Nature Printing in the 1850s
Because of all the ferns in my garden, I have been finding out about the book I bought for its beautiful fern plates, British Ferns by Thomas Moore. The plates use a technique called nature printing which was first brought into use around the time of the publication of this book. Nature printing is a reproduction process, developed in the nineteenth century, that uses the plants, animals, rocks and other natural subjects themselves to produce an image. The subject undergoes several stages to give a direct impression onto materials such as lead, gum, and photographic plates, which are then used in the printing process.
The person attributed with the invention of the process, known originally as ‘Naturselbstdruck’, is Alois Auer; the first publication, of instructions for the process, was by this Austrian printer in “The Discovery of the Natural Printing Process: an Invention” (Vienna, 1853). This was written in four languages by the author. He shows the use of plants, a fossil fish, and lace impressed by a roller onto a lead plate, which is then hand coloured and transferred to the final print.
Many other botanical and natural history illustrators had attempted to use techniques that were a ‘shorthand’ in the representation of subjects. Another printer, the Englishman Henry Bradbury, immediately used Auer’s ‘nature printing’ process to publish work of his own. These included two major botanical works; The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland’, by Thomas Moore, (1857) which is the book I have, and The Nature-printed ‘British Seaweeds’ (1859-60). (which I would love to have)
In the process of nature printing, the specimen was not used directly to make the print, but instead it was used to make a printing plate of wood or metal, from which the print was then made. It involved laying the item to be illustrated on top of a plate of soft lead. The specimen was then covered with a hard steel plate, and this sandwich was run through an intaglio printing press. The pressure forced the image of the specimen into the soft lead. The ink could then be applied to the lead plate and prints made from this. It was also possible to transfer the image to a copper plate by electrotyping and a reverse plate made from that for printing.
These images are not only very decorative, but each print precisely and delicately traces the image of the plants, capturing the detail of nature itself almost “first hand.” Another interesting example of nature printing was Sherman F. Denton’s use in 1900 of actual butterfly wings to make the prints for ‘As Nature Shows Them: Moths and Butterflies of the United States’. Denton created the prints by pressing wings into the pages. He recorded that he had to collect over 50,000 insects in order to produce his work!