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Bookplates Engraved on Copper

For over 200 years navigational charts were engraved on copper and produced by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, initially for the Royal Navy, but gradually providing global chart coverage for the merchant fleets of the world.

In September 1951 I commenced my contribution to the historic craft of copperplate chart engraving in the form of a six years apprenticeship. The first few years were spent under the close instruction of a tutor learning the intricacies of the craft, and making and maintaining the specialised tools used in the process of chart production. After completing the apprenticeship I continued chart engraving until the mid-sixties when, aware that other processes – photographic and compugraphic – would replace the long established craft before the end of my working life, I grasped the opportunity to leave engraving and take up other cartographic duties within the Hydrographic Office. I enjoyed a very varied and fulfilling career until in 1992 I had the chance to leave the Civil Service before normal retirement age.

(2 15/16 x 4 3/4", 75 x 120 mm) (9/16 x 2", 15 x 52 mm)

I left with the intention of returning to engraving and printmaking and my first commission was from Captain Richard Campbell, RN, (Fig. 1) who asked me to produce a bookplate based on detail from Brueghel’s “Fall of Icarus”. On receiving the proofs Richard exclaimed that the plate would be too large for some of his books and said he would like a smaller plate as well. He produced a piece of his family silver from which I engraved an interpretation of his family crest.

Other commissions followed, interspersed with a few for family and friends. One of the more interesting projects was a plate for Joseph Bray (Front cover) of San Diego. Mr Bray has an interest in bees and bee keeping and he requested that his bookplate design be based on an engraving of the frontispiece of an old book on the subject. It depicted three aspects of a bee framed by foliage. The original drawing was attributed to Stelluti in 1625 and is believed to be the first to have been drawn from observations under a microscope. The instrument he used is purported to have belonged to Galileo!

An equally taxing task was the “Perpetual Motion” plate for Lewis Jaffe (Fig. 4), based on a poor photograph of Doolittle’s 19th century engraving. After hours of intense work I am still unable to understand how such a machine could have worked.

Perhaps the most intricate undertaking is one of three commissioned by Gordon Smith. Gordon gave me a photograph of a tapestry, entitled “Flora”, woven by William Morris from a painting by Edward Burne-Jones. I know that Gordon was happy with the result and I wonder what Morris and Burne-Jones would have thought about it.

Many commissions are armorials and my most recent was for Baron Stewart. The exlibris was commissioned by his son and correspondence suggested that the baron would be a quite demanding client. However, after seeing the proofs, the reply from the Hon.Henry was very complimentary. He wrote that he would like 1000 die-stamped prints and my usual ten impressions on art paper. He also asked for a special impression that could be used to illustrate his father’s entry in Burke’s Peerage, as he considered the new version more appropriate than that produced by the College of Arms. 

(1 5/8 x 1 15/16", 42 x 49 mm) (5/8 x 1 13/16", 17 x 45 mm) (2 1/2 x 3 5/8", 64 x 92 mm)

 A departure from my normal single colour printing is portrayed in the two-plate, four colour bookplate for Brian North Lee. It was an entry in the World of Exlibris exhibition in Belgrade, 1995 where the request was for a bookplate to be dedicated to a member of the judging jury. The four colours were achieved by careful inking so that parts of each plate were filled with different coloured ink. The first plate was then passed through the press and removed. It was replaced by the second plate in register and printed over the first impression.

Many commissions require hundreds of prints but producing them on my rolling press would prove too time consuming and labour intensive. The alternative is to employ a die-stamper. This form of printing is carried out on a semi-automatic machine at fairly high speed and because the paper does not need dampening, it can be ready coated with a dry gum that requires only moistening just prior to placing in books. The quill and signature was engraved as a gift for Brian North Lee (Figure 3) who reports: “they go in like a dream”! The number of bookplates I have so far engraved stands at around 70.

One afternoon I had a call from a researcher from the BBC who asked me to explain how James Abbot McNiel Whistler had produced his engravings of coastal views whilst working for the Coast Survey in Washington before he immigrated to Europe. After giving an explanation I was asked to go to London and demonstrate the method and the filmed sequence as “Whistler’s hands” was included in a television program about Whistler’s life.

Another of my interests is producing limited editions of natural history and architectural subjects – mostly in miniature form – that are sold through galleries in many parts of the world. In February of 2000 a set of my botanical engravings was awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society. I exhibit regularly with the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers, The Hilliard Society of Miniaturists and the Miniature Art Society of Florida – all of which I am a member.

The last ten years working once again on copper have been the source of great pleasure. It has also been an immense delight to have made so many friends with a related interest and, through participation in ex libris and miniature art exhibitions, to have been contacted by people from many parts of the world.


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan