Girtin’s soft-ground etching (see the print after, above) was published separately from the finished aquatint, on 2 September 1802. To create this autograph print, the artist first traced his own drawing, reversing the image in the process (see image 1) and then, using the tracing as a template, impressed the lines onto an etching plate coated in a tacky ground of an acid-resistant mix. Lifting the tracing and taking away the ground where the lines had been pushed in, he would then have immersed the plate in acid, which would have bitten into the unprotected areas. Cleaned up, the plate, with the etched lines now according with the direction of Girtin’s original drawing, could then be used to print from. Such a complex procedure employed by a novice printmaker like Girtin no doubt required a number of proof stages, and in this case two have survived. One, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see image 2), is marked with a note in pencil, ‘too strong’, with a line to the buildings on the skyline. Another appears to be a proof of an unpublished plate, and it again contains a number of additional notes by the artist (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.10898)). Martin Hardie, in his unpublished account of the Paris prints in the Girtin Archive (37), describes this second plate as superior to the first, which he says is ‘underbitten’, though it was not used for the final print. He argues that the addition of aquatint to this plate was ‘a failure’ and that Girtin had to fall back on the inferior soft-ground etching that he had hoped to replace. The differences between the two proofs are on the whole minor, though they can be identified, if one wishes, by overlaying images of them.
The Water Works at Marly, Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the Distance: Colour Study for Plate Fifteen of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’