7 October 2021
Most of the books from Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection featured in these blogs were coloured by hand, but the collection also includes examples of early printing in colour by means of lithography, and an important early exponent was Thomas Shotter Boys (1803-74).
Lithography, invented in Munich in 1798 by Alois Senefelder, was barely used in Britain before 1818, when Charles Hullmandel established his printing shop in London. The essence of the lithography process is that the picture is drawn in a greasy medium on a block of very fine-grained limestone. Before the block is inked it is wetted, so that the ink (also of a greasy texture) adheres only to the lines drawn upon the stone. Paper is then laid on the inked stone and both are run through a press. The great advantage of this tricky and demanding process is that the picture can be drawn directly on the stone by the original artist – whereas in aquatint the picture first needs to be copied and engraved, usually by someone other than the original artist. With lithography the printed image can convey much of the textured effects of pencil or chalk drawings. Although lithographs were at first printed in monochrome and coloured by hand, it became possible to print using successive stones with separate coloured inks, so removing the need for hand-colouring.
After serving his apprenticeship to an engraver, the young Boys went to Paris, where he became the friend and protégé of the tragically short-lived Anglo-French artist Richard Bonington (1802-1828), whose brilliant essays in watercolour had a deep influence on Boys’s own technique, style and colouring. Boys exhibited many of his watercolours in Paris between 1831 and 1837, contributing to a revival of interest in watercolour in France at this time. It was also during the 1830s that Boys became interested in lithography and began to master the technique. Returned to London, but drawing on his own watercolours of the places depicted, Boys brought out his Picturesque Architecture in Paris, Ghent, Antwerp, Rouen etc (1839) [Plates 1 and 2] Boys’s illustrations were lithographed by Hullmandel, the pioneer exponent of the medium, and the title-page proudly trumpets that the book is ‘printed entirely in colour’. This book must count as one of the most innovative ventures in the history of printmaking and is a major step on the way to production of high-quality colour-pictures printed in multiple copies. Its technical significance was certainly recognised at the time, and King Louis-Phillipe of France (reigned 1830-1848) sent Boys a ring as a token of esteem for his innovation.
Three years later Boys published his London as it is (1842), with twenty-six splendid colour plates both drawn and lithographed by Boys. [Plates 3 and 4]
That ambition to represent a great metropolis as it is has left a fascinating record of London at the beginning of the Victorian era. [Plates 5 and 6]
Through the technique of a gifted watercolourist, the plates depict handsome buildings, spaces and thoroughfares bathed in a luminous soft light, lending a great sense of spaciousness and grand extent to the city. [Plates 7 and 8]
Boys’s plates seem to catch early Victorian London in a perpetual morning light, with no signs of soot or grime or filth. [Plates 9 and 10]
At the same time, these imposing spaces are filled with a vivacious street-life of people, vehicles, animals, all going about their business, closely observed by the artist. [Plates 11 and 12]
But after these early artistic and technical accomplishments in print-making Boys – remaining loyal to Bonington’s style – failed to adjust to shifting Victorian tastes. In later years his fortunes were eclipsed, and he died in obscurity and near-poverty.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)Back to All Blog Posts