Blackwork prints: Part 1:Early blackwork prints, the development of a new technique and its uses

The next three blog posts will look at blackwork prints. Developed at the end of the sixteenth-century this technique was used by a number of engravers producing ornament prints. This first blog post will consider the origins, early style and uses of blackwork engravings.

In the last decades of the sixteenth century a new technique of ornament engraving evolved. These prints are known as ‘blackwork’, a translation from the German term scharzornament, which refers to the large areas of black incorporated intp these designs. They offered ornamental designs for fashionable enamelled jewellery. The production of blackwork engravings was short lived with the last being made in the 1630s. The V&A holds one of the most important collections of blackwork engravings. These prints offer an insight into the relationship between the production of these designs and contemporary goldsmiths’ work as well as jewellery fashion at this time. (1)

Figure 1

Monogrammist S. B.

Plate from a suite of 6 designs for goldsmith’s work

German, 1596

V&A inventory number E.2373-1913

Blackwork engraving was mainly produced in Germany, France and the Netherlands. This example is by the Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Constantinus. Here a central blackwork pendant is supported by two nude figures inspired by classical antiquity who hold pendants decorated with blackwork designs.

Figure 2

Giovanni Battista Constantinus

Plate from a suite of 6 designs for goldsmith’s work

Italian, 1615-1625

V&A inventory number E.2668-1910

The striking difference between blackwork and other ornament engravings is its appearance, with the design formed by solid areas of ink as opposed to dark areas being built up with hatched lines. This is a result of the technique employed in making these prints, which is closely linked to that of champlevé enamelling where areas of metal are gouged out with a scrop or gouge-like tool to create channels that are then filled with coloured glass and metals. Towards the end of the sixteenth century this technique of enamelling was used for the ornamentation of jewellery including the backs of miniature cases, pendants, and ring bezels.

It is at this time that the technique of blackwork engraving evolved. A surviving copper plate in the V&A collection reveals how the same process was adopted in the preparation of the printing plate. Here large, reservoirs have been gouged out from the plate forming ornamentation for two ring shoulders on either side of a centrally placed box lid with a stone setting above and ring setting below.

Figure 3

Unknown printmaker

Copper printing plate, reverse copy of a plate from a suite of designs by Otto van Rienen (2)

Germany or France, 1590-1632

V&A inventory number E.1343-1923

The fact that blackwork engraving uses  the same tools in the preparation of the plate as those used for champlevé enamelling and that this engraving technique is used almost exclusively for designs for enamelled ornamentation suggests that they were produced by printmakers who were also working as jewellers.

The earliest known example of blackwork engraving is a design for a ring shoulder and bezel dated 1585 signed by the Netherlandish engraver Hans van Ghemert.

Figure 4

Hans van Ghemert

Design for a ring shoulder and bezel

Netherlandish, 1585

V&A inventory number 16969

This early print exemplifies the presentation and style common to blackwork engravings. It shows a ring shoulder and bezel, presented in a simplified two-dimensional format in the centre of the plate. Characteristic of blackwork, the ornamental pattern is in white on a black ground and confined to the form of the object that it is intended to decorate.

Figure 5

Anonymous printmaker after the Master of the monogram I. M.

Design for a cross

Netherlands or Germany, 1620

V&A inventory number E.3603-1910

In this print curving scrolls spread and contract to fill the form of the crucifix. A reliquary cross in the V&A collection incorporates similar ornamentation in black and gold on a white ground.

Figure 6

Anonymous Goldsmith

Reliquary cross, obverse decorated with the crucifixion

Spain, 1600-1620

V&A inventory number M. 245-1975

On the obverse of this cross interlocking scrolls create an ornamental framework for seven ovals in verre eglomisé representing biblical scenes. On the reverse a design inspired by a blackwork print is interspersed with instruments of the passion in gold.

The following two parts of this blog entry will consider stylistic developments and the demise of the blackwork print.


  1. This overview of Blackwork prints is indebted to the following publication: Christie, R., ‘Blackwork Prints. Designs for Enamelling’, Print Quarterly,  Vol. V, No. 1, 1988: 3-19.
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