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A Ballad Singer

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    London (published)

  • Date:

    ca. 1700 (published)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Smith, John (print-maker)
    Castro, Lorenza a (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:


  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level D, case EM24B

Mezzotint is a form of tonal engraving. The engraver first creates a surface that will print solid black by roughening the surface of a copper plate with a serrated tool called a 'rocker'. This process raises a fragile burr of displaced copper which will hold a lot of printing ink. The design is then created by smoothing this burr in varying degrees to print a range of velvety tones. For white highlights, the engraver polishes the burr completely away, making the plate perfectly smooth once more, so no ink will adhere after the surface has been wiped. Mezzotint is particularly suited to reproducing the tonal gradations of painting.

John Smith was the most important mezzotinter in late Stuart England as well as being a print publisher. A generation before the now more famous William Hogarth, he was the first native born British printmaker to earn an international reputation. Active from 1683 to 1729 he made his name and his fortune as the creator of portrait mezzotints but in the same period he also made or published 'subject' mezzotints, a blanket term for everything which is not a portrait.

Smith was taught mezzotinting by Isaac Beckett who learnt the technique from John Lloyd, who in turn learnt it from the Dutch printmaker Abraham Blooteling (1640-1690) who was resident in London from 1673-1680. Smith began his career around 1683 mezzotinting portraits for other publishers but by 1687 was beginning to act as his own publisher and by the early 1690s had taken over from Isaac Beckett (died 1688) as the mezzotinter who had an agreement with Kneller to reproduce his portraits. This professional partnership between an artist and a printmaker is similar to one or two other important examples of the same phenomenon (Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi, John Constable and David Lucas) in being a crucial vehicle for the dissemination of a painter's work at the same time as it pushed a talented printmaker to new heights of achievement.

Physical description


Place of Origin

London (published)


ca. 1700 (published)


Smith, John (print-maker)
Castro, Lorenza a (artist)

Materials and Techniques


Marks and inscriptions

L. Castro. pinxit. / J. Smith excudit.
Lettered below the image


Height: 17.1 cm Cut to, Width: 12.2 cm cut to

Object history note

Museum numbers E.104-133-1998 were lot 500 at the sale at Sotheby's London on 13 November 1997 of an Eighteenth Century Collection of British Prints. This collection was put together in Germany, mostly in the period 1770-1800. The lot consisted chiefly of mezzotints by John Smith, or by other mezzotinters but subsequently republished by John Smith.

Descriptive line

A Ballad Singer by John Smith (1652-1743) after Lorenza a Castro (fl.1672-ca.1700); mezzotint; ca 1700

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

J. E. Wessely, "John Smith; Verzeichniss seiner Schabkunstblätter", Hamburg 1887 no 409.
Thomas, Ben 'The Paradox of Mezzotint'; University of Kent; 2008
'Early English Mezzotints: John Smith as Printmaker and Publisher', Elizabeth Miller; Prints, Drawings and Paintings Temporary Display; 8th April-8th November 1998

Labels and date

Seen on its own this just looks like a young man enjoying a drink. In the third volume of Smith's collected mezzotints now in the National Portrait Gallery, put together during, or just after his lifetime, this image is paired with another of the same size, after the same painter, which shows a woman quite clearly singing from a sheaf of papers she holds in her hand. The title given to this pair of prints in the index to the volume is "2 Ballad Singers". Laureys a Castro was an Antwerp-trained painter of seapieces, who by the time of the 1695 census, was living with his wife and two children in the Cripplegate district of London, as Lawrence Castro. []

Production Note

For Castro see R. Jeffree "Mr Cartwright's Pictures", Dulwich Picture Gallery 1987/88 p.72.

In the Smith volumes in the National Portrait Gallery this print is paired with one of the same size showing a woman singing from a bundle of papers. In the index to this volume this pair of prints is called "2 ballad singers". See A.Griffiths "Early Mezzotint Publishing in England- I John Smith 1652-1743" in Print Quarterly, volume VI, September 1989 pp 243-257.


Printing ink



Subjects depicted

Drinking glasses


Prints; Images Online


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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