Gillotage: The Lost History of an Influential Technique

Sample of work by Anciens Etablissements Gillot, in Achievement in Photo-Engraving and Letter-press Printing (Chicago: American Photo-Engravers Association, 1927)

This article is a brief summary of “Gillotage: The Lost History of an Influential Technique,” Jenya Frid’s thesis on the subject of early commercial printing and its significance in the world of art and illustration, submitted for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History, at Hunter College, The City University of New York in December 2013. Her study concentrates on the technical details and history of this printmaking method; however, her thesis is not a mere chronological and technical survey. This thesis wrestles with a fundamental question – can gillotage, a technique which was invented for commercial purposes and has since become obsolete in commercial sphere, truly produce meaningful works of art? Frid’s research shows that while gillotage was originally invented in order to lower costs and speed up production of commercial images, it had evolved past that original purpose in the art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In fact, relief photoengraving, the roots of which lie in nineteenth-century gillotage technique, is still being used by artists today.

Gillotage was invented by the Frenchman Firmin Gillot (1820-72) in 1850 and subsequently perfected by his son Charles to include photographic transfer of the image to the metal plate. In the nineteenth century, gillotage was one of the many techniques for making relief metal plates for letterpress printing. Mainly used for printing illustrations in books and periodicals, gillotage competed with wood engraving and other emerging industrial printing methods. Firmin Gillot named his invention “paneiconographie,” but very quickly the term gillotage, derived from the inventor’s name, became more popular. The technique evolved rapidly to meet the needs of its consumers, featuring new inventions and improvements such as specialized scratchboard papers and possibilities for color printing. At the end of the nineteenth century the term gillotage came to signify all photomechanical relief processes in France, testifying to the method’s popularity. In the twentieth century, the term photoengraving or line block became a more popular name for this process, and Gillot’s establishment successfully competed with similar firms around the world.

The word “photomechanical” or “mechanical” may conjure up in modern minds imagery of complicated machinery – levers pulled, buttons pressed, gears rotating, and as if by magic, the product comes out. It is essential to understand, however, that in early mechanical printing methods, a large part of the work was still done by hand, but it was the hand of the technician, rather than the artist, that worked on the printing plate. Although the process of creating a plate by gillotage was still largely handmade, this and other early mechanical techniques of the nineteenth century were seen by many artists and critics as antithetical to a fine art print carefully crafted by the hand of the artist.

Early gillotage, or paneiconographie, was a process independent of photography; mainly, it was a way to make a metal relief printing plate that was faster and cheaper than making a wood engraving. Creating an etching on a metal plate to print in relief, and not in intaglio as etchings or metal engravings are usually printed, had certainly been tried before Firmin Gillot developed his process. William Blake, for example, made relief etchings, but expressive qualities that were important to Blake were not practical for mass produced images that Gillot’s invention targeted. Relief printing techniques similar to Blake’s did not gain popularity because the results were cruder than desired and did not justify the amount of work involved.* In order to print by the relief method, the printing plate has to have much deeper grooves than for intaglio printing. This aspect can be accomplished by an increased exposure to acid, but in this case, undercutting becomes a problem. In gillotage, etching was done in stages; the plate was inked, dusted with finely powdered rosin after each acid bath, and heated to make the ink and rosin melt and flow slightly down the sides of the raised areas, therefore protecting the sides in the subsequent stage of the etching.

It is difficult to determine precisely who was the first inventor to combine Gillot’s paneiconographie technique with photography. Charles Gillot, Firmin Gillot’s son, is often credited with this innovation; to say the least, he is the individual who introduced photographic transfer to the Gillot establishment. With this invention, an artist’s drawing would be photographed and printed on zinc directly from a negative, and then etched and printed in relief. The engraver could create a plate directly from an artist’s drawing, thus dramatically cutting down the production time and, therefore, cost. The photo transfer method made it easy to flip the image for transfer to plate, thus eliminating the need for an artist to draw in reverse. In addition, the process made it possible to adjust the size of the final image, scaling it down to fit the size of the page, or even slightly increasing the size when necessary.

A well made gillotage involved a laborious process; the work started with photographing the image from which the printing plate would be made. The negative was obtained by a wet collodion process, detached from the glass with a solution of India rubber in benzine, reversed and affixed to glass with gum-water, then applied to a well cleaned zinc plate, which was preliminarily coated with a thin and regular coat of a solution of four parts bitumen in one hundred of benzine. Once the negative was fastened to the zinc in perfect contact, it was exposed for one to two hours, substituting electric light for solar, if necessary. Once the plate was exposed sufficiently, washed in turpentine and water, sponged and dried, it was ready to be etched.**

Achieving necessary depth in relief etching, while avoiding undercutting the raised areas of the design, continued to challenge the gillotage plate maker. Etching required stages; the plate was inked, dusted with finely powdered rosin and after each acid bath, heated to make the ink and rosin melt and flow slightly down the sides of the raised areas, therefore protecting the sides in the subsequent stage of the etching. Altogether, these multiple stages of etching took about four hours to complete; afterwards the largest areas of white were routed out, the plate trimmed with a saw, and mounted upon a block of wood of the proper thickness. The difficulty of the process was also reflected in the varying prices for photoengraved work. Prices depended on intricacy of design more than on size, and sometimes a more detailed design was easier to etch than a sparse design.*** However, despite the labor and care taken in producing a gillotage plate, the time necessary for its creation was still significantly shorter than needed to create a wood engraving, and the skill of gillotage was relatively easy to teach to aspiring technicians.

As is often the case, it took time for a new technique’s potential and limitations to become truly understood. Although gillotage is a mid-nineteenth-century invention and is most frequently discussed in connection with nineteenth-century industrial printing, the method began to flourish creatively toward the turn of the century, and was used most widely in twentieth-century illustration under the broader name of line photoengraving, or line block. Also in the twentieth century, techniques closely derived from gillotage found an important niche in fine letterpress printing, which they continue to occupy to this day. Even after letterpress printing was replaced with other, more speedy and precise technologies in the twentieth century, letterpress techniques, having changed and evolved, continue to exist in the realm of fine art.

At first, the new photoengraving techniques were chiefly admired for their economy and speed, but as time progressed, the relative freedom they allowed for individual expression also began to take priority for artists. The fact that photoengraving reproduced the artist’s work without the intermediary engraver was liberating. Artists’ first reactions, however, were far from the expected exhilaration. In the beginning, the apparent new freedom provided by photomechanical reproduction proved an obstacle that many artists struggled to overcome.

The main disadvantage to this process was the inability to reproduce anything but a sharp black – any gradation of tone was lost. This disadvantage was not new – the same problem existed in wood engraving and in all other techniques of line block printing. In wood engraving, the craftsman engraver would translate the tones of a drawing or painting into black and white marks; in gillotage, as in other photoengraving methods of plate making, the black and white marks were the artist’s work, and frequently became the artist’s stumbling block, as many artists were not accustomed to drawing for this method of reproduction. Artists had to account for the way the image changed in the plate making and printing process, and at the same time try to preserve the fresh appeal of the original drawing. Occasionally, enlargement or reduction of the image size, made easy by the photo transfer, would result in an illegible print. Many artists clearly struggled with the requirements of drawing for reproduction, and it became common for an engraving workshop to employ its own staff of artists who would draw technically-appropriate drawings based on the sketches, photographs or descriptions the client provided.

As is often the case with new art techniques, important work was not produced in photoengraving for quite some time; the beginnings were rather mundane. At best, early photoengravings were indistinguishable from wood engravings, but at worst, the new method produced substantial amounts of third-rate work. Some nineteenth-century artists experimented with the technique, realizing that it fulfilled an important traditional role in printmaking, that of transmitting visual information to a wide audience, which other techniques were not as successful at accomplishing. A few artists working in print even preferred this technique to others. Eventually, some were interested in taking photoengraving to higher creative grounds due to combination of the following factors: a large part of the mundane photoengraved work was replaced by halftone and sufficient time had passed for artists to become accustomed and interested in new techniques.

Two artists, Daniel Urrabieta Vierge (1851-1904) and Aubrey Beardsley (1872- 1898), whose work appeared in the 1880s and 1890s, are traditionally recognized as the first to create something special and interesting, from an artistic standpoint, in the medium of photoengraving.**** Vierge is known for his pen and ink illustrations that were printed by the Gillot establishement. Beardsley’s work was created exclusively to appear in print, however the process used to create the printing plates from his drawings was not gillotage, but a competing photoengraving method of making plates with the aid of swelled gelatine. Nevertheless, for the artist, the drawing specifications and the appearance of the final image would have been nearly identical to that of a gillotage. By the time Vierge and Beardsley created their drawings, various methods of photoengraving had been in use for a few decades. The time that has passed since the invention of these techniques has given the artists the opportunity to appreciate this medium for its differences from wood engraving and use it more fully for creation of original work. While it is arguable that the original works of these artists were pen and ink drawings, and the prints were mere reproductions, Vierge and Beardsley were deeply conscious of the fact that they were creating these drawings to be printed by photoengraving.

My thesis also examines prints of several artists that at some point were mistakenly described as handmade, only to learn later that they were printed by a photoengraving method more akin to commercial printing. This list of artists includes such names as Claude Monet, whose drawings for reproduction by gillotage were at some point believed to be sketches, Howard Pyle, whose photoengraved illustrations for Robin Hood were misidentified as wood engravings, and José Guadalupe Posada, whose broadsides were printed in Mexico City by a process no different from that practiced by the French artists whose work had been reproduced by Charles Gillot’s firm.*****

Although gillotage was one of the more successful early mechanical printing technologies, it had limitations. New inventions, such as halftone, began to replace gillotage in the world of commercial printing in the early twentieth century. Printing techniques descending from the early industrial methods survived, and line block photoengravings were still used alongside commercial halftone plates in mass-market letterpress books and periodicals of the first half of the twentieth century. These ubiquitous images played a pivotal role in forming our visual literacy.

Photoengraved illustrations by artists such as Arthur Rackham or Théophile Alexandre Steinlen were often treated like collector’s items, but it is difficult to locate the large number of other artists’ images printed in regular trade books of the time.****** Understandably, many have since been discarded, as they were not valued as works of art. Many others were reprinted in offset later in the twentieth century, but the images preserved the visual qualities characteristic of the early line block prints. A close cataloguing of early twentieth-century trade editions would undoubtedly uncover plenty illustration gems. Few of these images entered any art historical narrative, but many of them became a part of our visual cultural heritage.

In the twentieth century, while many mass market publishing houses strove toward automatic printing and larger editions, many small publishers aimed to produce books as works of art, setting type by hand, and printing these books on fine paper in limited editions. When these books were illustrated, they frequently included images carefully printed in letterpress alongside the beautiful typography. These illustrations were often woodcuts or wood engravings, but occasionally, they were labeled simply as “drawings.” Even though the method of printing was usually not specified, these drawings were printed by the photoengraving process similar to nineteenth-century gillotage. The printers of these fine letterpress books were interested in preserving the ancient craft of typesetting at a time when the big publishing houses were moving toward complete automation; they purposely avoided halftone illustrations because of their mechanical look and the requirement for printing halftones on glossy paper, which interrupted the flow of the book and interfered with its overall design. The fine letterpress publishers were also interested in moving the craft forward, and often invited the most prominent contemporary artists to illustrate the books. Photoengraving gave letterpress publishers the opportunity to use work of contemporary artists who were not inclined toward making woodcuts and the ability to reproduce drawings without an intermediary wood engraver.

Even though early twentieth-century connoisseurs such as Martin Hardie insisted on the fact that anything commercially printed stands outside of the realm of the world of true art, contemporary art theory allows for the presence of several parallel narratives and for multiplicity of styles and approaches.******* A commercial printing technique may still be a vehicle for creating artwork when it is used in meaningful ways. As Walter Benjamin noted, despite the “aura” of the original art, certain art works only make sense when they are created by the means of new reproductive technologies.********

Eventually, commercial printing technology abandoned letterpress techniques altogether. As often happens in such cases, this abandonment led to a revival of fine letterpress printing. Today much attention is being paid to letterpress, and many art institutions are interested in preserving the craft and using it in new, significant ways. Photoengraving, having evolved through the years, continues to play a role in contemporary letterpress printing. Line block photoengravings can be found in fine books and prints produced by letterpress artists today, for example in works by Takayo Noda or José Luis Ortiz Téllez.

Since the end of the twentieth century, photoengravings are usually made with magnesium instead of zinc, and a method has been devised to prevent undercutting the metal by the acid without the cumbersome reapplication of the protective rosin. The process is still very much related to its nineteenth-century predecessor, gillotage. The metal plate is coated with an acid-resistant, photosensitive ground; after exposure to light, exposed parts of the ground are rendered insoluble while those covered by the black areas of the negative can be washed away. The plate is then etched in acid, and during the etching process, the sides of the relief areas are protected by oil, which adheres only to them due to its chemical properties, controlled through the temperature of the acid bath. Specialized shops produce photoengraved plates from artwork, photographs or digital files, and the plates are used for printing or embossing an image on the press.*********

In contemporary art, no technique is off limits, whether it has historical patina or it is the most recent invention, whether it is archival and the art objects created by it are permanent or ephemeral, whether the materials it uses are considered inherently beautiful or unattractive. Regarding printmaking, contemporary museums and galleries exhibit archival inkjet prints in their collection, despite the fact that an inkjet printer is a digital printing mechanism one can expect to find in an average home. Print exhibition spaces around the world redefine the very concept of what a print might be, while no longer shocking the collector. Relief photoengraving may still reach its fullest potential in creative and significant image making in the centuries to come.

 

To see the full bibliography for this thesis, please see Frid, Jenya. “Gillotage: The Lost History of an Influential Technique.” MA Thesis, Hunter College, CUNY, 2013.

 

*   Gascoigne, sec. 33.c.

 

** “How to Make Printing Plates or Engravings by Etching: Gillotage,” 8896-8897.

 

*** “How to Make Printing Plates or Engravings by Etching: Gillotage,” 8896-8897; Joseph Böck, Zincography: A Practical Guide to the Art as Practised in Connexion with Letterpress Printing, trans. E. Menken, 2nd ed. (London: Wyman & Sons, 1886), 49.

 

**** Joseph Pennell, “Comments on the Drawings of Daniel UrrabietaVierge,” in Francesco de Quevedo-Villegas, Pablo de Segovia, The Spanish Sharper (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892), viii-ix; Joseph Pennell, “A New Illustrator: Aubrey Beardsley,” The Studio 1 (April 1893), 14-18; A. Hyatt Mayor, Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 706; E.C. Wells, “The Passing of Daniel Vierge, Master Illustrator,” Brush and Pencil 14, no. 3 (June 1904): 205.

 

***** James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall, The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings (Williamstown, Massachusetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, 2007), Estelle Jussim, Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts: Photographic Technologies in the Nineteenth Century (New York and London: R.R. Bowker Company, 1983), 107-132; Diane Miliotes, José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Broadside, technical note by Rachel Freeman (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2006).

 

******Fred Gettings, Arthur Rackham (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975); Phillip Dennis Cate and Susan Gill, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1982).

******* Martin Hardie, English Coloured Books (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, London: Methuen and Co., 1906), 294.

 

******** Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Art in Theory 1900- 1990, An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 515.

 

********* Paul Maravelas, Letterpress Printing (New Castle and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2005), 25; Briar Press: A Letterpress Community, “Magnesium Plates,” http://www.briarpress.org/30176 (accessed October 5, 2013); Briar Press: A Letterpress Community, “Engraving Magnesium Plates,” http://www.briarpress.org/28739 (accessed October 5, 2013).

A zinc relief etching plate, with extra white areas trimmed, mounted on wood, 1879. From “The Making of a Process Plate,” presented to the New York Public Library by Century Co. New York Public Library, Print Collection.

Daniel Urrabieta Vierge. Illustration for Francisco de Quevedo, Histoire de Pablo de Ségovie (Paris: Léon Bonhoure, 1882). Gillotage. The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection.

Claude Monet. Paysage. Published in La vie moderne (19 June 1880): 400. Scratchboard gillotage. 145 x 191 mm.

Howard Pyle. The Mighty Fight betwixt Little John and the Cook. 1883. Illustration for The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (New York: Scribner, 1883). Photoengraving. The Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department.

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen. Drunkards. 1888. Cover illustration for Le Mirliton (November 1888). Stencil colored photorelief.

Ben Shahn. The Alphabet of Creation (New York: Spiral Press and Pantheon, 1954). Photoengraving. The New York Public Library, Rare Books Collection.

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3 Responses to “Gillotage: The Lost History of an Influential Technique”

  1. Thanks for this super-useful article. I’ll share it with my print connoisseurship class. We have been talking a lot about lineblock and other photo-relief processes and this has appeared at just the right moment.

  2. Jenya Frid says:

    I am so glad this was useful to you and your students. If anyone wants to go deeper into this topic, I would be more than happy to share my full bibliography.

  3. Sarah M. says:

    Really interesting work! I’m researching a similar topic and found this extremely helpful. Would you be willing to share your bibliography, perhaps through email? Or is there a way to find it online through Hunter College?