Last week I posted a listing of print abbreviations and terms, and previously I have posted definitions of various print terms. Today I will discuss three print terms which are of fundamental importance to understanding antique prints: “impression,” “edition” and “state.”
I probably should start by defining what I mean by a “print.” A single print is a piece of paper upon which an image has been imprinted from an object called a “matrix.” A matrix is an object (it is usually made of wood, metal or stone, but can be any material) upon which a design has been formed and which is then used to create an image of that design onto the paper.
An impression is a single piece of paper with an image printed on it from a matrix. The terms as applied to prints is used in a manner similar to the term “copy” as applied to a book. In a general sense, one can consider a print as the set of all impressions made from the same matrix. That is, there is both the single print (as a single impression) and the print in a general sense as all the examples of, say, Currier & Ives’ “The Road, Winter.”
An edition of a print includes all the impressions published at one time or as part of a single publishing endeavor. New impressions of a print would count as a new edition if there is a significant break in time before they were printed or if there were some change in the way the print is made. There can be all sorts of different editions, such as proof editions, first editions, later editions, restrike editions, numbered editions, and limited editions.
A state of a print includes all the impressions made from a matrix with there being no change made to that matrix. When impressions are pulled from a matrix which has been modified, these impressions form a new state of the print.
States of a print should be distinguished from editions of a print. There can be several editions of a print which are all the same state (for instance if the publisher decides a year later to republish a print but makes no changes to the matrix), or there can be several states of a print in the same edition (for instance if the publisher discovers an error in the matrix, fixes it, and then continues to print new impressions).
These definitions are nice and neat, but the issues involved are actually fairly complex. For instance, it is not clear whether one should call impressions pulled from a matrix where there is an accidental change a new state. Say a very slight crack appears in the matrix, which shows up as a faint line in the new impressions. Is this a new state? And as that crack widens, is each new set of impressions a new state? However, the basic intent of these terms is quite clear and in most practical cases it is clear to what they refer.