A Time Machine

Perhaps 30 years ago I found two small copper engraving plates in an antique shop in Long St. The plates were clearly from two different hands and neither was a masterwork, though one engraver was, to my eye,  a better craftsman than the other. Both were illustrations from Christ’s Passion. Perhaps they were illustration plates for a Bible or, more likely, some tract. I have no idea when they were cut, since the style of engraving that stabilized in the Renaissance remained pretty similar until the Victorian era, and the pietistic images were popular throughout that time, but they looked, to me, Pre-Victorian and my guess is that they were cut in the late 1600s. They were fairly worn, as though they had been abandoned at the end of a print run since they were no longer giving a clean print. They had suffered further wear and tear over time.

I am not an engraver, but as a smith I do a little engraving on the side, and I could feel viscerally something of the craft that produced them, the patient work with burins and hatching tools.

engraving plates

They must have been cheap, since I was all but penniless in those days, and I bought them. They lay in a drawer in my desk, and occasionally I would take them out and look at them.

Yesterday my 16-yr-old twins went with a friend to print engravings that they had scratched into plastic sheets. I remembered the old plates, and said that they should ask the woman who was doing the printing to take a print of them, if possible. They came back with these:

Click on them to enlarge - the scanner sees them better than the eye.

Click on them to enlarge – the scanner sees them better than the eye.

engraving 1

I was moved. The printer had made the plates speak again. It was like hearing an old scratchy recording of someone’s voice from hundreds of years ago. Images of torture aren’t really my thing, but finding again the hand-work of a fellow-craftsman after all the intervening time gave me a curious feeling of continuity and solidarity. The plates had become a time machine, delivering the work of long-dead craftsmen into my 21st-Century hands.

If anyone with expertise can tell me anything about these plates, I would be very interested.


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