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19 January 2013


The Great Executioner (of St. John the Baptist) ~ Mezzotint by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, after the painting by Jose Ribera

Malcolm C. Salaman:
There is a story, long beleieved of Prince Rupert, that one day he saw a soldier cleaning the barrell of his musket, which the dew had rusted during a lengthy spell of sentry-go in the night. The prince, according to the legend, noticed that, as the soldier scraped away the fine grain eaten into the metal by the damp, which was in effect the rust, a sort of nondescript design was left, and from that he was supposed to have conceived the idea of mezzotint engraving. It was a plausible story, but its truth has been discounted, since Horace Walpole related it, by the discovery that the art was invented, not by Charles I's famous nephew, but by a German soldier of more modest fame.

Yet mezzotint engraving has its romantic story. When Prince Rupert was in Brussels in 1654, he sought the acquaintence of a certain Colonel Ludwig Von Siegen - but it was not to talk of military matters. Perhaps he was trying to forget the stricken fields of Marston Moor and Naseby, the surrendered battlements of Bristol, in the peaceful arts and sciences which now engaged his subdued activities. Among these engraving enjoyed his particular favour and interest; and his wonder and curiosity had been aroused by the report of certain extraordinary prints mysteriously produced from copper-plates which yet revealed no tough of graver or etching-point...

The secret of his invention, however, Colonel Von Siegen had kept to himself for twelve years, and in the interval, he had worked during his leisure hours at its development; but the flattering interest evinced by Prince Rupert, when he curiously and admiringly examined the prints, overcame the reticence of the gallant and ingenious inventor. He confided his secret to the sympathetic prince. He told him how, by means of a steel roller with fine sharp teeth cut on the face of it, fixed to a horizontal handle, he had worked over and over a copper-plate, in every possible direction, until the surface presented a close and even burr of grain, which, when inked, had given an impression of practically uniform black. Then, with a sharp tool, which he had devised for the purpose, he had gradually scraped away portions of the burr to varying depths and degrees, while other portions were left untouched, so that the high-lights, middle tints, and black shadows of his design resulted from impressions taken from the worked plate, and a whole picture was accordingly presented merely by gradatory tones of light and shade, and without a single line or dot, as in the known forms of engraving.
[The Old Engravers of England by Malcolm C. Salaman]

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