Spanish boril; the OED suggests these may come from the Old High German bora ‘boring-tool’, but I think the Romance/Germanic divide raises doubts. The ‘burr’, the curved material lifted off when using the burin, is not related, its curvature, or more likely its sharpness, possibly relating it to Scandinavian words for seed-heads.

Knife – The late Old English cnif was from Old Norse knifr, stemming from Proto-Germanic unattested knibaz (giving Middle Low German knif, Middle Dutch cnijf, and German kneif).

Gouge – Attested in English from the late 1400s, this is from Old French gouge, from the Late Latin gubia, probably of Celtic origin - the OED cites Old Irish gulba‘rostrum’, modern Welsh gylf ‘beak’, and Cornish gilb ‘boring tool’. But the French is related to Spanish gúbia, Portuguese goiva, Italian gubbiagorbia, all of which are from the late Latin gubia and gulbia in Isidore’s Etymologies

Draw – There is a common Germanic model seen in the Old Saxon dragan, Old High German tragen, Old Norse draga, Gothic (ga)dragan; in Old English this is dragan, with the sense, shared with Old Norse, of ‘pull, draw’ – in other languages it means ‘to bear or carry’. The sense of creating an image on a surface is from about 1530.

My longstanding hypothesis is that wood-based printmaking was of a lower status than metal-based printmaking, from the earliest period of printing. Woodcuts were used for pictorial narrative and decorative purposes; engraving was for describing scientific information, and for producing copies of paintings. Durer progressed from primarily wood-based work to primarily metal-engraving. Scientific representation moved from wood-based work to metal-based image-making. Woodcuts provided emblems, while engravings provided representations of specimens. To put it theoretically, copper-plate engraving provided an objective truth, while woodcuts provided a subjective truth. Comparing the woodcuts in Henry Lyte’s Niewe Herball of 1578 with Beatrizet’s moray eel from twenty years earlier, we see the plant laid out as a type of a flower, an idealised form, while the eel is an individual animal. 

Not that engraving did not have to work through artifice. Marc Antonio Raimondi, working in Venice and then Rome at the start of the 16thcentury, initiated the process of engraving copies of paintings, working from paintings by Raphael and Peruzzi. He created a system of lines based on the linear shading of Durer’s woodcuts and his engravings, which allowed a spatial description of form, which became the standard style for line engraving. Vesalius’ book on Anatomy De humani corporis fabrica, from 1543, included engravings by engravers from the workshop of Titian, where the cut line is used to create space, form, and the direction of muscle simultaneously. Perhaps it is Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) that established without doubt engraving as the visual language of the illustration of science. Hooke was the first to publish a book of images engraved from his drawingsof items seen through both microscope and telescope; the process involved translation through several visual and technological stages. Henry Power’s Experimental philosophy, published in 1664, was distinct in that it used woodcuts. Decades later Hogarth used engraving to disseminate an idea of social truth through his copies of his paintings and his political caricatures. Meanwhile woodcut had become the printmaking method of choice for chapbooks, cheap books for children and the poor. 

How does etymology support this? If we divide the terms above into Latin/French-based and Germanic-based camps, we see the definitely Latin/French include ‘print’, ‘intaglio’ and ‘turn’; the definitely Germanic include ‘press’, ‘wood’, ‘woodcut’, ‘etch’, ‘pull’, ‘knife’, and ‘draw’. ‘Engrave’, ‘copper’, ‘drypoint’ include aspects or transitions through both areas of linguistic influence, while ‘burin’ and ‘gouge’, both tool-words are more widespread in their possible origins. ‘Burin’ feels French though, as does ‘engrave’; their nearest points of contact to English are French. There is a sense in which the words of the delicate – even, referring to the hypothesis, more authoritative – processes – ‘burin’, ‘engrave’, ‘turn’, ‘intaglio’, ‘copper’ (and to this list could be added ‘edition’, ‘signature’, ‘portfolio’) are all Latin and French-based words; while the less delicate processes and materials – ‘etch’, ‘press’, ‘woodcut’, ‘knife’ – are Germanic in origin. 

Can language be used to support the hypothesis? Absolutely, it guides our attitudes – if woodcut were instead called dendrographology we would view it differently; if copperplate engraving were called metal-cut it would be considerably downgraded. 

Isidore of Seville, d 636, was the author of The Etymologies, an encyclopedia based on summaries of what from the classical world the Christian church thought worth preserving. The Vatican considered naming Isidore the patron saint of the internet (this is according to Wikipedia; given the wildness of some of Isidore’s proposals, it is surprising that nobody suggested that it might have been more appropriate to name him as the patron saint of Wikipedia). One section of the vast work deals with etymologies, and through its often erroneous proposals promotes the idea that the deep meaning of a word is embedded in its history. For example, ‘the walking stick (baculus) is said to have been invented by Bacchus, the discoverer of the grape vine, so that people affected by wine might be supported by it.’ Or the idea that the word ‘foetus’ derives from fovere‘to keep warm’.

This is now known as the etymological fallacy and we consider it naïve and misleading. But from the above we see that what a word conveys is not just the thing it signifies; the construction, length and form of the word matters, and these are created by the language and the sociological, cultural and historical environment that formed and were facilitated by that language. A word is not just its meaning – ‘execute’ means the same as ‘behead’, ‘show’ the same as ‘demonstrate’, ‘people’ the same as ‘population’. Their connotations, the back-story and environment they imply are hugely different.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Printmaking workshops at Valentines Mansion, updated

Valentines Mansion print masterclasses

I am reposting this notice for print masterclasses with revisions - mainly incorporating etching and engraving into one workshop.

These workshops are masterclasses because they are based on close examination of original works by major artists – Hogarth, Blake, Nash, Bewick, and others, so that you can see how they used specific printmaking techniques, and then learn how to use those techniques yourself. I trained as a printmaker in the 1980s and have been exploring print history and techniques since then. I teach at the Bishopsgate Institute,  have taught print history at the British Library, and have been a visiting lecturer for Central St Martins and Camberwell College of Art (University of the Arts London) and the Royal College of Arts.

Workshop 1 – Wood engraving

Wood-engraving is a specialist printmaking technique that involves working on the endgrain of the wood; this allows fantastic detail and effects of contrast and white-line design.

We will be making close examination of original prints and books by Thomas Bewick, Paul Nash, Joan Hassall, Claire Leighton and Gertrude Hermes, to see how their techniques created such extraordinarily beautiful works. 

Thomas Bewick trained as a copperplate engraver in the late eighteenth century, before developing the technique of wood-engraving, cutting into the endgrain of hard wood with fine chisels rather than knives or gouges, which opened up the possibility of simultaneous black-line and white-line design, and allowing almost unbelievable detail. While his masterworks, the illustrations for  A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and A History of British Birds(1797 and 1804) brought a new kind of natural history illustrating to many readers (A History of British Birds is mentioned in Jane Eyre), Bewick is even more appreciated for his tiny vignettes of rural life, often humorous and showing his deep empathy with the natural environment (see above).

The hardness of endgrain printing, as well as allowing fineness of design, increased the potential print run; Bewick’s works ran into many editions, and his blocks can still be used today. Nineteenth-century journalism, such as The Illustrated London News, made extensive use of wood-engraving; we will be looking at how they managed to create large pictures using assembly-line techniques, long before Henry Ford’s car factories.

In the twentieth century wood-engraving became a widely used technique in British book illustration. Private presses such as the Golden Cockerel Press commissioned work by artists such as Robert Gibbings and Gertrude Hermes to create a recognisably English style of book illustration.

We will be using the tools specific to wood engraving - gravers, burins and spitstickers – and learning how to engrave on boxwood and lemonwood using a bench-hook and sandbag. We will be printing by hand, burnishing and using a Victorian hand-press, and, since wood-engraving is so dependent on fine hand-control, we will be examining how to adapt tools to individual requirements. 

All tools and materials supplied.

11-5 -  11 September,  3 November, 2019

£60 per person, maximum number of 3 participants per session.

To book, contact me on julianwalker20@gmail.com


Workshop 2 - Copperplate engraving and etching

Engraving involves carving lines into the surface of the metal plate, sinking the ink into the lines, cleaning off the surface of the plate, and printing onto dampened paper under high pressure. Etching uses the principle of drawing onto a plate, through a resist layer of wax, and then immersing the plate in acid which corrodes the surface of the metal where it has been exposed. We will be using zinc plates, a remarkably accessible safe acid, and beeswax. As the etching takes a while, we will starting with this, and doing some engraving while the plates etch.

There are masses of ways of exploring the process of making marks and texture that can be etched on a plate; we will be looking at sugarlift, masking, and alternatives to aquatint.

Printing from engraved metal plates is recorded from before Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type in the mid-fifteenth century, and by the early sixteenth century the technique was being used in Italy to reproduce the designs of paintings for wider public consumption. Engraving on copper plates for printing, intaglio printing, creates lines into which the ink is pushed; the surface is wiped clean, and damped paper is pressed on under high pressure, picking up the ink from the grooves. Close examination of prints shows the ink sitting proud of the surface, which creates effects very different from the pressed down ink of relief printing. Etching dates from the early sixteenth century, allegedly developed from designs etched on armour.

Copper-plate engraving was the technique of mass-reproduction of images in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the process speeded up by the introduction of the line-engraving machine in the 1820s, which itself brought about a mechanical sense of formulaic image-making, and the superseding of engraving by lithography and wood engraving. Engraving had almost disappeared by 1900, and only a few twentieth century artists, notably Picasso, Vieillard and Edward Bawden, used the technique.

We will be looking at the curious rise and fall of engraving, and examining some original works of some of the masters of engraving, William Hogarth – a fine example of whose work is on show in the Mansion, the great seventeenth century engraver Wenceslaus Hollar, and William Blake, who worked as an engraver, and whose plates were printed by his wife Catherine. 

Copperplate engraving is essentially a line technique, requiring few specialist tools; while mastery of the tools allows great sensitivity, any indentation made on the surface can hold ink – surfaces can be dented, scratched, and distressed in many ways, giving different effects. We will look at mezzotint and have a go at ‘stipple and burnish’ engraving.

We will be learning how to use the tools specific to copperplate engraving – essentially very fine-pointed chisels – and learning how to engrave on zinc using a bench-hook and sandbag, initially using soft metal and then going o to zinc plates. We will be learning the processes of preparing a plate for printing, and taking impressions using a press; and, since copperplate engraving is so dependent on fine hand-control, we will be examining how to adapt tools to individual requirements. 

All tools and materials supplied.

11-5   - 22 September, 15 October, 17 November 2019

£60 per person, maximum number of 3 participants per session.

To book, contact me on julianwalker20@gmail.com 


Workshop 3
I will also be leading a workshop in experimental printmaking, more or less as and when requested. I can run this for 2 or 3 people. We'll be trying out safe etching without acid; various methods of distressing the surface of metal for printing (stipple and sanding, burnishing); working on soft metal; collograph and mixed viscosity printing; alternatives to aquatint; printing over antique printing (18th century); and a few more ideas. It should be fun. More details on the processes can be found on my other blog https://jwalkerwords2.blogspot.com/2019/08/safe-cheap-etching.html

Again, 11-5, £60 per person, contact me to arrange dates.


Bespoke workshops

For two people at a time, using all or any of the above techniques. 
£180 for two people, all materials included. Contact me to arrange a convenient date and your preferences.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Looking, wanting, making

You write the book you want to read. It's a truism, but one supported by experience, especially in the case of research-based writing. I really wanted a book that would survey all the intriguing developments in language in Britain during the First World War; I wanted to read it, so it seemed natural that reading and writing should coalesce. There was no book until it was created. 

I have recently annoyed myself intensely by not buying, when I could have easily done so, a copy of William Black's Dark Harbour etching, which came up on Ebay. I had it in my watch list for a while, hummed and hahed, and saw that someone else had snapped it up. It is of course the work of a moment to screen-grab it onto the computer; but that is not the thing. 

I looked at the image, not to commit it to memory, but to understand its composition and balance. I like the way Black creates space with lines which seem to be travelling on their individual trajectories regardless of each other. It is pictorial - you can see identifiable shapes - but the overall sense is one of spaces jostling like waves enclosed in a harbour. 

With an idea of how the picture was constructed I resolved the annoyance by making my own print, an etching, based on the memory of Black's work. I had to get a dark wax for the plate, not hard etching ground, which I always found tough and unforgiving; soot and beeswax, with a bit of Liberon furniture restoration wax, all melting around 100 degrees. The lines (Black uses only 8 or so) began to cross each other, the tones moving between playful and obsessive. I started with two entities rather than identities, and let the spaces develop around them. I thought I didn't want Black's picture; I think I may I have what I actually wanted, though the print from the plate will probably require to be taken further. More work. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

Safe (& cheap) etching

I’ve long been put off the idea of etching by the thought of using nitric acid; how do you get hold of it, how do you use it safely, how do you store it and dispose of it safely and responsibly? An unpleasant experience with hydrochloric acid, sold in an unsecured bottle as ‘spirit of salts’, has left me wary of anything labelled ‘acid’. So, the possibility of using an etching liquid that is safe and which gives a clean bite is worth exploring. A saturated solution of common salt in distilled white vinegar sounds too good to be true; however, it works.

Test print, from plate using Rhind's stopout varnish, pencil marks reacting to etch

The metal I have been using is zinc, bought online in A4 size 0.8mm sheets for less than £10 a sheet, including postage. Unlike zinc prepared for printmaking, it is not backed, so you have to prepare this aspect yourself. I have tried car spray paint, nail varnish, Rhind’s stopout varnish, and French polish, this last being the most resistant to the long soak in the etch - as this etch works much slower than nitric acid, the immersion time is much longer, and the masking material has to be able to withstand days of immersion. Car spray paint probably works if you use a primer; nail varnish and stopout varnish both lifted. Firstly, it is essential to have a clean surface – wiping with a clean lint-free cloth with white spirit should be sufficient. French polish is very resilient, but removing it can be a long job; use rubberised gloves, as it’s hard to get off your skin, and toxic through contact.

After seeing the expensive Rhind’s stopout varnish lift off and float away my preferred masking fluid is French polish. For some reason it sits where you put it, unlike the stopout varnish, which bleeds along any rough texture. It also dries very quickly. Cleaning it off a textured surface is an arduous task – after trying a number of methods (soft scrubbing brush, several clean cloths soaked in meths, soaking in meths) the simplest way seems to be to drop small amounts onto the surface, massage it around with a soft brush or the tip of your finger while wearing a thick rubber glove, and then wiping off the hopefully now dissolved French polish: patience and a gentle touch are required. But you can see how well it works as a stopout varnish.

First state

Final state


Following a tip in John Ross and Claire Romano’s Complete Printmaker I used car a couple of passes of car spray paint as the basis for a faux-aquatint; after immersion in the etch it washes away, but stays long enough to create a texture during the early etching process. 

Instead of using hard ground (lost somewhere in the studio) I experimented with beeswax and furniture wax. Rub beeswax onto the degreased plate, lay it on a couple of sheets of absorbent paper, and lay this in a warm oven for ten minutes. The wax melts fairly evenly but can be spread out using a soft brush kept for this purpose. 

As the beeswax is light in colour I tried using furniture wax (hard stick used for repairing scratches to French polished surfaces) but the result is brittle and breaks up as you draw on it with the etching needle. A mixture of the two waxes works, with the benefit that you are able to see your preparatory marks. The value of using a hard roller is that you can feel the wax sitting in a consistent layer – finding a thick layer of wax to get through inhibits drawing, as you have a mess of burrs sitting on your work. 

But if you use a roller you then have a roller covered with wax, which is difficult to get off. I drew the basics of my design on tissue paper, laid this over the plate, and, second time around, very faintly traced them with the etching needle. For the first plate using beeswax I transferred the image from the tissue paper drawing by going over the main lines with a toothed wheel, made from a watch part, but this went through the tissue paper and the wax, showing up on the etched plate and the print. 

With a delicate touch it is possible to use an etching needle and leave a mark which sits on the surface of the wax, not going through to the surface of the plate. The resulting etch after 24 hours was very clean. 

For the second plate I used just beeswax for a second working and etch. Laying on beeswax onto the hot plate and leaving it to cool gently leaves a consistent layer of wax. The good thing about beeswax is that it is hard enough not react to faint touches, but soft enough to allow for edits - to change a mark you can rub the wax back into place with your fingernail, and rework it. The vinegar and salt etch seems to harden the wax – if you use darker wax and scrape it off using a plastic credit-card type card the residue gets pushed into the cuts, enabling you to get a better idea of what the print will look like. I'd go for a darkened beeswax, maybe getting some soot onto the plate first with a candle flame (experiment pending).

As well as the traditional method of drawing on a wax coating I had a go at drawing with a resist directly onto the plate – this could be printed either as relief or intaglio (or both simultaneously, using the varied viscosity method). I used a 6B Staetdler Mars Lumograph pencil, and a chinagraph pencil. The composition of the Staetdler pencils is famously kept secret, but is basically a mix of clay and graphite, while chinagraph pencils are effectively wax. So these should both act as resists. Except that they don’t; counter-intuitively they appear to react to something in the resist, so that the bite is deeper on the areas marked by the pencil. The chinagraph bite is a little more aggressive than the Lumograph, and is harder to work as fine lines. A lot more controlled experiment needed here, but the Lumograph result is very enticing.

Lumograph pencil, etched plate
Print from Lumograph etched plate

Chinagraph pencil etched plate

Here I’ve also used French polish as a painted masking fluid for the edges, as described above. All of these can be combined with burnishing, which I used to pull back the aggressive etch on the chinagraphed plate after it was over-etched to see how far the etch would go (over-etched plate seen here).

Art history is a history of leaps forward in which aesthetics and techniques work together; verisimilitude was dependent on oil paint, the move to the abstract was energised by the discovery of aquatint. I went to art school as a timid linocut artist, and within six months, under the encouraging prompting of Julia Wilson (Julia Little), I was loosening up perspex blocks with paint-stripper and poking decorators’ caulking around to make relief and intaglio blocks and plates. Experimenting loosened up my whole approach to work then, and I feel the same excitement now.  

Studio workshops are available to experiment with these techniques and print the results. Contact me on julianwalker20@gmail.com for details. Studio in Ilford, east London.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Altering the landscape

Sixteen years ago I began working with the British Library, my first job being a commission from Sophie Weeks, to whom I here pay tribute as an imaginative and challenging education manager, to design a family activity guide to the Library exhibition on the Lindisfarne Gospels. The guide was fun, with thought-provoking questions built into relevant design motifs, using mazes, broad reachings out to designs from other cultures (looking for similarities between step-designs from Anglo-Saxon and contemporary Moche designs in Peru), and positing possible links between limpets and the red dots that appear as a leitmotif throughout the book. The project was my introduction to the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced in Wearmouth around 1,300 years ago, a work of outstanding beauty, and now one of the highlights of any visit to the British Library; being asked to produce something that would be fun, engaging and ask questions of its users required me to draw on knowledge from other sources as well as to research enough about the subject to make sensible comment and avoid errors of fact.

Now, at the sad end of the wide-ranging, free-thinking and hugely successful programme that Sophie helped set up, I have at last been able to visit the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It is a charming place – the clement weather helped, the light inshore winds tempering bright sunshine – and has a lot to offer beyond reference to its links to the famous volume. There is the dramatic castle, dating from Tudor times and redesigned by Edward Lutyens (the guide’s history talk is excellent), a lovely little garden by Gertrude Jekyll which draws in hundreds of butterflies, a quiet village with cottage gardens, remarkably little tourist tat, a generous supply of public toilets, and a pile of monastic ruins. At low tide you can wade out to St Cuthbert’s Island, not much more than a lump of rock with a cross, or, depending on how you feel about religion, history, cultural roots, and so on, much, much more than a lump of rock with a cross. 

The beaches and harbour are a delight too. You can see the southern end of the island from the castle, including the eastern beach, enjoying the same view that monks would have had when in 793 CE Viking raiders first arrived. Now the beach is characterised, like so many other rocky beaches at sites of tourism, with columns of balancing stones. They stand more thickly than people on the beach, testaments to – to what? Territory-marking? The need to leave a monument? The enjoyment of a challenge overcome? Like the padlocks on the bridge in Paris, like graffiti everywhere, these are quickly becoming just one more manifestation of the statement, ‘I was here, just like you’. Should we be generous and suggest that in this place, these might be acts of devotion, related to the cairns built up by monks, hill-walkers and trigonometrists? Or are they bland echoes of what began as a nice idea, and now as ubiquitously clichéd as the behind-the-beat clapping at ice-skating competitions? Have they moved from statements of ‘I was here’ to statements of ‘marking my presence here is more important than the place itself’. 

Recent debate has proposed that the repeated act of rock-stacking should be considered destructive: the piles destroy habitats, they can be dangerous, they massively change the nature and culture of environments. Against this are the suggestions that they are a folk art, communal and non-commercial, even anti-commercial. An information centre at Lindisfarne asks visitors to ‘Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints’, fast becoming another cliché; should it add – ‘take your litter away with you, and don’t build those annoying stacks of rocks’? 

From my point of view the trouble is that they have become very boring. One column on a beach, built in an idle moment and then knocked down, is fine, an alternative to sand-castles where the beach is not sandy. One column left standing is perhaps ok; 148 of them constitutes an eyesore. If people built rock-stacks, photographed them, and then took them down, that would be fine; but we are far too fond of ourselves to do that. As a family of four we disputed whether it was ok to shy stones at them; despite the ‘don’t upset the neighbours’ mentality that acts like a sea-anchor on any reaction to what annoys us, there was not much dissent. Knocking down a column, from a meaningful distance, took a good few throws; but we took out a good few dozen. 

As children we used to dam and undam streams, we built castles of wet sand knowing the sea would come and fill the moat and then bring down walls and towers. We learned what ‘passing fun’ meant, we learned that it could mean repeated enjoyment. A beach of permanent sandcastles would be daft and dull, a place where you had to go and admire and not touch. Over a few hundred years the beach has become a place of fun, not reverence, a place where the sea washes away sandwich crumbs, bad jokes, ill-advised romances, childhood games. 

As we cheered our successful hits I listened for an accusatory shout of ‘Vikings!’; I heard nothing. But in that revered site of Christian antiquity I did have a stone in my hand.