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Prince Rupert 1619-1682
The great executioner
Mezzotint, 1658, after an imitator of Jusepe de Ribera 1590-1652
Bequeathed by Leonard Daneham Cunliffe 1937
The artist was a nephew of Charles I, a professional soldier, inventor and amateur printmaker. This is an example of one of the earliest prints executed in mezzotint, a printmaking technique which the Prince himself perfected, using a special tool to help 'rock' the plate evenly. Rupert brought the technique to England, and performed a demonstration to the Royal Society in London in 1661. The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706), who harboured a particular fascination for prints, wrote about Rupert's technique in his book on the history of printmaking, Sculptura, or the History and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper (London, 1662). In the four pages devoted to what he called 'Mezzo-tinto' ('half-tone' in Italian), Evelyn mentioned the Prince's purpose-made tools ('expresly fitted' [sic] instruments), but was deliberately vague about the practicalities of the technique, so that the process remained a secret.
The image is formed out of tone, rather than line. The printmaker first roughens the printing plate using a spiked tool to create a pitted surface that will catch the ink. To achieve an image, the artist then smoothes areas of the place by scraping and polishing the surface, so that they retain less or no ink. Early examples like this one have a wonderful grainy texture, where it is possible to see the sweeping curved marks of the tools used. This coarseness also adds to the atmosphere of the subject of the print - the executioner holding the head of St John the Baptist. It is called the Great Executioner to distinguish it from a reduced version of the same subject, impressions of which were included in the first edition of Evelyn's book.