The Lost Art of Line Engraving
In the early days of Italian book printing, small ornamental decorations, often elegant, were placed as “head and tail pieces” to chapters, and called “vignettes,” or little vines, from their grace and beauty. The term “vignettes” has since been applied to all small engravings, usually of portraits or pictorial subjects, as used on bank notes and postage stamps, exclusive of the ornamental border and lettering.
There were several branches of line engravers; portrait, pictorial, allegorical, scroll ornament, square letter, script letter, pantograph, machine and geometric lathe operators. It was seldom that one person had the aptitude or ability to be expert in more than one or two of these arts, as it was with the other graphic arts. It was said that at the turn of the twentieth century, there were not more than twenty-five men living in the world who could line engrave a satisfactory portrait.
Charles Burt was born at Edinburgh on the eighth day of Nov. 1822. At twelve years of age he apprenticed with W. Home Lizars, principally engaged on plates for Sir Wm. Jardine’s Natural History. He shortly afterwards came to the United States, and was employed by A. L. Dick, who, in his words, had an establishment for engraving in the city of New York, and with whom he remained for about four years. Beginning in 1850 Charles Burt was engaged on Bank Note work, and was the principal die engraver for the U. S. government.