August 11, 2017

Brass Rubbing

        Brass rubbing is a particular form of relief printing in which, instead of inking the raised surface and laying paper onto the ink, paper is laid on the clean surface, and the top of the paper is rubbed with a wax stick to pick up the raised texture beneath.  Unlike a traditional block print, the image on paper will not be reversed from the block, but it also has somewhat less detail.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brass rubbing became popular in Britain to reproduce the many monumental brass plaques that had been placed in churches in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, so another difference between brass rubbing and block printing is that in most cases the textured plate was never intended as a printing block or designed with that in mind.  However, repeated rubbing does eventually begin to wear down the brass plaques, so many originals now forbid rubbings… and reproductions of the brass plaques are created specifically to allow rubbing, thus making them true printing blocks of a sort after all.
        Even though the brasses were not intended for printing, they sometimes have really lovely designs and textures.  I particularly like this couple’s Gothic canopy, and the husband’s chain mail and belt.  The other fun details are the lion at his feet, and the little lap dog at hers.  The woman in the gorgeous brocade gown must have been spectacularly
fashionable in life, and saw no reason to stop in death.  A quite unusual amount of work went into patterning her dress all over.  The bust of a man is, by contrast, very simple and may even have been a stock design rather than made to commission as a portrait.  Nevertheless I find it exceptionally beautiful, with its expressive eyes and careworn brow.
        In my youth my jack-of-all-crafts mother dabbled in brass rubbing while we visited the UK, and I (at age 9) joined in with scrap paper and scrap crayons, and kept the results in my scrapbook.  Two years ago at the National Museum of Ireland we found small reproduction brass plaques provided for visitors to make rubbings, but we couldn’t do a very good job, as the provided paper and wax sticks were all
almost entirely used.  You can see in my two examples the shift in brass rubbing fashion: earlier rubbings were black on white, while nowadays people favor metallic on black.
        There’s no reason the rubbing plate has to be brass, of course.  In the United States it used to be not uncommon to make rubbings of colonial gravestone designs.  One difference between the monumental brasses and the colonial gravestones is that the former are, as far as I can tell, carved by anonymous artists, while the gravestones are often initialed by their creators and can be attributed to known carvers.  Of course, all forms of rubbings have become much less common with the ease of photography as a quicker, cheaper, less damaging, and (in some ways) more accurate method of reproduction.  But there is an artist using the equivalent of found brass plaques for interesting effects today, to be featured in the next post

[Pictures: Sir William and Alianora Burgate, brass effigies 1409, from Burgate, Suffolk;
Margaret Bernard Peyton, brass effigy 1484, from Isleham, Cambridgeshire;
Bust of a civilian (James de Holveston?), brass plaque c. 1360, from Blickling, Norfolk (Images from Hamline University);
Several rubbings from Brightlingsea, Essex and the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, by AEGN;
James Allen gravestone, slate carved by W.C. (William Custin?), 1714;
Jonathan Wyatt gravestone, slate carved by John Stevens III, 1775;
Joseph Fitch gravestone, granite carved by Obadiah Wheeler (decorations) and John Huntington (lettering), 1741;
Job Howland gravestone, slate carved by John Bull, 1785, all gravestone rubbings by Sue Kelly and Anne Williams (Images from the Farber Gravestone Collection).]

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