Acid-etched Metal in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe
Etching, derived from an ancient Germanic word for ‘eat’, uses corrosive acids to bite designs into hard surfaces. The background can either be eaten away so the design stands out in relief, or the design itself can be bitten into the surface in the manner of intaglio engraving.
Etching has been applied to a broad range of luxury goods, especially durable items made in steel such as weapons, locks and tools. The technique creates a shallow relief making it possible to create highly decorated objects without compromising the structural integrity of the metal.
Between 1500 and 1750 production centred on southern Germany and northern Italy where etched armour was a speciality. Daniel Hopfer of Augsburg, a renowned etcher of armour, is widely thought to have invented etched metal plates for printing on paper. His designs were well-known during his lifetime and served as models for craftspeople working in a range of media.
Acids can dissolve metal by chemical reaction. This process can be used to etch designs into metal surfaces instead of the more labour-intensive and technically demanding method of engraving by hand.
The French scholar Jehan le Begue wrote a recipe for acid-etching on iron in 1531. He distilled ammonium chloride, ordinary alum and ferrous sulphate in a mixture of water and vinegar. Craftsmen rarely recorded their methods and many developed their own techniques. However, basic principles remain unchanged.
The metal to be etched is first cleaned thoroughly and then coated with an acid-resistant substance such as beeswax. This is called a 'resist'. The design is engraved in the wax to expose the metal underneath.
The prepared metal is immersed in a solution of hydrochloric or nitric acid and water until its exposed areas have been eaten away to the desired depth. The resist is then removed to reveal the etching. Gilding or blackening can be added to accentuate the design.
Designs on etched metalwork are often freer and less exact than in traditional engraving. They capture the ‘hand’ of the etcher rather like a pencil sketch.
Museum no. M.539-1927
Armour from the late 16th century was sometimes flamboyantly decorated with etching and iridescent blue and gold surfaces. Traces of gold remain in the background of the etched bands on this morion - an open helmet with a brim used by infantry soldiers. Blue colours may have been added - produced by heating the metal - but are no longer visible.
Museum no. 1054-1893
Strong boxes like this kept important documents and valuable jewellery safe and secure. This one is etched with allegorical figures. On the front of the casket a woman in classical costume symbolises ‘Music’. She is identified by her instruments - a lyre and a horn. Music was one of the seven liberal arts, a classical programme of education taught in universities.
Padlock and Key
Masterpiece padlock and key
Museum no. M.643-1910
To become a master locksmith an apprentice had to produce a 'masterpiece'. Here the locksmith demonstrated his skill by creating a robust and secure lock and refining its appearance with delicate etching. Similar patterns decorated other 16th century goods and furnishings, from embroidery to tooled leather. Designs circulated among craftspeople through printed versions on paper and were widely recommended in pattern books.
Museum no. 126-1873
Blades are the earliest types of objects known to have been etched with acid. This knife was used by a cooper, or barrel-maker. The etched writing on the blade has been worn away by repeated sharpening. What remains indicates that the inscription on one side is a bawdy rhyme and, on the other, a joke about the social importance of the barrel-maker.
Steel, wood, rope
Museum no. M.73-1925
This is a device for drawing back the string of a crossbow under very high tension. In this example, the ratchet is etched in relief with dogs chasing hares and the drum in intaglio with dancing couples. This combination of scenes reflects the fact that hunting, as an elite sport, was frequently used as a metaphor to describe the pursuit of the opposite sex.
Museum no. M.466-1927
This gauntlet survives from a spectacular armour. The bands of etching imitate the embroidered collars and hems of contemporary clothing. The design etched on the wrist guard shows a helmet, armour, scimitars and trumpets attached to a long central pole with sprouting leaves at the top. These military motifs derive from ancient Roman monuments depicting the practice of hanging the weapons and armour of defeated enemies from a tree.
Thigh Defence (Cuisse)
Thigh Defence (Cuisse)
Possibly Daniel Hopfer (about 1470–1536)
Southern Germany, Augsburg
Museum no. 402-1864
This piece of battle armour is characteristic of the early 16th century. Its fluted ridges imitate the pleated clothing fashionable at the time. The etched decoration, featuring bare-breasted sphinxes and cherubs’ heads, is very similar to surviving prints by Daniel Hopfer. Unlike the fluting, which is hammered out from behind, the etching does not alter the shape of the armour or compromise its rigidity.
Steel, ivory, gold
1600–1750 (blade); handle later?
Museum no. M.101-1923
This knife was probably used by a scrivener, or scribe, to trim feathers into writing quills. It is a forerunner of the folding penknife. The figure of a saint is etched on the blade but wear on the cutting edge has almost obliterated whatever he held in his right hand. Blades are difficult to date as designs were used over a long time. Blades were also hard-wearing and might be refitted with handles during their lifetime.
Cartridge Case and Powder Flask
Cartridge Case and Powder Flask
Steel, wood, leather
Museum nos. 1539-1856 and 2234-1855
These two firearm accessories were attached by their loops to a belt worn across the body, known as a bandolier. They equipped the guards of the Elector of Saxony, in Dresden. Etched decoration was particularly popular at the Dresden court and decorated a range of implements including the Elector’s own gardening and woodworking tools.
Printing Plate of Five Soldiers
Printing plate of five soldiers
Daniel Hopfer (about 1470–1536)
Augsburg, Southern Germany
Museum no. E.6292-1910
Daniel Hopfer’s initials are etched backwards on the side of the drum carried by the central figure, so that they will read forwards when printed. The entire composition anticipates the reversal of the image when a sheet of paper is pressed against the inked plate. The soldiers have their swords strapped to their right hips so that when printed they will appear in the correct position on the left.