WCPF: A Brief History of European Print Making / by Lizzie Glendinning

My time at the Courtauld established an interest in prints and its ability to transcend social barriers broadening the accessibility of original art for early modern Europeans and beyond. This is the first of a bi-weekly series tracing the history of print through the modern and into the contemporary era as we approach the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in November.

by Ed Oliver

William Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' [1751].

William Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' [1751].

You will see more images in a day than the average medieval European would see in their life. This visual saturation has its genesis in the birth of printmaking technology. Prior to the fifteenth century images were sparse and limited to the walls of the wealthy. The turn of the fifteenth century saw the advent of print; these new technologies made the reproduction of a single image thousands of times feasible. From a single matrix of carved wood or metal an image could be infinitely reproduced and dispersed across Europe. When this invention was followed in the mid-fifteenth century by the introduction of movable type, so that the first printed books could be produced, the possibilities for the spread of knowledge and ideas expanded in an unprecedented manner. Woodcuts, engravings, and etchings also publicised the inventions of painters, spread knowledge of new styles, and facilitated stylistic comparisons.

While many of the techniques necessary to produce prints were known before the fifteenth century, it was the widespread availability of paper that made printmaking possible. The first paper mills in Germany and Italy had opened by the 1390s, around the same time that the first woodcuts were produced. Prints provided a means of mass-production, planting the seed of social mobility within European society and shaping the modern world we inhabit.

This experimentation had a decisive impact on the history of art. The Renaissance revival of classical antiquity was fuelled by prints that spread knowledge of ancient Roman buildings and sculpture throughout Europe. Prints not only provided a new outlet for artists to explore their own interests, whether in classical antiquity, tales of magic and witchcraft, landscape, everyday life, or fantastic visions; they allowed the newly evolved middle classes to own works of art themselves. This granted cultural gravity outside of the elite sphere and began the development of art markets throughout the Enlightenment. From Hogarth’s biting satire to Rembrandt’s harrowing portraits of Europe’s destitute, prints enabled the masses of Europe to engage critically not only with art but with their own cultures. 

The synthesis of art and cultural dichotomies brought about by the print continued to develop and evolve as European global wealth expanded up until the modern day. Brocket Gallery would like to invite you to witness the culmination of this historic genre at Britain’s biggest solely contemporary print fair. The Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair is our exciting new venture where we, with you, look forward to further exploring this fascinating medium and its legacy.

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair

Building 10, Major Draper Street, Royal Arsenal Riverside, Woolwich, SE18 6GD

17 - 20 November 2016