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  • Chromolithography and Color Woodblock:Handmaidens to Nineteenth-Century Children's Literature
  • John R. McNair (bio)

I have a friend who has sought for year a set of books remembered from her childhood. When she has found reprinted editions of them in some out-of-the-way bookshop, she is always disappointed. The words are the same, but the pictures are anemic—not the bright, deep "crayon colors" of her remembering. Of course, the pictures are not the same; twentieth-century color printing cannot reproduce the effects of nineteenth-century chromolithography and color woodblock printing.

Like my friend, many of us remember being read The House that Jack Built by a parent as enraptured by the wood engravings as we were, or remember dreaming ourselves onto an island with chromolithographed footprints in the sand. When we teach the picture books of children's early literature, some of us try to share this experience, by showing the class our treasured editions illustrated in chromolithography and color woodblock. In my experience, students always like them, and when they look closely at the pictures, they want to know how they were made. If we can tell them, their experience of the pictures is enriched, their cultural horizons expand, and they understand why the reputation of some of the most famous nineteenth-century children's authors rest on their graphic art as it was translated by masters of chromolithography and color woodblock. For that reason, I would like to set forth the essentials of how those pictures were made, together with some of the always interesting and sometimes amusing history of the two essential forms of children's book illustration.

First, some notes on how to identify the common forms of nineteenth-century children's book illustration (including chromolithography and color woodblock), examples of which may be obtained for your students from antiquarian booksellers, antique print dealers, and antique shops.

Woodcut and wood engraving are relief processes. All that is not to print is cut away, leaving a raised design that prints like printer's type, often making an impression in the paper. Woodcut, the earliest form of printed book illustration, is done by cutting around the design along the grain (the "plank side") of a board with a blade like your grandfather whittles with. Fine detail is seldom achieved, or even sought; much of the appeal of woodcut comes from the visual effect of a few bold black lines on a white field. Wood engraving, developed to compete with copperplate illustration, is done by cutting around a design across the grain (the "endgrain") of a board, using the engraving tools of the copperplate engraver. Fine detail can be achieved, and, unless the engraver is imitating woodcut, there are many more black lines and much less white space.

Copper plate, steel plate, and etching are intaglio processes. The design to be printed is cut or etched into a metal plate so that the design to be printed is actually below the surface of the plate. To produce a book illustration, the plate is inked all over and then thoroughly wiped so that ink remains only in the cut or etched design. Dampened paper is then laid on under great pressure so that the paper is squeezed down into the design, picking up the ink. When dry, this ink, and the distorted paper which carries it (raised as it is above the surface of the paper) can usually be felt with one's fingertips, and this, together with the mark in the paper made by the edges of copper plate, allows one to distinguish engraving and etching from woodcut and wood engraving.

Lithography is a planographic process. Whereas in woodcut and wood engraving the ink of the design lies above the surface of the paper, that of lithography lies on the surface of the paper. The design to be printed is drawn or painted onto a smooth surface which, when inked, holds ink only on the design. Because there is neither sufficient printing pressure to create a plate mark nor the sharp, crisp lines resulting from engraving or etching, lithography is not easily mistaken for these intaglio processes, but because it was developed in part to...


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