Convenor: Giles Bergel (Oxford/UCL), Elizabeth Savage (IES)

Tutors: Martin Andrews (Reading), Tansy Barton (Senate House Library), Chadwick (Courtauld), Alexandra Franklin (Oxford), Roger Gaskell (Roger Gaskell Rare Books), Olenka Horbatsch (British Museum), Richard Lawrence (Bodleian), Bethan Stevens (Sussex), Graham Williams

The history of printed imagery is based on the final product, the printed impressions. But the objects from which they were printed can tell a different and much more complex story. By adapting methods used for the history of type-casting and typography to non-textual material, this course offers a new methodology to make research use of the hundreds of thousands of surviving cut woodblocks, etched and engraved plates, and other print matrices/printing surfaces from the hand-press period. The course offers students new ways of approaching historical printed visual material by exploring what information these objects can offer that printed impressions cannot, and vice versa. By examining cast-metal images, techniques of replicating relief surfaces (both type and imagery), xylographic woodcuts, wood type, etc, as well as ‘texts’ and ‘images’, it bridges modern disciplines to ask where text ends and image begins from the maker’s perspective. The object-based teaching is structured around lectures, historically informed practical sessions (in a print workshop and a collection of historical presses), and object sessions with the woodblocks, copperplates, and other items used to print historically significant artworks, books and book illustrations (in the British Museum).

Key Research Questions

  • What can print matrices/printing surfaces reveal that impressions printed from them cannot? And what can printed impressions tell us that the print matrices/printing surfaces cannot?
  • There is a history of book illustrations, and a history of graphic art, but is there a history of the blocks and plates used to produce those images?
  • How do the changing the craft skills and technologies used to produce these objects determine what kind of information could be communicated, and to what kinds of audiences?
  • How can bibliographical, typographical, art historical and book historical research methods be harnessed to understand these artefacts of the history of printing?

Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will acquire a broad understanding of the history of print matrices/printing surfaces, as distinct from the histories of graphic art and book illustrations they were used to print.
  2. Students will apply bibliographical research methods related to the history of printing techniques to non-textual material.
  3. Students will learn to identify different kinds of tools and techniques used to produce and duplicate intaglio and relief surfaces during the hand-press period, 1400-1800.
  4. Students will learn how scientific, social, economic and cultural changes influenced the craft and technical skills used to produce these print matrices/printing surfaces, and in turn how those changes shaped the kind of information that could be printed.
  5. Students will learn how to use this category of historical artefact in the context of their own research in the history of the book, printed art, printing techniques, and other related fields.


Sample Reading List

William Chatto, A treatise on wood engraving, historical and practical (London: C Knight, 1837)

Antony Griffiths, The Print Before Photography (London, British Museum Press, 2017)

Blair Hedges, ‘Wormholes record species history in space and time’, in Biology Letters (2012),

Christopher Heppner, "A Collection of Wood Blocks and Related Material at McGill University", The Book Collector 35/1 (Spring 1986), 53-66

Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques (London: V&A, 2001)

Michael Phillips, William Blake: Apprentice and Master (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2014)

Ad Stijnman, Engraving and Etching 1400-2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

Mei-Ying Sung, ‘Beyond Books and Cross-Continents: Cataloguing English Printing Copperplates and Woodblocks in American Library Collections’, in The Asian Conference on Literature & Librarianship: Conference Proceedings 2013, 112–22 (Nagoya: The International Academic Forum; The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), 2013)

Nigel Tattersfield, Thomas Bewick: the complete illustrative work, vol. 1: An account of the engraving workshop, its masters and apprentices (London: Bibliographical Society, 2011)

Frances Thompson, ‘A Newcastle Collection of Wood Blocks’, in Bewick and After: Wood-engraving in the Northeast. A Jubilee Volume of Reprints from the History of the Book Trade in the North, edited by Peter Isaac (Allenholme Press, 1990)

Tutor bio

Dr Elizabeth Savage is Lecturer and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Book History and Communications. Her research explores how earliest printing techniques in the West shaped communication, both in text and image, 1400-1600. The early history of colour printing is a special interest. After taking a Gerda Henkel-funded PhD (Cambridge), she was Munby Fellow in Bibliography, Cambridge University Library. She has held fellowships at institutions including the Herzog August Bibliothek, the John Rylands Library, and the Warburg Institute, and she is a member of the Printing Historical Society's Publications Committee. In addition to the Wolfgang Ratjen Prize for distinguished research in the field of graphic art from the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte/Central Institute for Art History, Munich, her research has received awards from the Bibliographical Society of America and the American Printing Historical Association.

Dr Savage’s recent academic curation includes exhibitions at the British Museum and Cambridge University Library. Her latest book, Printing Colour 1400-1700: Histories, Techniques, Functions and Receptions (2015), which she edited with Ad Stijnman, was recognised at the IFPDA Book Awards. Her next book is under contract with Oxford University Press, and she has published in journals including Apollo, the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Print Quarterly, Printing History, and Journal of the Printing Historical Society.