Platemarks and Papermarks. Inquiring the Counterproof’s (Absent) Matrix

Abstract: Platemarks and papermarks can bear witness to the production process of a counterproof. In the example of an 18th-century print series, they allow conjectures on the appreciation of the counterproof’s (absent) matrices.

Fig. 1: Direct impression and counterproof of plate 2 of Nicolas Dorigny’s Pinacotheca Hamptoniana …. Rome, Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, S-FC 10018 an S-FC 10019. Photographed by Luca Frepoli (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A counterproof is a print of a print. As this involves printing from paper on paper the process leaves specific traces which raise questions about the making and appreciation of the works. In intaglio printmaking, a print is usually created by pushing the fibers of a dampened sheet of paper into the inked grooves of a copperplate (the matrix) under the great pressure of a roller press. The paper picks up the ink and the print is subsequently pulled from the plate. Due to the high pressure, an intaglio print does carry an embossment of the plate’s edges, the so-called platemark. As in every mechanical printmaking process, the design on the print is necessarily a laterally reversed version of the design on the matrix. The counterproof process allows for a repetition of this reversal by using a freshly pulled print as a matrix: A print, on which the ink is still wet, is covered with a blank sheet of paper, and pressure is applied. The resulting counterproof is a laterally reversed version of a direct impression and accordingly a laterally correct version of the design on the plate. Moreover, it is generally paler in tone, because only a small amount of ink can be picked up from the surface of the print used as a matrix.1 The pressure needed for the transfer can be applied by means of the roller press as well as by rubbing the two papers onto each other with a stiff object. No copperplate is necessarily involved in the process and accordingly, the majority of the extant counterproofs do not bear a platemark. However, a copperplate can be useful when printing a counterproof by roller press for it increases the pressure exerted on the two papers which results in a stronger impression without needing to readjust the press. In 1645, Abraham Bosse writes on this procedure in his influential handbook on printmaking and furthermore advises to use the same copperplate from which the original impression was pulled.2

The Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome holds a copy of a series of prints after Raphael by Nicolas Dorigny (1658-1746), which allows studying one of the various uses of counterproofs.3 The series consists of a title page and seven prints after the cartoons on which Raphael laid down the designs for the tapestries of the Sistine Chapel around about 1515. Said cartoons came into the possession of the English Crown in 1623 and were exhibited at Hampton Court from 1699, where Dorigny studied and engraved them from 1711-1719.4 In the Rome-held copy – as well as in a copy in the British Museum – the seven plates are doubled with a complete set of counterproofs [figure 1]. The copy, therefore, consists of 15 plates in total: 7 direct impressions, 7 counterproofs, and one title page. Up to the middle of the 18th century in so-called reproductive printmaking – that is the production of prints following and interpreting an existing work of art – prints show generally laterally reversed versions of the preceding design.5 Since this is also the case in Dorigny’s plates, the added counterproofs allow a laterally correct representation of Raphael’s designs while the direct impressions maintain the readability of the inscription and permit an appreciation of the quality of the printed image, which suffers considerably from the loss of ink in the counterproof.

A close examination of the direct impressions and counterproofs of the Dorigny-copy reveals traces of the printing process which evince concerns for quality not just in the compilation of the volume but also in the production of the counterproofs. The direct impression of plate 2, for example, bears two platemarks, one of which is embossed and the other raised [figure 2 & 3], implying both that the print was used as a matrix for a counterproof and that a printing plate was used in the process. A detail on the right side of the print‘s back [figure 4] adds further information on the process: a fine indentation running alongside the platemark points to the use of a second sheet of paper to cover the incised side of the plate before applying the assembly of fresh print and blank paper that was then run through the press. Clear evidence is the partially printed plate number in the lower right corner, which corresponds with the shape of the „2“ in the print.6 The plate printers of Dorigny’s series did therefore meticulously follow Bosse’s abovementioned instruction. Apart from allowing for stronger impressions, the use of the same copperplate in the pull of the counterproof might have added aesthetic value to the volume, as it gave direct impressions and counterproofs a uniform appearance in being framed by the same platemark.

The direct impression of plate 2 is, however, the only one among the 7 prints of the Rome-held copy that was used as a matrix for a counterproof. This can be inferred by the absence of double platemarks on the remaining prints and by plate 2 being slightly paler in tone in comparison to the other direct impressions because some of its ink was transferred to the counterproof. A further argument for this conclusion can be drawn from a different kind of indentation on the counterproof which is the papermark: papermarks are produced when the high pressure of the intaglio printing press molds a bigger paper around the edges of a smaller one. This is why they can also be found in offsets of drawings when the pressure is applied with such a press.7 However, their presence in the roman Dorigny-copy is highly heterogeneous, as they are found on only three of the seven counterproofs. The sole strong and complete papermark is found on the counterproof of plate 3 [figure 5]. While the sheets used in the roman copy measure about 640 x 865 mm, the platemark indicates that the counterproof was pulled from a much smaller sheet measuring 560 x 785 mm. This and the roughly torn edges of the sheet may indicate that the respective direct impression was not meant to be published because it cannot be bound into a folio-sized volume like this. It remains to be verified whether the prints of the Dorigny series also circulated on smaller sheets. For the present copy, however, it can be assumed that prints used as matrices did not meet the high demands on the quality of the volume. In addition to indications of the appreciation of the prints used as matrices, the size, and structure of the papermarks raise several questions about the production process. For instance, it is not clear why the printers trimmed the direct impressions before printing the counterproof, or for what reason they may have decided to use a different kind of paper for the direct impressions in the first place.8 I am investigating these and similar questions about the production, use, and appreciation of counterproofs in my Ph.D. project In Reverse. The Technical, Aesthetic, and Economic Dimension of Counterproofs in Intaglio Printmaking Techniques in association with the research group on the Dimensions of techne in the Fine Arts.

Fig. 2: Double platemark on the direct impression of plate 2, recto, Lighting from the right. Photographed by Luca Frepoli (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Fig. 3: Double platemark on the direct impression of plate 2, recto, Lighting from the right. Photographed by Luca Frepoli (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Fig. 4: Papermark with partially printed plate numbering on the direct impression of plate 2, verso, Lighting from left. Photographed by Luca Frepoli (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Fig. 5: Papermark with roughly torn edges on the counterproof of plate 2, recto, Lighting from the right. Photographed by Luca Frepoli (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Text: Luca Frepoli

Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Luca Frepoli, Platemarks and Papermarks. Inquiring the Counterproof’s (Absent) Matrix, in: Spotlight, hrsg./ed. by Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten,, 03.02.2023 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].

1 For a more detailed discussion of counterproofs and intaglio printmaking processes see Stijnman, Ad. Engraving and Etching 1400 – 2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes. London, 2012: 321. For an introduction to the fundamental role of reversal in printmaking see Jennifer Robert’s Lecture on Reversal (2021).

2 “… sur la planche qui l’a faite” Bosse, Abraham. Traicté Des Manières De Graver En Taille Dovce Svr L’Airin. Par Le Moyen Des Eaux Fortes, & Des Vernix Durs & Mols; Ensemble de La Facon d’en Imprimer Les Planches & d’en Construire La Presse, & Autres Choses Concernans Lesdits Arts. Paris, 1645: 73. The advice is repeated by his manifold editors and translators up to the middle of the 18th century. An overview of the manuals is given by Stijnman 2012: 419.

3 Nicolas Dorigny, Pinacotheca Hamptoniana … (1719), etching and some engraving, 15 pl. (title-page, 7 direct impressions and 7 counterproofs), Rome, Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Fondo Corsini, 27.M.15 (S-FC 10017–10031).

4 Hsieh, Chia-Chuan. ‘Publishing the Raphael Cartoons and the Rise of Art-Historical Consciousness in Eengland, 1707–1764’. The Historical Journal 52, no. 4 (December 2009): 902 and 908; Clayton, Timothy. The English Print, 1688 – 1802. New Haven, 1997: 49-52; Shearman, J. Raphael’s Cartons in the Coll. of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. London, 1972.

5 Gramaccini, Norberto, and Hans Jakob Meier. Die Kunst der Interpretation: italienische Reproduktionsgrafik 1485 – 1600. Berlin, 2009: 57; Keller, Raymond. ‘Die Polarität von Links und Rechts im Reproduktionsstich’. In Graphik als Spiegel der Malerei: Meisterwerke der Reproduktionsgraphik 1500 – 1830, edited by Stephan Brakensiek. Cinisello Balsamo, Milano, 2009: 49.

6 Many thanks to Giorgio Marini for this remark. The direct impression of plate 2 was, however, not the matrix from which the corresponding counterproof was pulled, because the distance between the framing line and platemark differs.

7 Krämer, Maria. ‘Mit Öl und Wasser kopiert: Zur Technik der Übertragungsverfahren’. Essay on the Karlsruhe Piranesi Albums, no date, Fig. 10).

8 Many thanks to Ad Stijnman for this remark.

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