Engraving method captures Norfolk landscapes

Keiron Pim The mezzotint is a beautiful and time-consuming artistic technique that is currently receiving its first exclusive exhibition in Norwich in living memory. Artist Martin Mitchell told KEIRON PIM how he creates his brooding Norfolk landscapes.

Keiron Pim

It is a labour-intensive but deeply rewarding artistic technique dating from the 17th century that reached its greatest popularity in the Georgian era.

Martin Mitchell reckons that Norwich has not seen an exhibition entirely made up of mezzotints for at least 150 years but his new show at the King of Hearts has changed that. It brings together a range of atmospheric pictures depicting dark, brooding Norfolk landscapes, full of wheat fields and overhanging skies and windblown trees. The technique creates a distinctive sense of depth and movement.

“The mezzotint is a rather involved engraving process,” says Martin. “I engrave a 'ground' by hand on to a plate so the whole plate has a uniformly dark tone. The whole plate starts off completely black so you get that rich, velvety quality.

“Then I use a variety of sharp blades, scrapers and burnishers to work away at it, working it from dark to light. When the plate is polished smooth, no ink will adhere so these areas will appear as highlights. The deeper the indented areas remain, the darker it will print.”

The effect is very evocative of rural Norfolk on a cold winter's day, when the grey light gives the landscape a melancholy beauty. It is easy to see the technique's appeal, but also to see why such a time-consuming way of working would fall out of fashion.

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“The technique was developed in Germany in the middle of the 17th century. It was brought to Britain by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who was a great exponent of the art when not fighting Cromwell's Roundheads!

“Mezzotint was quite popular in the high end of the art market in the 18th and 19th centuries but completely disappeared with the advent of photography.

“In the 18th and 19th century it was known as the English style, as only an Englishman would have the patience to practise such painstaking work.”

Martin, who lives and works in Norwich, explains that the average plate will take him 100 hours' work to create. The pictures on show in Norwich were all created in the last five years. Several show recognisable places - landmarks such as the Cow Tower in Norwich or St Benet's Abbey - and others are rural landscapes, some true to life and others composites. He draws from photographs and visits during different seasons and different times of day to gain a broad sense of the location, rather than a single snapshot.

“The vast majority are topographical places but they are not slavishly done. I try to capture the essence of place and time.”

No Through Road: an Exhibition of Mezzotints, by Martin Mitchell, is at the King of Hearts café on Fye Bridge Street, Norwich, until November 11. All works are for sale and prices range from £90 to £250; www.kingofhearts.org.uk