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Architecture & design

Colour images for everyone – a history of early colour printing

— February 2014

Article read level: Art lover

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One of the many beautiful images from Chromolithography by Michael Twyman

A beautiful and engaging book, ‘encyclopaedic in depth and range of research’, says Robert Radford

A History of Chromolithography: Printed Colour for All by Michael Twyman

It is hard to imagine, but for hundreds of years the world of print, whether text or image, was a world seen in black and white. Although occasionally, and at considerable expense, engraved prints were coloured by hand, it was not until the middle years of the 19th century that things began to change and our present-day expectation of colour at the heart of print media began to be realized. The process that allowed this to happen, and to satisfy what grew to be an insatiable demand for the experience, was chromolithography. 

The fact that this revolutionary process has itself since been so fundamentally superseded, is ample justification for this book.  It is hard to pinpoint any one discovery that sparked the rise of chromolithography, partly because there were many intermediate methods such as single-colour tinting, but from around 1850 to the end of the First World War, it grew  in scale and complexity of method to dominate  printing in colour throughout the world.  Michael Twyman charts its expansion from small craft workshops to large industrial enterprises, taking  examples from across Europe, Russia and America as well as Britain. Although, for a while after its demise, the whole process acquired a bad name as signifying many aspects of Victorian elaboration and sentimentality, it is now becoming increasingly appreciated for its particular qualities of depth and texture of effects, unmatched by later photomechanical processes.

One early application was the reproduction of mediaeval manuscripts, and from there, the production of contemporary religious texts and moral precepts in the manner of these forebears.  It was found to be particularly useful for displaying ornamental work, as in the case, for example, of Owen Jones’ classic text,  The Grammar of Ornament (published 1856). A further demand of contemporary taste was for picturesque views of old towns and wild nature. Most demanding of all was the challenge of reproducing old master oil paintings, and huge resources of skill and labour were invested in the best results, which would involve up to 30 different hues and textures, each one requiring a separate litho stone (the smoothed surface of slabs of limestone on which the image was drawn). 

The greater part of chromolithographic production was, however, devoted to all the strands of commercial production that we now associate with colour printing: advertisements, trade calendars, packaging, product labels, Christmas cards, etc. Sheet music covers are notable as one of its first applications, anticipating the promotional creativity that would later be devoted to album covers. In France, towards the end of the 19th century, progressive artists took an interest in the potential of the medium. A print by Cézanne, where he worked directly on the stone, is included here and, later, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec were to exploit the properties of flatness and abstraction associated with the colour print.

The emergence  of the painter/printmaker led to the introduction of lithography teaching into the art school curriculum. Chromolithography proved particularly successful in the field of poster production and survived well into the 1930s as the preferred means of film and travel publicity as well as political propaganda   – during the Spanish Civil War, for example. The great joy of this book stems from the visual feast of such ephemera, which account for many of its 850 illustrations.

The author also examines the workplace, the conditions and regulations of the trade – how the lithographic artist was considered ‘a gentleman’ in the printing works, wearing collar and tie, even spats. The growing size and complexity of the presses is winningly depicted and much of the technical side of the printing methods examined.

This beautiful book is encyclopaedic in depth and range of research, an invaluable work of reference for all interested at any level in the histories of visual culture, printing and graphic design as much as to collectors of books, prints and ephemera from this period that witnessed the fevered emergence of modernity. 

A History of Chromolithography: Printed Colour for All  by Michael Twyman is published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press 2013. 728pp., 850 colour illus, £75.00 ISBN 978 0 7123 5710 4 (hbk).


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

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