The secret art of the engraver

You may well own a piece of Tony Maidment’s work. As one of the UK’s leading hand engravers, his images appear on banknotes worldwide. But this secretive, beautiful craft is in danger of dying out

Tony Maidment is an exceptionally skilled craftsman and is passionate about his art – but due to the nature of the work, he is rarely able to talk about it. He’s a hand engraver whose intricate designs are used on banknotes. For reasons of security, it isn’t possible for him to publicise much of what he does. And herein lies the problem: Maidment is worried that without being able to generate more interest in this hushed and secretive artistic process, the centuries-old craft could be lost to history.

With over 30 years of experience, Maidment is one of a handful of engravers who still work on steel plate (he’s the only active freelance banknote engraver in the UK) and as the makers of the world’s currencies look increasingly to digital technology to create paper money, the hand-engraved elements have gradually receded on the finished designs.

That said, the work of the hand engraver – the human touch, if you like – is still one of the most vital components in the design of banknotes and remains an integral element in combating forgeries. The nuances of the lines and dots that an engraver makes will be unique to each artist, and thus much harder to replicate than the more uniform shapes drawn on-screen. In currency design, so the theory goes, bank-notes need to be easy to use, but hard to counterfeit.

Maidment began engraving at the New Malden-based engravers and printers, Bradbury Wilkinson & Co, when he was 16. His father worked the banknote cutting machines and, when Maidment showed an early talent for drawing, he persuaded his son to apply for an engraving apprenticeship at the firm. Two years later, at 18, Maidment had engraved his first banknote: a Malaysian one dollar bill.

“Basically, you’re creating sculpture,” he explains, turning a small slab of steel over in his hands. “The work is actually three-dimensional – the blocks of steel we use are even called ‘sculpts’ – and that’s what many people don’t realise. To see a really beautiful hand engraving; you cannot compare it. So it’s such a shame that the art form could be lost without anyone really noticing.”

So secretive is Maidment’s day-to-day work on banknote design that, understandably, he’s prohibited from showing-off his latest commissions. But Maidment now hopes to change the way engraving is generally perceived and increase people’s access to it by working with a range of new clients (the Garrick Club and Globe Theatre in London are two he’s lined up recently) and, potentially, even offering people the chance to study the craft alongside him.

The level of commitment that hand engraving requires, however, is not for everyone. Maidment admits that personality plays a significant role. He is calm, softly spoken and, he says, after years of discipline able to centre himself in a zone where he can concentrate on his work for many hours on end. He explains how the almost meditative process enables him to get ‘on the steel’ and, looking through the stereo microscope he uses in his work, it’s like viewing the surface of another world. The lines that in reality take up mere millimetres of space, stretch out across a wide silvery expanse.

Beginning a project also takes many hours of preparation, before any marks are even made on the steel. It can take up to a day to sharpen the hardened steel blades of the ‘gravers’ to the precise angles that will, in turn, dictate the shape of the cuts made in the metal. The cuts then generate different effects; whether it’s the long, curving strokes of hair, or the tighter line work that forms an eye, which remains the most intricate area of a portrait and the place where Maidment often begins an engraving.

Prior to the engraving work itself, Maidment has to transfer the image onto the plate. This is done by scratching the basic structure onto a piece of film that already holds a drawn or painted version of the image. The film is dusted with a coloured powder which adheres to the scratches (or ‘burr’) and is then laid onto the steel which has been coated in a soft layer of wax. The powder gets caught on the wax  and the film is peeled away. Maidment will then ‘dry point’ a rough image by scratching through the wax onto the steel to create a delicate, almost invisible, starting point for the engraving. He then settles himself, selects a graver, takes his eyeglass, leans forward over the plate, and begins to cut.

“Rather than pushing the tool,” he says, “you’re actually steadying it with your hand and ‘squeezing’ it over the plate with your thumb and forefinger.” It’s done in the smallest of increments and it’s easy to see just how a single engraving, even at four or five centimetres square, can take weeks of focused work to complete. Maidment points to a particularly large image by the 19th-century engraver, CW Sharpe, and indicates – without too much remark – that it probably took around a year to complete.

With this in mind, isn’t the time it takes to produce this exquisite work part of the reason that quicker, digital technology is driving modern banknote design? For Maidment, it seems that the computer has always been close by in the background but, significantly, it lacks the vitality of hand-engraved work. “When the software programmes first came out there were people who thought all engravings would be done on a screen,” he says, “but the manufacturers realised that the effects created by computer can give a rather clinical look. A banknote isn’t only there to be secure, it represents a country artistically, offering a sense of its culture, its history and its personality. It conveys a ‘feeling’ that sets it apart from the basic monetary agreement of ‘I promise to pay the bearer’.”

The decision to ‘draw’ banknotes that simulate hand engraving, or to use computer software to generate the designs, of course, comes down to economics. But the particular look and feel that an engraving gives, coupled with the ‘intaglio’ printing process that fills the cut plate with ink, presses the paper into the grooves and draws out a raised image, is as beautiful a technique as it is secure a method.

Yet with the news on the other side of the Atlantic that Thomas Hipschen has engraved his last presidential portrait for a US banknote (a new $100 from the Treasury Department launches early this year) it does feel as if the last sculpts of engraving steel are already being made. But here in the UK at least, Maidment is determined to keep the art alive. Bringing it up to date is the first step in his plan, with a series of workshops and an exhibition of more graphic applications of the techniques forthcoming. For him, it’s an important time. “Money is the most handled, most visible type of art in the world,” he says. “But ours is not a lost art, it’s just hidden.”

For more on Maidment’s work, go to tonymaidment.com

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