Early engraved images of Taos

Early engraved images of Taos

While Peter Moran (1841-1914) was the first artist to produce fine art etchings of Taos in 1880 and 1881, other trained artists came west even earlier. One of the earliest was Joseph Horace Eaton (1815-1896) who graduated from West Point in 1835. There he studied everything from infantry tactics to cartography and drawing required of cadets who would graduate to protect, map and describe the American West being settled in the nineteenth century.

Having served in the military on the western frontier, Eaton was well-prepared when W. W. H. Davis hired him to illustrate El Gringo, New Mexico and Her People published in 1857. While Davis’s scurrilous description of Taos and its residents is ignorant and offensive, Eaton’s illustrations are important. His drawings of remote and sparsely populated “Don Fernando de Taos,” “Pueblo of Taos–North Pueblo,” and “Pueblo of Taos–South Pueblo” were rendered as wood engravings by William H. Thwaites.

Eaton, Pueblo of Taos, N

There are many technical options today for illustrating printed material, but in the mid-nineteenth century there were fewer processes a publisher could employ.   Wood engraving was among the most cost-efficient methods to render detailed images for the printed page. In publishing centers like New York City shops hired trained artists to copy drawings or watercolors onto a wood block in pencil and then engrave them with sharp, finely pointed tools. The blocks were precisely the same height as the metal type used to print the words. The printer locked the wood block illustrations and type in a steel chase to be placed on the bed of the press, inked, and printed. While such methods may sound cumbersome today, a good wood engraver achieved finely detailed images using multiple narrow cuts in different directions to give the drawing a tonal range from dark to light. With a careful pressman, these blocks could print a thousand or more images before loosing their sharp detail.  [see note at end of blog]

A year after Joseph Eaton’s prints of Taos were published, Arthur Lumley (1837-1912) produced a fine image of Kit Carson’s home in Taos published in The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson by DeWitt Peters (New York: W. R. C. Clark & Co). This time the wood engraving was rendered by the N. Orr company in New York, well-known engravers who made many illustrations for the printing industry, including U.S. Government reports published in Washington, DC.

kit carson home in taos, nm

Perhaps the earliest engraved images relating to Taos come from Douglas Brewerton in 1853 and 1854. Alas, they don’t show us what the town looked like. The first is a self portrait in an article about Kit Carson for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The cut line reads: “The author on reaching Taos” and the image shows a debonair, full-bearded Brewerton with a fancy scarf tied around his head.   The second is a wood engraving with the cut line “View between Taos and Santa Fe” (see featured image at top of page), but it will take a topographic super-sleuth to figure out exactly where the scene is set. Yes, there is a road with a fence on one side, mountains in the background, a house, and a field with two people at work. But there is no town scene or church — only a cross beside the road. Tell us where you think this is so we can share the discovery with other readers!

Note:  Examine some of these nineteenth century wood-engraved illustrations under a magnifying glass, and you will enter another world of artistry!  Also, look for the name of the engraver, Richardson & Cox, in the lower right corner of the featured illustration that opens this blog.  The ‘s.c.’ after the name is an abbreviation for sculpcit that tells us the illustration was engraved by the artist or company named in the printed image.   Sometimes this credit was cleverly hidden in some of the patterns and lines of image itself!


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