Bartholomew engravers

It was as jobbing engravers that the early generations of the Bartholomew family earned a living. They undertook a wide variety of work, but it was not long before a specialism in map engraving emerged.

Generation after generation expanded the business, adopting and reacting to technological changes, but engraving remained at the firm's heart for over 150 years.

The first member of the family to train as an engraver was George Bartholomew (1784-1871). At 13 he became an apprentice to Daniel Lizars and from 1806 he began working as an independent engraver. His son, John Bartholomew Senior (1805-1861) followed in his footsteps, also training as an engraver.

John Senior established Bartholomew as a firm around 1826. At this point in the firm's history all of the work was done from home, Bartholomew did not get separate business premises until 1859.

Learning from August Petermann

John Senior's son, John Bartholomew Junior (1831-1893) received training in copperplate engraving from his father. At 22 he sought to further his training by arranging an apprenticeship with the eminent German geographer Dr August Petermann (1822-1878).

An apprenticeship with Petermann was an impressive achievement. Petermann had moved to London in the late 1840s and he enjoyed considerable success there. He became secretary to the Royal Geographical Society and he was appointed Physical Geographer and Engraver in Stone to the Queen.

It was during this time that John Junior began to learn about the new technique of printing from lithographic stones.

Carving images on copperplate

John George Bartholomew (1860-1920), John (Ian) Bartholomew (1890-1962) and the final generation of John Christopher (1921-2008), Peter (1923-1987) and Robert Bartholomew (born 1927) all presided over a firm which continued the tradition of copperplate engraving, albeit it to an ever diminishing extent.

Copperplate printing is an intaglio printing technique. Unlike woodblock printing, where the image to be printed stands proud, in intaglio printing the image is carved into the printing surface, creating a series of grooves.

For the final image to come out the right way round, the lettering and shapes are engraved on to the copperplate in reverse. Engravers incised the lines by working away from the body, rotating the copperplate as they worked.

Making corrections to copperplates was relatively simple and could be achieved in various ways. Smaller lines could be erased by rubbing the area with a tool known as a burnisher, which spread the adjacent copper to fill in the lines. Larger areas or deeper lines could be corrected by hammering the copper from behind.

Tools for different effects

Engravers used a series of tools to produce different effects. Tools known as gravers or burins were used to incise lines, stamps were used to create shapes or symbols and serrated roulette wheels created dotted lines. Parallel rules, magnifying glasses and line gauges were also vital components of the engravers toolkit.

Many of these tools were home-made, using a variety of unexpected materials. Engraving points could be made from recycled gramophone needles, line gauges could be made out of flattened watch springs and their handles could be made from knitting needles, or wooden skewers from the butcher's shop.

Engraving apprenticeships

Engraving was a highly organised profession with a strict hierarchy, overseen by powerful unions. Bartholomew's engraving apprentices typically came to the firm straight from school at around 13 or 14 years old. They could expect to undertake an apprenticeship of up to seven years after which point they qualified as a journeyman engraver.

Throughout Bartholomew's history the engraving department was staffed exclusively by men. However, this was typical of the profession at the time.

An apprentice engraver's life could be hard. In the early 1890s John George Bartholomew sought to increase the number of contour lines on the half inch to the mile series of maps. Draughtsmen planned out the amendments which were then passed to the apprentices for engraving on the copperplates.

The work was very monotonous and some regarded it as stalling the progress of the apprentices. One member of staff even recalled strike action at Bartholomew brought about by these amendments.

Bert Bremner was the last apprentice to complete his training. He worked for Bartholomew from 1958-1966. The last new engraving recruit was John Rust, who worked from 1962-1969.

Final copperplate items

The last major engraving project that Bartholomew completed was the five volumes of the 'Times atlas of the world: Mid-century edition' (1955-1959). However, plate revision of the half-inch series continued until 1968 as a back-up to the glass and film versions.

The final item to be printed from a newly engraved copperplate was a map of Scotland, engraved by David Webster, in 1970.

After 1970 the use of copperplates became all but obsolete. By this time state-of-the-art technology enabled Bartholomew to print over 100 million maps a year. At the turn of the 20th century, relying on copperplate technology, the figure was closer to seven million.

The National Library of Scotland is home to around 4,000 of Bartholomew's engraved copperplates, and you can access a complete listing of these through the copper plate inventory on the Bartholomew Archive website.


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