Monday, 12 August 2013

The lost art of nature printing: The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland

Thomas Moore and Henry Bradbury's The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland was first published in 1855. Containing 51 plates detailing all of the varieties of fern found within the British Isles, it was the first book within Great Britain to be published using the pioneering process of nature printing. The technique involved pressing a specimen leaf onto a thin, soft lead plate to create a very finely detailed intaglio impression. These impressions were then electroplated to form a printing plate, with details then being coloured by hand. The resulting images were particularly vibrant and realistic, being slightly raised off the page as if they were in fact real pressed specimens of the plants. 

Bradbury had studied the process whilst at the Imperial Printing Office in Vienna, where Alois Auer, the director of the office, and his associate, Andreas Worring, had first patented the process in 1852. On his return to London Bradbury patented his own improved version of the process, without crediting Auer. The resulting controversy that developed between the two men was said to have led to Bradbury's suicide at the age of 29. 

Despite a high level of original interest, nature printing was used very little in any subsequent English works. Whilst Bradbury and Auer believed the technique to be a major advance in printing, it could not be employed on an extensive range of plants and other subjects, as they had to be largely two dimensional in nature in order to be reproduced successfully.