Copper Plates

By Jennifer Vess, Brooke Dolan Archivist

Q: Can you explain the purpose of copper plates like the one we see displayed with the Academy’s The Birds of America?

A: Have you been to a historic site and watched a costumed interpreter in an ink-stained apron use a wooden, hand-operated press? Even if you haven’t seen it for yourself, you are probably familiar with how books used to be printed—the time-consuming, labor-intensive way. But what about the pictures in books? How were the beautiful, colorful, detailed drawings of animals and plants in rare books like John James Audubon’s The Birds of America produced? One way was through the use of etched copper plates.

Unlike type, drawings of nature were not standardized. Artists and scientists (sometimes one and the same) depicted their studies with pencil, ink, watercolor, and oil on paper or canvas. Somehow those drawings and paintings had to be reproduced over and over again for publications.

a finished illustration next to its copper plateThe artist would take those drawings to an engraver who would etch a copy of the artwork onto a copper plate, reproducing the fluidity and detail of the original. Ink was applied to the copper plate to fill in the grooves, and then the plate and paper were pressed together to create a black and white image. Some publications stopped there, but those that wanted a little extra vibrancy relied on hired help to hand color each plate. Some artists learned to engrave copper plates so that they could ensure the accuracy of the copies of their originals.

The Academy Archives has four collections containing rare copper plates used for publications from the 19th century. Copper has always been a precious metal, and once printing was finished, many plates were melted down for other uses. We are very lucky to have these plates, and what is even more amazing is that we have the books that were produced from these plates. Researchers can see copper plates and the finished products side by side. One of our oldest sets is for the book Histoire Naturelle et Generale des Colibris, Oiseaux-Mouches, Jacamars et Peomerops, by J.B. Audebert and L.P. Vieillot, Paris, 1802. The book and the copper plates were recently on display during the Academy’s Birds of Paradise exhibition.

The copper plates for the Histoire Naturelle seem to have come to the Academy with the library of William Maclure. Maclure became president of the Academy in 1817 and in 1835 donated his library of scientific books to the institution. We know that in 1832 a visitor of Maclure’s noted that he possessed the complete set of copper plates for Audebert and Vieillot’s Histoire Naturelle. Unfortunately we do not have every plate, as Maclure may have only donated a few to the Academy. But the ones we do have are beautiful examples of etching as well as natural history art. Aside from being rare artifacts, these plates are a wonderful resource for those studying the history of art, the history of printing, and the history of the natural sciences.

You can learn more about the items in the Academy Archives on Members’ Night! Join today so you can go behind the scenes to meet the staff, find out about our research, learn all the Academy’s secrets.

This article was adapted from the Winter 2015 issue of Academy Frontiers.

QL674.82, ANS Archives Coll. 69

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