A Rare Print Makes A Poor Fan But A Great Find!

Cotsen 5363140

I came across the above item while rummaging through a box of unprocessed prints. I was immediately struck by the unusual semi-circle shape of the paper. Then, I was taken in by the details of the image and what they could tell us about who this item was for and when it was created. Upon even closer inspection, I was delighted to observe that the image was printed with color, using a rare and time consuming technique.

The dealer who sold it to us believed (and I think correctly) that the unusual shape indicates that the print was intended for use as a hand fan. The outside curve of the print does seem to suggest this. But the shape of the print is missing some key features that we usually see in a fan leaf: namely a second, lower curve cut out of the bottom center (for mounting to a collapsible handle) as well as acute angles at the bottom edges. See for example this contemporaneous unmounted fan from the British Museum:

Fanology or Speaking Fan (London: William Cock, 1797). The British Museum, Museum number
1891,0713.508, Asset number 361519001.

The position of the image on the sheet may explain why our fan shape is inconsistent with other fan sheets. If a semi-circle was cut out of the bottom, it would have cut out a piece of the image! The image was printed, perhaps by mistake, too low on the sheet. This might explain why our fan leaf did not receive additional cuts to form a fan shape and why it was never ultimately mounted as a fan.

Though this print may have made a bad fan, it’s still a fascinating image which seems to illustrate a typical upper-middle class (haute bourgeoisie) family in post-revolutionary France.

The period dress suggests a date range around 1800 to 1830. The man wears breeches and a tailcoat, while his son wears a similar jacket but with ankle-length trousers suggesting a date around the turn of the nineteenth century when long pants began to supplant the popularity of breeches. The seated woman wears an “empire gown” with a high bodice just below the bust, so called by later English commentators because this style of dress became popular in France during the First French Empire (1804-1814). This style of dress began to become unfashionable in middle class and high society in the 1830s, when, In England at least, it was supplanted by hour glass Victorian dresses. Since this style of dress was popular throughout Europe, we’ll have to rely on another detail which suggests the country of origin.

This small book, which the mother is handing to her son, is inscribed “Télémaque”. This is a truncation of Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus) first published in 1699 by François Fénelon. It was written earlier as a didactic novel meant to instruct Louis, Duke of Burgundy (grandson of Louis XIV and second in line to the French throne) who Fenelon was tutoring. The novel follows Telemachus (son of Odysseus in Homer’s poems) as he journeys around Greece and receives moral tutelage from the goddess Minerva (disguised as his tutor, Mentor). As a thinly veiled rebuke of autocratic rule and by extoling peace and equality, the novel proved hugely popular into the the turn of the nineteenth century, especially in revolutionary France.

Other details of the print include recreations for well-off children typical of the period. The daughter clutches a dolly. A drum and a diabolo (a juggling toy) sit in the foreground on the right. A large Punch doll hangs from the tree in the background on the right. The implication here is that the family depicted is wealthy enough to afford leisure, having both the time and money to enjoy it, even for the children.

A harlequin doll resembling the character Punch, famous in British Punch and Judy puppet plays. In the early nineteenth century Punch and Judy plays were also extremely popular in Paris.

All of these details taken together suggest that our print was intended for an upper-middle class French woman around the turn of the nineteenth century. After all, hand fans at this time would have typically been used only by adult women in this class. If we examine the material production of the print itself, we discover further evidence of its high cost of production; suggesting that it would have been a costly item and a signal of wealth.

From the detail above (and the other images already shared) you can see that this print is special for its use of color printing. Intaglio prints of this period were usually printed in black ink only, and when colored, they would have been colored by hand with stencils. Hand-coloring is featured in this print, you can see it in places of continuous tone with flat color such as the shoes in the detail above. But from the detail, you can also see that that color printing has been used extensively. At this time (and continuing today), color printing was applied to intaglio prints using a technique later called à la poupée. Meaning “with the doll” in French, the “doll” refers to a wad of cloth shaped like a ball used to apply color to different areas for printing. This was a time consuming process requiring additional labor costs and material costs for more expensive color inks.

A la poupée inking by Bridget Farmer for her print “Pleasant Pheasant”. https://bridgetfarmerprintmaker.com/

Further, the print makes use of no less than three different intaglio printing techniques: etching, stipple engraving, and line engraving. Etching, the predominant technique, can be seen in the ample curving and wavy lines. Stipple engraving is the technique which applied all the tiny dots to the print, detailing the blue of the sky and other subtle details. Line engraving can be made out as well, characterized by straight lines with pointed termini, used to touch up and improve on the shadows and tonal qualities of the etching (a typical embellishment to etchings). Each of these techniques requires different tools and skills, indicating that a talented printmaker (their initials “D. Mo N.” are inscribed at the bottom of the print) applied considerable time, skill, and cost to create this wonderful print.

Clearly then, this print is a wonderful example of rare and skillful printmaking; but not without its technical mistakes! Our particular print was perhaps destined to never become a fan due to poor placement on the sheet. That it went unmounted, however, may have been serendipitous since lack of use probably preserved this piece of ephemera and spared it being discarded after wear and tear. Cleverly printed and luckily preserved, this print is a rare glimpse into upper-middle class French life at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Printing Kate Greenaway: the Color Wood Blocks of Edmund Evans

Cotsen 32262

Above is the half-title illustration from Kate Greenaway’s collection of children’s poetry Marigold Garden (London; New York: G. Routledge and sons, [1885]). “Printed in Colours” by Edmund Evans, the book is full of excellent examples of color wood engraved illustrations. Sometimes referred to as chromoxylography (from the ancient Greek roots for “color-wood-writing”), color wood engraving was one of the most popular forms of color printing during the 19th Century. A variety of wood engraving, using an engraver’s burin to cut relief images against the grain of a hard wood block, color wood engraving employed multiple blocks to make color images: often employing one block per color.

Rare Books PZ8.3.G75 Mar3, title-page.

Yet examples of the actual blocks used for this once ubiquitous process are few and far between. Perhaps this is because contemporary printers didn’t value the blocks after their job was done (namely printing illustrations). Wood engraving blocks were often used or reused so much (for different editions of some work or even shared across different publications) that they wore down or broke over time; becoming utterly useless for printing. Others were simply discarded or re-purposed (probably burned) after a print job was completed so that they wouldn’t take up valuable space in a print shop.

But as historical artifacts, wood blocks (and other printing surfaces like lithographic stone or intaglio plates) can be extremely informative about the history of the book, revealing more about the process involved than the finished product (i.e. books) can show us. Cotsen is lucky enough to have the original color wood blocks for the half-title illustration of Marigold Garden. Besides being beautiful objects in their own right, the blocks elucidate aspects of the production of Marigold Garden that have up till now, been otherwise unknown or unrevealed.

Cotsen 32262. Each block measures only about 3 x 2 x 1 inches.

As primary sources the blocks illustrate the color wood engraving process. They give us a first hand glimpse into Evans’s methods and style showing, through comparison, how he designed and layered blocks in order build a multi colored image. With close scrutinization of both the blocks and the resulting illustration we can discern the block printing order with more certainty (from lightest to darkest): pink, yellow, orange, green, blue, and black (the “key block” for printing the line work). Notice too how the ink in the “pink” block has not only turned orange over time, but reveals the grain of the wood on the flat raised printing surface (see below).

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Cotsen 32262. Here are the blocks and illustration paired for comparison. Notice how the image in the blocks is the reverse image for the finished product (converted during the printing process as the blocks are pressed onto the paper).

Close analysis of the wood blocks themselves, including areas other than the printing surface, reveals even more about the production of Marigold Garden. By looking at the backs of the blocks, we find the name “T. I. Lawrence” carved (with a burin) into the blocks themselves.

Cotsen 32262. Back of the “Blue” block. “T. I. Lawrence” is just visible across the bottom right of the block. It looks thick paper was once affixed to the back of the block. This may have been done by the printer to help the blocks reach “type height” in order to be flush with type used on the page. Or it may have been pasted on later in order to mount the blocks for presentation.

Using cutting edge research tools (a little bit of googling) I was able to discern the identity of T. I. Lawrence. From the website of Lawrence art supplies, I was able to discover a well informed (complete with sources) meticulous family history of Lawrences who have been art suppliers for seven generations. It turns out that Thomas John Lawrence Junior (1840-1887) was an engravers’ block manufacturer and most likely the wood block supplier for this work. With close analysis of the wood blocks themselves, I was able to add this missing link to the book production process.

Looking closely at the blocks also reveals more about their use. Printing blocks were subjected to a tremendous amount of pressure during the printing process. As a result, many would crack after continuous pressings. Notice above how the “green” block has a significant horizontal crack across the upper left side. Such cracks are sometimes visible in illustrations using well worn blocks. But, with a little attention, cracks could be repaired for continual use without blemishing the image. Savvy printers like Evans could extend the life of a wood block by inserting new wood joints and rejoining cracks and splits:

Cotsen 32262. The top left edge of the “green” block.

Cotsen’s six blocks for the half-title illustration reveal how much work and preparation is involved in creating just one small 3 x 2 inch image. Larger images would have required multiple wood blocks joined together (using end grain wood from young box wood trees meant that the size of engraving wood blocks was limited to a few inches), often employing several wood engravers working together to complete a single image. Can you imagine then how much more labor and time was required to make a larger image (or, indeed, the whole book)?

Rare Books PZ8.3.G75 Mar3, page 20. I count seven colors requiring seven blocks, how many do you see? This illustration also reveals one of the primary advantages of printing from wood blocks. Images and text could be printed together since wood blocks and printer’s type could fit together in the printer’s forme (unlike the popular rival to color wood engraving: the chromolithograph).

Wood blocks and other printing surfaces help tell the story of the labor and people involved in making books. They can also be used to help teach and illustrate the history of printing and illustration. With close consideration of these once disregarded pieces of manufacturing equipment we can learn so much more about the history of books and the process of their creation.


Heads up for a blog extravaganza! Next week, in celebration of banned books week, Cotsen will highlight a banned children’s book every day!