What are prints?

And why are they important?

By Jasper Jennings

A print is a repeatable image made by a variety of processes, usually on paper or fabric (sometimes other materials like treated animal skin).  Ink is transferred from the printing surface – usually a metal plate, woodblock or limestone block – by exerting pressure, usually by means of a press.

To learn about printmaking techniques please see the GLOSSARY of Print Terms (link to external content).


The most widely practised traditional processes include woodcut and linocut, etching, engraving, lithography, and, in the 20th century, screenprinting.

One person’s idea of what constitutes a print is often very different to another’s. For much of my specialist period, the 18th and 19th centuries – much of it pre-photography – printing was the only medium of mass visual communication.  So the prints I sell can be illuminating ‘primary sources’ for our history.

Of course I also appreciate the artistic qualities that many prints possess, and derive endless pleasure from the creative possibilities of printmaking. Printmaking produces aesthetic effects unrealizable by painting or drawing, and artists in Europe have been expressing themselves in print since around 1400.

Rembrandt's Three Trees, etching

Rembrandt’s Three Trees, etching

Though relatively scant scholarly attention has been paid to the subject, I would suggest that the printed image is at least as important as the printed word to the progress of Western civilisation. The major scientific and technological advances of the post-Medieval world would surely have been impossible without what William M. Ivins called the “exactly repeatable pictorial statement”.

Prints communicate ideas and information, and propaganda too. They can be purely decorative, or illustrative of text; many were intended to be bound into books of course.  Before radio and television, prints were also entertainment in the home, for children and adults.

Because I’m a print dealer, I tend to think in terms of commercial categories – how the multifarious products of the printing press are categorized for offering to the market.

A 'Puzzle Print', hiding portraits of celebrities, lithograph c.1840

Another tree, but this ‘Puzzle Print’, conceals portraits of celebrities, lithograph c.1840

Generally something ephemeral like an 18th-century playbill is not strictly classed as a ‘print’ – though many print dealers, like me, also deal in items that are perhaps more properly described as ‘ephemera’.

Ephemera can be defined as the transient documents of everyday life, not expected to survive after their original purpose is served.  If prints were the television and radio of their day, printed ephemera was perhaps Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  Highly mobile both in terms of where it was produced and consumed, it was not always printed in workshops or studios. Wherever people gathered in numbers – at a cricket match, say, or at a Frost Fair – portable presses in little tents printed souvenirs that are sometimes our most tangible connection with a historical moment.

Recylced woodcut for a cricket poster

Recylced woodcut for a cricket poster, c. 1840

As technologies improved, printing became an ever more versatile, responsive medium. Printing plates were passed from printer to printer, from engraver to engraver, often reworked several times.  Impressions were printed off the same plate for years, decades sometimes, with layers of modifications reflecting changing times and changing tastes.

Prints have always been commercial propositions. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was big money to be made in reproducing paintings as prints. Enterprising publishers and printsellers commissioned paintings purely for turning into engravings, etchings etc.  Or they sold, or took a share in, copyright to the pictures they bought.
Some artists in turn made more from selling the rights to reproduce their work than from their original creations.

Proposal for subscriptions for the 'The Death of Admiral Lord Nelson' engraving after a painting by Devis

Proposal for subscriptions for the ‘The Death of Admiral Lord Nelson’ engraving after a painting by Devis, 1807

When they think of prints now people think of images produced by a printmaker by hand, rather than by mechanised mass-production or by photomechanical processes.

There was a resurgence in the later 19th century of the idea of the ‘original’ print, a design more-or-less conceived and produced by one and the same person, deliberately created as a print; not reproducing another artwork, the print is the artwork.  What matters ultimately is artistic intention and effect.

So prints tell us about ways of seeing and ways of living.  For centuries before the photographer’s lens, people saw their world through prints.

Hand-coloured aquatint of the Battle of Waterloo 1815

Hand-coloured aquatint of the Battle of Waterloo 1815

Jasper Jennings

+44 (0)7832 177 378   jasper@jenningsprints.com

2 Responses to “Prints and People”

  1. vijay said

    The book, ‘Select Views in India’ by William Hodges, is part of the collection of rare books and manuscripts. It was published in the years 1785-1788. Its official title and call number are as follows: Choix de Vues de L’Inde …; T 416 Folio B., With 48 originally hand coloured plates by Hodges.

    This is one of the most rare historical antiquarian book in the whole world.
    William Hodges was closely associated with Thomas Cook, and was one of the first artist to come to India.
    His works were very limited, unlike other European artists, who produced large editions.
    Very few sets of his works are known to exist in the world
    His works have a special interest due to his association as a draughtsman, in the most celebrated sea fare exploration along with Thomas Cook, which makes this book a very valuable one.
    Do you happen to have a copy of this book?

  2. John Gallagher said

    Dear Jasper

    I’m curious about a print of Captain James Cook that you can see on the website of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia. It’s dated 1784 and shows Cook in profile, in an oval shaped image framed with flaring hair or fur. They attribute it to Thomas Cook – what is your opinion? Was the fur border a common one (I’ve never seen it on anything else)?

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