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25 Apr 2019

Exposing an imprint of the past

Written by Jo Riley
Wooden block with an image etched on a copper plate
History imprinted in copper
Modern technology reveals a story of technological development ingrained within a find at Craigievar Castle.
Negative image of a kilted man, holding a walking stick
The ink residue on the copper plate revealed a kilted man, holding a walking stick

While investigating the contents of one of the boxes in storage at the castle, I discovered a wooden block on which was attached a copper plate. 

Having previous experience of print-making I was immediately drawn to the object, assuming it was an etching plate that had been mounted onto wood. Poring over the plate and examining it with a magnifying glass, I was able to ascertain that the image depicted a man in a kilt standing near a window. I could see that the man was holding a walking stick, but beyond this my eyes were guessing.

Negative image of a kilted man, holding a walking stick
Close-up of the negative image of a kilted man

Sharing my find with Craigievar’s Senior Assistant, John Lemon, we decided to investigate further and digitally photographed the plate. John was able to manipulate the photograph on the computer to reveal its positive image, creating a replica of the print that the plate would have produced.

The positive image of a kilted man, holding a walking stick
The positive image revealed from the original photograph

It’s clearly a man in a kilt, leaning on the granite sill of a large window, with his walking stick and a black Labrador. We were able to identify him as John Forbes-Sempill, who, it’s said, wore such a moustache for the best part of his life. He would have been standing outside Fintry House, which he inherited in 1905. This was the family home prior to Craigievar Castle, which was then used as their holiday residence.

Zooming in reveals that the image is created with dots of different sizes, densities and subtly different shapes, fooling the eye into visualising the image with its various tones.

This gives clues to how the image was produced – not an etching as I imagined, but through half-tone printing. Half-tone imagery is a reprographic technique that uses dots to simulate a continuous tone image.

The original image or photograph would have been processed using coarsely woven screens to diffract and interrupt the light, manipulating it into a series of dots. Using photo-etching techniques, a plate was produced of this original, from which multiple prints could be made.

Before half-tone printing, photographs had to be reproduced by an artist or engraver, but now they could be reproduced more efficiently and more accurately. It was a technique developed in the 19th century as a solution to producing illustrated books on a mass scale, and which extended to newspapers and journals. William Fox Talbot is attributed as the inventor of half-tone printing, combining photographic screens with the intaglio printing process. This technique evolved and became more refined, and was in use for over 100 years.

For me, this find was a pertinent example of the discoveries uncovered by Project Reveal. The original photograph was manipulated to create a printing block, and through manipulating a photograph of the printing block its identity and social history has been revealed. Hopefully the book that contains this image will one day itself be revealed.


Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland's material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.


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