Engraved copper plate executed for Mathew Carey

[Engraved copper printing plate] The Dresses, of the High Priests. [Prob. Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, ca. 1817.]
Copper plate engraved in stipple and line, 7 1/8”h x 8 5/8”w at edges. Stamped “J.B. KEIM, PHILA” on verso. Minor scratching, soiling and discoloration. Accompanied by three recent impressions on a variety of modern papers.

A rare American line- and stipple-engraved copper plate depicting the High Priest of Israel, likely produced for an 1817 Mathew Carey edition of The Holy Bible. NB: The plate itself is difficult to photograph, and the main image accompanying this listing is of a modern impression pulled from the plate.

The engraving is divided into two frames, separated by pilasters and surmounted by foliate sashes, each depicting Moses’ brother Aaron in the garb of the High Priest of Israel. The reference is to Exodus 40:13-14, which mentions priestly garb but is rather vague on the details: “13. Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint him and consecrate him so he may serve me as priest. 14. Bring his sons and dress them in tunics.” The engraver has presumably used his imagination.

The plate is unsigned, but the American Antiquarian Society describes an image with the same title and pagination (page 77) and roughly the same dimensions, attributing it to an 1817 Holy Bible published by Matthew Carey. Other plates in that Bible are unsigned, while others bear a variety of imprints including John L. Frederick, William Robinson, Cornelius Tiebout, John Warnicke, Joseph Yeager, and the mysterious “W.” and “W.W.” The verso of the plate bears the stamp of “J.B. KEIM,” a copper plate maker found in the Philadelphia directories from 1809 through 1845. Among other things, he produced the plates used for at least three maps in the Philadelphia first edition of the history of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.

Early engraved copper plates are rare survivals, as the copper was sufficiently valuable that the images were often burnished out and the plates reused, or the plates melted down entirely and repurposed. For example, a recent search of RareBookHub for plates engraved between 1775 and 1850 yields only five lots offered at auction since 2000. Of these, one was a group of 11 unsigned plates of various subjects, dated “18th-20th c.” and probably European in origin; three were individual plates by British engravers; and one was executed by American satirist David Claypoole Johnston. I later had the pleasure of handling the Johnston, which may be viewed here.

In all, a rare survival of early American engraving.