Engraved Illustrations in Annuals

        Annuals appeared when there were few public art galleries, and the opportunity for seeing original paintings was limited.  An appeal of the early annuals then was in owning and appreciating the beauty of the steel engravings.  Engraved illustrations were an important feature of the annuals from their beginning in 1823 with Rudolf Ackermann’s first
Forget Me Not.  On the average, annuals included eight to twelve engraved illustrations per volume.  Exceptions were Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1832-1852), containing 36 plates, and The Cabinet of Modern Art and Literary Souvenir (1836-1837) with 23 plates.

        The Index lists 3,701 engravings from the 245 Annuals including 123 engravings that were published more than once.  These reprints are found mainly in The
Juvenile Scrap Book (42 reprints) and Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (32 reprints).  A total of 617 artists and 314 engravers were involved in producing these representations over three decades.  There are also 1,161 woodcut illustrations of which 712 appeared in Hood’s Comic Annual (See Figure 5-24 ), 312 in Louisa Sheridan’s The Comic Offering, and 130 in William Henry Harrison’s The Humourist. These humor annuals used the less-detailed woodcut technique because it is less expensive and better suited to caricature and cartoon representation.

        During the time of the British annuals, steel monochrome engraved reproductions dominated and provided quality art for the publishing industry.  Prior to the introduction of steel engraving, copper plates were used, but the fine work could wear down within a hundred impressions.  The hardness of steel gave plates a printing life many times greater than those of copper or woodcuts.  Etching needles were used almost exclusively in engraving for the annuals, and under magnification, the fineness of the worm-like lines making up the picture can be seen in foliage and landscape (Bain 21).

       The art of engraving involves a copying of an original, where the engraver must interpret and reduce the color and size of the original to a page-sized monochrome print.  Most of the original drawings were executed in watercolor.  The method of reducing was squaring off the original with cotton threads and squaring the copy to match the original in reverse (Hunnisett “Steel” 42).  The copy is made on a polished steel plate that is coated with an acid-resistant, resin-based compound called the “stop.”  An etching needle is used to cut the design through the stop and into the bare metal, and then an acid bath etches the design into the surface of the steel plate where the stop has been removed.  The plate is washed, cleaned to bare metal, and finishing details are manually scribed onto the plate with a graver tool or stylus (Hunnisett “Steel” 49).  A writing engraver completed the final stage of production by adding its attribution immediately below the picture:  the artist’s name in the left margin and the engraver’s name on the right.  However, since the writing engraver was dependent on information given to him, misspellings and wrong names were not uncommon (Hunnisett “Steel” 51).  The printing of an engraved plate was a relatively slow and laborious business.  A single man at the press could take ten minutes or more to take off a single printed impression from a moderately sized book illustration (Bain 23).  Thus, steel engravings were an expensive, but also an important incentive for increasing the popularity of the annuals.

      Charles Heath among others spent large sums of money on engravings for his annuals.  Annuals paid from twenty to more than one hundred and fifty guineas just for the loan of a picture to be engraved (Hunnisett “Steel” 41).  The copyright to an engraving could be vested in the owner of the painting; when it was sold, the engraving rights were transferred (
Art Union, vol.8, 1846, p.72).   Alternatively, copyright could be vested in the plate owner, if the painter were paid a fee.  Samuel Carter Hall said it was common for the engraver to receive one hundred and fifty guineas for the production of a single plate.  A volume of The Amulet cost nearly 1,200 guineas for the twelve plates it contained, one of which, The Crucifixion, painted by Martin and engraved by Le Kuex, brought the engraver 210 guineas.  Of this sum, 180 guineas were for engraving and thirty guineas for reduction (Art Union, vol.1, 1839, pp.171-2).    Two other engravings cost 260 guineas, leaving about 700 guineas for the remaining plates.  Notwithstanding the high expenditure on the plates alone, it was the only volume of the series of eleven to show a profit (Hunnisett "Steel" 68). 

       Whether the annuals were primarily bought for their engravings or for their literature cannot be answered definitively because the quality of both fluctuated widely.  In the earlier years of the annuals, the engravings depicted a variety of scenes: foreign locations, pastoral and dramatic subjects, as well as some idealized female subjects.  However, by the mid-1840s the bulk of the illustrations was confined primarily to female portraits and idealized female subjects.

       Engravings are characterized by the engraver’s specialties:  architectural, landscape, figural, historical, and portrait (Hunnisett "Dictionary" 9).  For this study the figural category was sub-divided into those with a predominant female subject and those without.  The female is predominant in pictures where the female face or form is central and usually highlighted.  When paired with a male figure, he is usually in profile or facing away from the viewer to emphasize attention to the female. 
Figure 5-1 entitled The Anglers is a typical example of a female figural. Both artist and engraver are unidentified, and the subject of fishing appears to have little to do with the depiction.  The crossed poles suggest intimacy and the large tree behind the couple suggests family lineage and fertility. An idealized female figure is depicted in Figure 5-2 Enchantress where a beautiful young woman with an aquiline nose and Greek hairstyle suggest the neoclassical style, popular among British artists.  Children were also favored for idealized subjects as shown in Figures 5-3 and Figure 5-4