At the Museum of Printing History
Taking a trip through a giant 17th century cabinet of curiosities, I am touring the Museum of Printing History right here in Houston. Naturalist, physicist, and print collector Jean Charles Chenu produced an original book of 482 colored copperplate prints in 1842, 38 of which are now on display at the museum.
The 17th century was a remarkable time, foreign to the likes of phones, photography, and modern innovation. People lived recording images by drawing them or, in this case, incising images onto a thin copperplate surface, using a V shaped tool called a Burin. Drawings and lettering were incised in mirror image. Before printing the plate was heated and covered with ink which seeps into the finest lines and textures of the drawing. The plate is cleaned off and run through a press under great pressure on moistened paper which soaks up the ink from depressions in the plate. It is an intaglio process that dates back to the 15th century.
Physicians, naturalists, and scientists of the 17th Century formulated the seeds of science today, with its emphasis on why and how, its need to separate things into groups, segments and divisions. They did this largely by observation, collecting, examination and cataloguing. Creating elaborate taxonomies to catalogue species was popular at this time. More analytical than the awe-struck wonder cabinets of an earlier time, these cabinets of curiosity were analytical by design and in alignment with the scientific advancements that were occurring.
Jean Charles Chenu was himself a physician, naturalist who set out to study all species of sea shells. The illustrations for his book were titled “Illustrations Conchliologiques” and they are strikingly realistic with every attention to detail emphasized. The colors range from transparent pastel watercolor hues of pinks and greens, to saturated, vibrant purples and oranges. Crisp, detailed examples appear of every shell one can imagine, from ribbed nautilus, to the sea creature like Strombus. Curvilinear lines, ridged and ribbed fine sections of seashell species were all articulated with fine precision.
Being printed in 1842 and hanging on the wall in 2009 as if they were printed yesterday is a testament to the tried and true use of inks and presses that have truly stood the test of time. This is an exhibition worthy of a second look. See the only place in town where the old presses still run or take a class in book arts at the museum. – Stacey Holzer
Jean Charles Chenu now on view through October at the Museum of Printing History located at 1324 West Clay, Houston, Texas 77019. Read more about Contemporary Art at www.visualseen.net.