Metal-plate engraving

Printmaker Katrina van Grouw talks about the work of illustrator Sydney Parkinson and shows how she uses metal-plate engraving to print and reproduce his work.

The 18th and 19th centuries were a golden period for natural history illustration. The rapid progress in science, art and craftsmanship worked together to produce some of the most wonderful, lavishly illustrated natural history books ever seen.

The great voyages of discovery and the dramatic expansion in world trade in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that amazing numbers of animals and plants new to western science were being discovered all over the world.

The techniques and crafts involved in making and reproducing illustrations were also progressing apace. Metal-plate printing was particularly popular for high-quality lavish illustrations.

Some of the most beautiful and scientifically important metal-plate images in the Museum’s collection came from drawings made by Sydney Parkinson, a natural history artist aboard Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour voyage of discovery (1768-1771).

Parkinson was an amazing illustrator who combined aesthetic beauty and sensitivity with sound observational accuracy. He died at sea, but such was the value of his images that they were copied, engraved and printed by others after the ship returned.

The images were made by cutting fine lines in the metal and then by carefully filling them with inks for printing. This process made it possible to reproduce high quality images over and over again.

However, the full 738 copper plates that make up Banks' Florilegium were in fact not printed as a complete set in colour until the 1980s. This massive task was undertaken by the Natural History Museum in association with the publisher Editions Alecto.