Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Botanical Mezzotints by Thornton

The Snowdrop by Dr. Robert John Thornton

There are many different techniques of printmaking from woodcut to aquatint, but only one style, mezzotint, allows the engraver to produce finite shades of gray and subtle details for “smoother transition between line and shade.” As the article, Made in the Shade, in the November 2009 Arts & Antiques magazine states, mezzotint is a printmaking technique developed in 1642 in the Netherlands by Ludwig von Siegen, who served as an aid to nobles of the Holy Roman Empire. In the mezzotint process, the engraver creates a very detailed and luxurious print by pressing a rocker, a chisel-like tool with evenly spaced teeth onto copper plate to create peaks and valleys. Mezzotints start black and work their way lighter through this process. When finished with the engraving, the engraver “scrapes and burnishes the surface to shape the image” bringing forth the desired image from the background. Through the use of color, the image comes alive as the ink sinks deep into the valley of the copper plates and the black of the peaks creates the lines and shadows.

The mezzotint technique traveled across Europe and became widely popular in England in the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. It was at this time, in the late eighteen century that English physician and botanical writer Dr. Robert John Thornton began engraving and printing a series of botanical illustrations using the mezzotint technique. Assembling the finest flower painters to paint original designs for the engravings, the series, Temple of Flora, was unsurpassed as a botanical document of the Romantic era. Mezzotint was a popular engraving technique in England because it was a faster process and less expensive than line engravings and other more intensive forms of printing. Arader Galleries in San Francisco is proud to exhibit Dr. Robert John Thornton’s mezzotint engravings from the Temple of Flora.

Thornton began to indulge his lifelong love for botany in 1799 when he began the engraving and printing process for the Temple of Flora, which includes five frontispieces, portraits and allegorical compositions with thirty-two plates of flowers. As with all of his brilliantly colored plates, in The Snowdrop, the blue, orange and white flowers stand vividly in the foreground against rolling, snow covered hills behind. This whimsical landscape engraving, in excellent condition, shows the range of tone and shade that the mezzotint process brings to an image, while the coloring and background adds to the dramatic velvety effect. Arader Galleries currently has a wide selection of Dr. Robert John Thornton’s mezzotints from The Temple of Flora available. For more information, please visit www.aradersf.com or call 415.788.5115.

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