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Colour Block Prints

Hesketh Hubbard



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LECTURE 1. - Delivered November 20th, 1933








The earliest European pictorial block prints were religious souvenirs known to-day as 'helgen.' The oldest to come down to us, a representation of the Virgin, is dated 1418. It is now in the Royal Library at Brussels. Until this was discovered (1840) a print representing St. Christopher, dated 1423, was the earliest known. It is now at Manchester. These 'helgen' were black and white prints, but often, as was the St. Christopher, were painted afterwards or colour was stencilled on them. Probably they were so cheap and common that in the usual course of events they were destroyed. There is, however, sufficient evidence that there was a brisk trade in these prints, many of which are supposed to have been printed in the monasteries.



About the same time playing cards began to be printed from blocks. Originally they were drawn and painted by hand, a craft largely carried on by women. The engravers of playing cards seem to have been a class apart. This was before the days of the printing press; impressions were taken from a block by rubbing. To be a printer in those days required little capital or plant. Mr. Hessels has suggested that at that time people bought engraved blocks from the engraver and printed from them as required, not purchasing ready-made printed matter as we do to-day. This primitive method of printing still obtains in Tibet. The monasteries own the blocks, and whenever a copy of a book is wanted by anyone it is printed page by page, the charge varying from 3d. to 6d. according to the size of the page. By 1440 playing cards were being coloured by stencil and the reverse of them often had diaper patterns in one colour printed on them. The playing cards were often elaborately pictorial.



Also at this time it began to be the custom to leave spaces in a manuscript for block printed illustrations to be pasted. These were known as semi-block books.



The next step was the block book proper - each page, text and illustrations, cut on a single block. The block book died a natural death when the first book to be printed from movable type appeared. This was a Bible, printed by Gutenburg and issued in 1456, and was followed the next year by a Psalter. Both in Europe and in the East the earliest attempts at pictorial block printing were religious in subject.



If the appearance of paper in the market was an impetus to block printing by providing a cheap and ideal substance on which to print, what can be said of the invention of movable type? It was, of course, eventually the death-knell to the scribe and illuminator and a serious set-back to the miniaturist; but the artists quickly saw the possibilities of the new invention and almost at once were producing some of the finest block print illustrations.



I believe I am right in saying that the earliest piece of European colour block printing is in a book that was printed at St. Albans in 1486 (ten years after Caxton had set up his press at Westminster), which has many coats of arms printed from wood blocks in colour.



At the very end of the fifteenth century Mair of Landshut began to print his wood cuts and metal engravings on coloured paper, or paper that he had coloured previously with a wash of water-colour, being especially fond of a pale green. He would then add high lights with Chinese white water-colour. In a year or so this led to the production of the first real European colour block prints as opposed to black and white prints coloured by hand. The type of print to which Mair's mixed method of printing and painting led was known as a chiaroscuro print, a peculiarly European product. The science of light and shade was still a comparatively new thing. Chiaroscuro prints were generally printed from three blocks. The first printed the main outlines of the design; the second printed a light tint over the whole print except for the high lights, which were cut away from the block. The result was that the print at that stage resembled a drawing in black on a toned paper with the high lights added in white, as was Mair's practice. The third block added the half tones. These prints usually were printed in tones of the same rather neutral colour. They were strictly monochrome prints there was no attempt to render local colour.



He would be a brave man who stated positively who invented the chiaroscuro print. Ugo da Carpi for long was allowed successfully to claim its invention but the earliest da Carpi chiaroscuro that has come down to us is dated 1518, 12 years after the only known print of this kind by Lucas Cranach. And what about Mair? Although I believe no chiaroscuro print by him has been found, that is not to say that he may not have produced one or more at the end of the fifteenth century. Hans Baldung, Wechtlin, de Necker and Hans Burgkmair were all early in the field. In a short lecture like this we must not allow ourselves to be side-tracked into a controversy of this kind. But we must remember that the history of engraving is full of the names of engravers who claimed to be the inventor of a process that already existed. That is what da Carpi did. He used two, and sometimes three, blocks, adding or omitting the third at will. Chiaroscuro prints usually were reproductions of famous pictures. It is interesting to note that even some of the earliest designers of these prints, such as Burgkmair, did not always cut their own blocks, and I think it more than likely they handed them to a printer to be printed. What I have never been able to discover is what sort of publishing organisation existed for the distribution of these prints. Did an artist publish his own prints or did a printer distribute them amongst his correspondents? Koberger, a printer-publisher of about this period, had agents all over Europe. I think it is highly probable that the print-makers gladly availed themselves of such a magnificent organisation, just as the Japanese prints were published by booksellers. Perhaps in addition pedlars or travellers were employed to sell these inexpensive pictures in the market places of South Germany and North Italy.



By 1520 the chiaroscuro process had been so developed that sometimes eight blocks were used for printing a single print. Eighteen years later we find an etched key plate taking the place of the wooden key block, the tones still being printed from blocks.



England produced no chiaroscuro print-makers in the sixteenth century, but in Tudor times her artists did produce some wallpapers, printed from blocks (probably of pear wood) and coloured by brush or stencil. I mention wallpaper printing because in the eighteenth century it was to develop into elaborate pictorial colour block printing.



It was not till about 1625 that the art of chiaroscuro print-making was taken up in France. Businck, the wood engraver, seems to have been the first to practise it. Amongst other prints he did a series of small busts of Saints, extraordinarily robust in feeling and very well printed. All the prints of his that I have seen are in bistre or a warmer brown.



In 1691 an Englishman, William Bayley, was granted the sole use of his invention for printing in colour with several 'engines of brass.' What these engines were we do not know, but they seemed to have been a failure. Several map engravers and illustrators, finding times hard, sought a more lucrative field for their talent in wallpaper production, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century some architectural wallpapers were being produced.



The first English chiaroscuro prints date from 1722, when Elisha Kirkall published 12, engraved by himself, after Italian old masters. He mezzotinted his keyplates.



About 1734-5 Arthur Pond and Charles Knapton produced in this country a number of reproductions of drawings from the Richardson and other collections in the chiaroscuro method, with keyplate and wood blocks. Across the Channel, Nicholas le Sueur, a member of a great engraving family, was producing chiaroscuros with etched or engraved keyplates.



One of the most interesting personalities in the history of European colour block print-making was John Baptist Jackson. He served his apprenticeship under Kirkall and then went to Paris, where Papillon fils taught him wallpaper engraving. Jackson seems to have behaved rather badly to his master, and went off to Rome and from thence to Venice. During his three years there he published a series of 27 large chiaroscuros chiefly after Titian, Bassano, Tintoretto, Veronese and Rembrandt. Chiaroscuro prints often throw interesting light on which old masters were most popular at the time. Jackson then returned to England, but finding no demand for his chiaroscuros, he tried to popularise colour block printing by publishing a book about it, and started a wallpaper factory at Battersea. He produced a number of wallpaper prints of antique statues in niches which he prided himself were a worthy substitute for real sculpture. If you did not want the Apollo Belvedere or the Medicean Venus complete in niche, he could offer you landscapes after Salvator Rosa, Claude, views of Venice by Canaletto, copies of all the best painters, Italian, French, Flemish. These were his famous prints in 'their natural colours,' anticipating the polychrome prints of Japan by a decade. Jackson worked on a large scale; his engraving was excellent. He did not approach the polychrome colour print in the same way as the Japanese were to approach it. Jackson used no outline keyblock into which colour passages were fitted. He superimposed his colours as a painter would his washes. His so-called 'natural colours' were only natural by comparison with the conventional monochrome of the chiaroscuro print. Actually they resembled the colouring of tapestries. Sometimes he employed seven or eight blocks. It was a method that did not demand great accuracy of register. Register was still very bad and most colour block prints and wallpapers had to be touched up afterwards with a brush.



By 1750 George and Frederick Eckhardt, working at Chelsea, had improved multi-colour block printing. They printed their designs on paper, silk and linen indiscriminately. By now almost everyone who started a wallpaper factory claimed a process of his own. A man called Masefield claimed, with the usual modesty of the advertiser of those days, that his method surpassed 'anything of the kind yet accomplished.' He advertised landscapes, festoons and trophies. Matt Darley, who engraved some of the plates for Chippendale's 'Directory,' started a factory in the Strand and produced designs "in the Modern, Chinese and Gothic Tastes for Town and Country." Knowing his clientele he offered "large allowances for ready money."



From 1765 to 1780 was the great period, especially in France, of Chinoiseries. Madame de Pompadour, who had interests in the French East India Company, encouraged the taste for things Oriental, and in her inimitable way influenced Boucher to design "fantastic cartoons" for tapestry in what he believed to be the Chinese idiom, cribbed from lacquer. Elaborate wallpapers of similar subjects were produced from blocks.



If you could not stomach things Oriental then you probably cultivated a nice classical taste fed by the recent discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Reveillon, a Frenchman, catered for such taste and employed first-rate artists. The elaborate pictorial papers he produced were, of course, block printed. At the Revolution Reveillon had to fly to England.



Towards the end of the eighteenth century William Blake was experimenting with a printing process from relief metal plates akin to that adopted by Mr. William Giles to-day. In an impervious liquid, Blake painted his design in reverse on a copper plate and bit the rest away in an acid bath, so that ultimately the part that had been drawn stood up in relief. He produced several block books by this process which are now extremely rare. As a rule he printed these in an orange outline and printed over the illustrations from pieces of millboard on which he had painted in reverse the main colour masses, mixing his pigment with varnish or glue or possibly paste. Actually, it was a monotype or monoprint, and each impression was different. Each needed a considerable amount of touching up afterwards. The quality of the colour is very exquisite, due largely to its accidental qualities. Technically, from the point of view of the printer, these 'prints' are weak, and Blake very soon abandoned the process as impracticable.



Zuber, in about 1803, began to publish an incredible series of landscape and seaport panorama wallpapers. By then the simplest pictorial wallpaper - a fairly large panel - required at least 300 blocks. A Cupid and Psyche panel took 1,500, and some of the later landscape papers needed nearly 5,000 blocks.



In 1830 wallpapers began to be printed from wooden rollers, and though the presses were turned by hand 200 rolls a day were printed on a single press.



In 1835 George Baxter took out a patent for printing in oils from a series of wood blocks. He used copper and steel plates for the lines of his designs and sometimes added tone by spirit ground aquatint and stipple. He used from 10 to 20 blocks for a print; his ink seems to have been transparent printing ink, which dried with an unpleasant shiny surface. The colour of proofs from the same design varies very much. As a rule, it was atrocious, but just occasionally, as though by accident, as in one of the proofs of 'The Parent's Gift' in the British Museum, the colour is less offensive. It was a very mixed method - he worked usually on a small scale and his prints are of no aesthetic value.



William Morris experimented rather unsuccessfully with printing wallpaper from zinc plates with oil paints. 1867 saw the production of the last great scenic wallpaper. Towards the end of the century the Germans, always a great printing nation, found linoleum could be substituted for wood. More recently rubber and other synthetic surfaces have been used.


The revival of the colour block print in this country, which began in the nineties, was due to J. D. Batten, Professor A. W. Seaby, F. Morley Fletcher and William Nicholson. William Giles, as already mentioned, has developed Blake's process, using etched metal relief plates for his colour prints.


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