Monochrome engravings, etchings, mezzotints and aquatints require specialist care and attention due to their high value and historic significance. With some antique engravings dating as far back as the 15th century, these delicate works on paper may have been stored and displayed in a variety of challenging environmental conditions. Now hundreds of years old, they may face a much more stable atmosphere in your home, yet still face deterioration from historic damages, a lack of sensitive framing materials, everyday accidents, or major household disasters.
Above: a selection of typical antique prints from various centuries
Paper is one of the most vulnerable mediums due to the porous nature of the fibres – this not only puts it at risk from humidity and water damage but also common incidents of mould growth and foxing. You may also find that historic framing materials have led to dark acidic staining, or that a very dry atmosphere has created a brittle and flaking surface. Mezzotints, engravings and other antique prints will always be at a heightened risk of common damages, atmospheric changes and acidic framing materials due to their age.
Above: a 19th century print before and after restoration by our paper conservator
Our ICON accredited paper conservator deals with all kinds of damage, from accidental folds and tears through to disasters such as household flooding, fires or leaks. The results from an antique print restoration are often wonderful to see, with discolouration and foxing gently removed to reveal the original visual impact. Our conservator works not only to revive a print but will ensure that it is safe from historic or modern contamination and stable for future generations.
Above: a detail from a mezzotint by Robert Dunkarton after a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, dated to 1778
In this article, we will cover the common types of historic print you may encounter in an auction house or antique shop and the ways in which they can be safely preserved, displayed and restored by our professional team.
The history & value of antique prints
The most common forms of antique prints are all related to the same family of printmaking, that is the intaglio technique – this is where the ink is held in the sunken area of a plate rather than the relief. Whilst woodcut prints dominated this area of art up until the mid 16th century, intaglio style prints became vastly more prominent, reaching new heights of popularity during the 18th century as artists increasingly saw engravings and mezzotints as a way to make an income from copies of their artwork, especially portraits of royalty or celebrated figures.
Above: a selection of early 16th century engravings by Albrecht Dürer
The value of prints can be increased by their clarity in relation to others in existence, their connection to famous artists, and an aspect known as a plate mark – that is the indentation of a heavy printing plate as weight is applied by the craftsman or artist.
Above: a detail from a 1518 engraving by Dürer displaying the typical linework used in an engraving
Intaglio print techniques require a lot of skill, with the various forms having their own unique process and famous names. For engravings, the artwork is carved into what is usually a copper plate with an instrument known as a burin – this is then covered in ink and can be pressed hundreds of times before the impressions lose clarity. You can often tell apart an engraving by the accomplished and precise linework, often with even the smallest areas showing great detail. Albrecht Dürer was known for his engraving skill, with his original prints selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds today. In 2021 a Dürer engraving sold at Sotheby’s for £327,600, this high price point was compelled by the clarity of the print’s impression. Old master prints from this period may also include work from Martin Schongauer, Israhel van Meckenem and Lucas van Leyden.
Above: a selection of classical architecture landscape etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Engravings were a dominant print form up until the easier process of etching emerged, this used the corrosive nature of acid to bite into the metal. The plate is coated in a wax layer, into which the artist creates their design – the acid then meets the metal through these precise grooves. Etchings were extremely popular as they allowed any artist with skill in drawing (and knowledge of the processes involved) to produce their own prints. Etchings dominated the print market of the 17th century with the most renowned name in this field being Rembrandt, who practised with great skill, often combining the use of engraving and drypoint techniques. Rembrandt etchings sell at auction today for tens of thousands of pounds, in 2021 a self portrait etching with areas of drypoint sold for £23,940.
Above: one of Rembrandt’s most famous etchings is Three Trees from 1643, this combines drypoint and etching techniques
Further famous printmakers from the 17th century include Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Jacques Bellange, Jacques Callot, Wenceslaus Hollar, and Jusepe de Ribera. Portrait artist Anthony van Dyck also produced a series known as his Iconography – a large collection of half-length portraits. Many of these were based on van Dyck’s drawings and interpreted by an engraver, but he also etched a few himself. This series of famous faces were printed for centuries following his death and continued to include new figures, with over 200 commercially available by the end of the 18th century. Due to this popularity, you may often come across them today – though some may be much later reproductions. During the 18th century, the use of engravings as a commercial tool for portraiture continued with influential artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth.
Above: a selection of portrait engravings after works by Godfrey Kneller, Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth
Mezzotints were invented by Ludwig von Siegen around 1642, creating a smooth mid-tone effect that did not rely on techniques such as cross-hatching. The tone is made possible by a new metal tool called a rocker – this had teeth that pressed tiny dots across the metal plate. This smooth style allowed for a print to resemble softer mediums such as pastels and watercolours. The technique was taken up by artists such as Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller. An engraver called John Smith produced hundreds of mezzotints for famous artists throughout the early 18th century.
Above: a detail of a Mezzotint from 1780 displaying the velvet-like texture and tonal qualities of the print, after a portrait by Rubens
A good quality mezzotint can sell for tens of thousands often depending on how early of an edition they are. Further shading was allowed with aquatints, this was often combined with etching to allow for a strong line mixed with softer elements. Famous aquatint prints include large collections by Francisco Goya, in 2017 his Los Caprichos prints sold as a collection for $912,500.
Above: a selection of aquatint prints by Goya, including two from the Los Caprichos series
The care and display of historic prints
Whether a print is on display or in storage, the surrounding mount or backing board is still important to consider. The best environment for a valuable print is a well-fitted mount and frame with conservation appropriate materials – this means that no acidic elements are present. Over time, historic frames may have become loose and many may have used materials with a high pH level, the damage caused by this is often hidden as it progresses over decades.
Above: a 19th century print of Queen Victoria and the extended royal family – before and after restoration by our paper conservator
A frame with loose or missing glazing may allow atmospheric contamination to settle upon the paper, historically this is often soot and nicotine, but it may also attract general dust and debris. Our expert antique print restoration team can assess both the frame and mount to ensure it is safe for the print, new acid-free materials can be put in place if required, or historic frames can be restored to allow for the replacement of glazing and safe hanging devices.
Above: a watercolour illustration with typical signs of acidic damage from old framing materials
Mezzotints in particular should be kept well back from the glass of a frame, using a double mount method to ensure they will not face surface abrasion. The full, velvet-like surface of a mezzotint is not as stable as that of engravings and can be easily scratched or disturbed. If you are keeping the print outside of a frame, be sure to keep it between pieces of acid-free paper.
For the perfect display of mezzotints and engravings which rely heavily on their fine details, you may want to consider museum glass. This is UV protective glazing that has far less reflection than regular glass, allowing for a clear view without any distractions from lighting or your own reflection.
Above: an engraving with foxing and surface contamination before and after restoration by our conservator
When discolouration due to poor framing materials or foxing is present, be aware that this cannot be cleaned by any household treatments and will require our conservator to gently bathe the paper in a controlled environment to remove any contamination. Do not try to remove any glued down backing boards or surrounding mount yourself, as this may cause accidental damage.
Above: a print with water and mould damage following a flood – before and after restoration by our conservator
To avoid mould growth and foxing spots, keep your print in an atmosphere of less than 50% humidity. An even level of humidity is important, as too dry of an environment may cause the paper to dry out and become brittle. We also recommend that all works on paper are kept away from direct sunlight to avoid occurrences of fading and temperature fluctuations.
Above: paper which has become too dry causing a brittle material which is flaking and unstable – this can be consolidated and restored by our conservator
Following any water damage, such as a flood, leak or spillage, allow the paper to dry naturally on a flat surface and contact our conservation team as soon as possible for fast intervention. Water can cause the paper to distort and cockle, so professional flattening treatments may be required to keep it stable and in good condition. The same is the case for fire damaged paper, carefully keep all pieces on a flat surface, as they may still be salvageable when assessed by our conservator.
Antique print restoration
Paper conservation protects prints whilst resolving any visually disturbing damages. Our paper conservator is ICON accredited and is highly skilled at restoring even the most devastating levels of deterioration. Firstly, the print will be assessed for all potential damages and dangers, putting a treatment plan in place that will ensure the entire piece is well preserved following restoration.
Above: a water damaged print before and after restoration by our paper conservator
Discoloured or stained engravings and other varieties of antique print can be sensitively washed in a tailored solution. This lifts away contaminants such as acidic staining, as well as foxing, mould spores, soot, nicotine, tape or glue marks, and some forms of accidental staining whilst keeping the original print safe. Watermarks or tide lines from water damage can also be gently removed with this process. This returns the visual appeal to the print, but also allows it to be displayed or stored with the knowledge that no dangers remain. Washing will also help to reduce the occurrence of foxing or mould returning to the piece in the near future, as long as it is kept in a clean and safe environment.
Above: an acid stained print with a water mark – before and after restoration by our paper conservator
Torn prints can be sensitively restored and stabilised on acid-free tissue paper, strengthening them and often seamlessly reviving the artwork. Brittle and flaking areas can also be stabilised in this way and re-adhered into place to reduce continued deterioration or loss of the original paper. Cockled, folded, and distorted paper can also be flattened with a safe technique, reducing the risk of ink loss from bent or crinkled areas.
Above: the restoration of a tape mark on an engraving that had left acidic residue over a tear
All prints which pass through our studio will have their framing materials checked for hazardous acids. If needed our professional frame technicians can offer new conservation approved mounts and frames to fit your specifications or to mimic the original. If the paper is extremely sensitive, our team will also offer the options of UV protective glazing and museum glass.
Above: an antique map before and after restoration treatment including a new acid-free mount and frame with specialist glazing
How can we help?
If you have an engraving, etching, mezzotint or other historic print in need of care, please do not hesitate to reach out. Our professional antique prints restoration team has worked to preserve many modern and historic works on paper and is happy to help with any queries you may have about the process. We can also offer assessments for pieces you are concerned about and full treatment plans for damaged or deteriorating prints.
To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576