Eastern printing

Engraved texts: 2nd - 8th century AD

The emperor of China commands, in AD 175, that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone. His purpose is to preserve them for posterity in what is held to be authentic version of the text. But his enterprise has an unexpected result.

Confucian scholars are eager to own these important texts. Now, instead of having them expensively written out, they can make their own copies. Simply by laying sheets of paper on the engraved slabs and rubbing all over with charcoal or graphite, they can take away a text in white letters on a black ground - a technique more familiar in recent centuries in the form of brass-rubbing.

Subsequent emperors engrave other texts, until quite an extensive white-on-black library can be acquired. It is a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised form (and in mirror writing) and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters. When this ink is transferred to paper, the letters appear in black (or in a colour) against the white of the paper - much more pleasant to the eye than white on black.

This process is Printing. But it is the Buddhists, rather than the Confucians, who make the breakthrough.

Printed Buddhist texts in Korea and Japan: AD 750-768

The invention of printing is a striking achievement of Buddhists in east Asia. Korea takes the lead. The world's earliest known printed document is a sutra printed on a single sheet of paper in Korea in750.

This is closely followed in Japan by a bold experiment in mass circulation (precisely the area in which printed material has the advantage over manuscript). In768, in devoutly Buddhist Nara, the empress commissions a huge edition of a lucky charm or prayer. It is said that the project takes six years to complete and that the number of copies printed, for distribution to pilgrims, is a million. Many have survived.

The first printed book: AD 868

The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T'ang dynasty. Discovered in a Cave at dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life.

It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world's first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.

The name of the donor, Wang Chieh, is revealed in another device which later becomes traditional in early printed books in the west. The details of publication are given in a colophon (Greek for 'finishing stroke') at the end of the text. This reveals that the scroll is a work of Buddhist piety, combined with the filial obligations of good Cave at dunhuang: 'Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.'

The printing of Wang Chieh's scroll is of a high standard, so it must have had many predecessors. But the lucky accident of the Cave at dunhuang has given his parents a memorial more lasting than he could have imagined possible.

Cutting round the characters: 9th - 11th century

The separate sheets making up the Diamond Sutra are what would now be called woodcuts. They are printed from pieces of wood in which the white areas on the page have been carefully cut away, until the remaining parts of the flat surface represent (in reverse) the shapes to be printed, regardless of whether they are to be text or image.

Printing is achieved by covering the flat surface with ink, placing a piece of paper on it and rubbing the back of the paper.

Chinese publishing: 10th - 11th century

Printing from wood blocks, as in the Diamond sutra, is a laborious process. Yet the Chinese printers work wonders. In the 10th and 11th centuries all the Confucian classics are published for the use of scholar officials, together with huge numbers of Buddhist and Daoist works (amounting to around 5000 scrolls of each) and the complete standard histories since the time of Sima Qian.

The carving of so many characters in reverse on wood blocks is an enormous investment of labour, but the task is unavoidable until the introduction of Movable type. This innovation, once again, seems to have been pioneered in China but achieved in Korea.

Movable type: from the 11th century

Movable type (separate ready-made characters or letters which can be arranged in the correct order for a particular text and then reused) is a necessary step before Printing can become an efficient medium for disseminating information.

The concept is experimented with in China as early as the 11th century. But two considerations make the experiment unpractical. One is that the Chinese script has so many characters that type-casting and type-setting become too complex. The other is that the Chinese printers cast their characters in clay and then fire them as pottery, a substance too fragile for the purpose.

Type foundry in Korea: c. 1230

In the early 13th century, more than 200 years before Gutenberg’s innovation in Europe, the Koreans establish a foundry to cast movable type in bronze. Unlike earlier Chinese experiments with pottery, bronze is sufficiently strong for repeated printing, dismantling and resetting for a new text.

With this technology the Koreans create, in 1377, the world’s earliest known book printed from movable type. Known as Jikji, it is a collection of Buddhist texts compiled as a guide for students. Only the second of the two published volumes survives (held at present in the National Library of France). It reveals not only the date of its printing but even the names of the priests who assisted in the compiling of the type.

The Koreans at this time are using the Chinese script, so they have the problem of an unwieldy number of characters. They solve this in 1443 by inventing their own national Alphabet, known as han'gul. By one of the strange coincidences of history this is precisely the decade in which Gutenberg is experimenting with movable type far away in Europe, which has enjoyed the advantage of an Alphabet for more than 2000 years.

Western printing

Saints and playing cards: AD c.1400

In about 1400, more than six centuries after its Invention in the east, the technique of printing from wood blocks is introduced in Europe. As in the east, the images are printed by the simple method of laying a piece of paper on a carved and inked block and then rubbing its back to transfer the ink. And as in the east, the main market is holy images for sale to pilgrims. Playing cards are another early part of the western trade.

Later in the 15th century, technical advances are made in Germany which rapidly transform printing from a cottage industry to a cornerstone of western civilization.

Gutenberg and western printing: AD 1439 - 1457

The name of Gutenberg first appears, in connection with printing, in a law case in Strasbourg in 1439. He is being sued by two of his business partners. Witnesses, asked about Gutenberg's stock, describe a press and a supply of metal type. It sounds as though he is already capable of printing small items of text from movable type, and it seems likely that he must have done so in Strasbourg. But nothing from this period survives.

By the time he is next heard of in connection with printing, he is in Mainz. He borrows 800 guilders in 1450 from Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The resulting story of Gutenberg and Fust is a saga in itself.

Gutenberg's great achievement in the story of printing has several components. One is his development of the printing Press, capable of applying a rapid but steady downward pressure. The concept of the Press is not new. But existing presses (for wine, oil or paper) exert slow pressure - uneconomical in printing.

More significant are Gutenberg's skills with metal (his original trade is that of a goldsmith). These enable him to master the complex stages in the manufacture of individual pieces of Type, which involve creating a master copy of each letter, devising the moulds in which multiple versions can be cast, and developing a suitable alloy (Type metal) in which to cast them.

No date appears in the Gutenberg Bible (known technically as the 42-line Bible), which was printed simultaneously on six presses during the mid-1450s. But at least one copy is known to have been completed, with its initial letters coloured red by hand, by 24 August 1456. The first dated book from these same presses, in 1457, is even more impressive. Known as the Mainz psalter, it achieves outstanding colour printing in its two-colour initial letters.

These first two publications from Germany's presses are of an extraordinary standard, caused no doubt by the commercial need to compete with manuscripts. The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly.

All this skilful technology precedes the basic work of printing - that of arranging the individual letters, aligned and well spaced, in a forme which will hold them firm and level to transfer the ink evenly to the paper.

The printing process involves complex problems at every stage, and the brilliance of the first known products from Gutenberg's Press suggest that earlier efforts must have been lost. If not, the decision to make his first publication a full-length Bible in Latin (the Vulgate), printed to the standards of the best Black-letter manuscripts, is a bold one indeed.

The spread of printing: AD 1457-1500

An invention as useful as printing, in a Europe of increasing prosperity, readily finds new customers.

The first Italian press is founded in 1464, at the Benedictine town of Subiaco in the papal states. Switzerland has a press in the following year. Printing begins in Venice, Paris and Utrecht in 1470, in Spain and Hungary in 1473, in Bruges in 1474 (on a press owned by Caxton, who moves it to London in 1476), in Sweden in 1483. By the end of the century the craft is well established in every European kingdom except Russia.

During the early decades, German printing predominates. More books are published in Germany than anywhere else (by 1500 there are printers in some sixty German towns); German printers carry the craft secrets abroad; and foreign printers come to Germany to study as apprentices.

The earliest typography is therefore in the black-letter style of contemporary German manuscripts. But by the end of the century the most fashionable and influential printing is being done in Italy, with a corresponding change in appearance.

From the 1470s, when Nicolas Jenson establishes a press there, Venice becomes a city known for the quality of its printing. Its preeminence in the field is firmly established by the end of the century through the publications of Aldus Manutius.

These Venetian printers develop type faces more open and elegant than the German black-letter tradition, deriving them from the scripts of the Italian humanists. In doing so, they provide the book trade with two of its most lasting typographical conventions - roman and italic.

The illustrated book: 15th - 16th century AD

In the early years of European printing some illustrated books are produced by the laborious method of Eastern printing, in which the shapes of the letters and the lines of the illustrations are carved alike in the surface of a wood block. Printed on one side only, these sheets are in effect individual prints which are then folded and bound into the form of a book. Known as block books, usually telling simple versions of biblical stories, they are sold at fairs. They are particularly popular in Germany and the Netherlands.

At the same period genuine illustrated books, with conventionally printed text, are also beginning to be published.

Books printed by Gutenberg's method are ideal for combining text and illustration on the same page. Movable type can be set in any shape round a wood block. The raised surfaces of both type and image will receive the ink together and can transfer it to the paper at a single impression.

The pioneer in this field is Albrecht Pfister, a printer in Bamberg, who publishes several illustrated books beginning with Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (The Farmer of Bohemia) in about 1461. By the end of the 15th century ambitious publications such as the Nuremberg Chronicle (a 1493 history of the world) have page layouts as elaborate as any modern magazine.

The technical brilliance of early European woodcuts is astonishing (and in the hands of masters such as Dürer, the craft becomes great art), but the cutting away of all the white parts of an image is a laborious and perverse way of proceeding.

Within the first century of printing two more congenial methods become available - engraving and etching. Both are described as intaglio ('cut in' in Italian) because they excavate grooves in the surface of a copper plate. In engraving, slivers of metal are gouged out with a sharp tool (the burin). In etching, acid is used to eat away the copper along lines drawn through a coating of wax (which protects the rest of the metal surface).

A copper plate created by either of these methods will produce a finer and more delicate print than a wood block. The disadvantage is that intaglio prints require a different kind of press, where the inked copper plate and a sheet of paper are together passed between two rollers, like a great mangle. Intense pressure forces the paper into the grooves of the metal to pick out the ink.

Images of this kind from copper plates are separate from the text. They have to be bound into the finished book, acquiring the name of 'plates'. From the late 16th century a volume with plates becomes the standard form of illustrated book.

From incunabula to mass communication: AD 1457 - 1525

In the first half-century of European printing the book rapidly displaces the the manuscript of earlier generations, providing equal elegance at less cost. Printed books of the 15th century are known as incunabula (Latin for the 'cradle' of printing). Though very rare now, incunabula were surprisingly numerous then; 1700 presses in some 300 towns are estimated to have produced about 15 million volumes by 1500.

Even in their own time these incunabula are special and expensive objects. But printing has another trick up its sleeve - in the long run one which is much more significant.

The profusion of presses in Europe by the early 16th century means that the machinery is in place for a different and entirely new form of production - the rapid printing of Pamphlets, or even single sheets, which can be used in a war of propaganda.

This potential lies dormant until an unexpected opportunity arises. It comes through an intellectual controversy of unprecedented violence - the Reformation. After Luther's challenge to the Roman Catholic church, the printing presses feed and fan the flames. Pamphlets fly in all directions. The printed page finds a new role as an arena of almost instant debate. The 'press' acquires a new and significant meaning.

The first artists' prints: 15th - 16th century AD

When the first European prints are published, in the early 15th century, they are the work of craftsmen supplying a demand for cheap holy images or for Playing cards. Artists only become interested in the possibilities of the medium from the 1450s. They are first attracted by the newest technique at that time, Intaglio engraving in copper.

The pioneer in the field is extremely prolific, creating more 300 engraved plates, but he is known only as Master ES from the two initials with which he sometimes signs his plates. The first two known artists to specialize in engraving begin work at the same period, the 1460s, but in different places - Mantegna in Mantua and Schongauer in Colmar.

The greatest printmaker among Renaissance artists is, like Schongauer, a German. But unlike his predecessors, he excels in woodcut and etching as well as engraving.

Albrecht Dürer, familiar with metal from his early training as a goldsmith, begins engraving copper plates in his twenties and rapidly develops a mastery of the technique. He is more unusual in tackling at the same period, the 1490s, the much more mechanical craft of the woodcut (where each area of white in the image has to be scooped from the block of wood). But Dürer's large and completely assured Woodcuts immediately demonstrate that this too can be an artist's medium.

The third form of printing in which Dürer shows his originality is Etching. This is a technique invented during his lifetime (the first etchings are printed, probably in Augsburg in about 1500, from iron plates at this stage rather than copper). Dürer first tries the new medium in 1515. He only etches six plates. But he is the first to demonstrate the informality of Etching, which can give the artist almost the same freedom as sketching in pencil.

From the end of the 16th century Etching is virtually the only form of printing to attract the artist until the arrival of Aquatint and Lithography. Later masters, such as Rembrandt, develop the potential first shown by Dürer.

Mezzotint: 17th - 18th century

The first printing process to achieve a fully tonal effect is pioneered in the late 1650s by prince Rupert of the Rhine (living at the time in Germany after the defeat of the royalist side in the English Civil War). It is immediately given a name reflecting its ability to print halftones - Mezzo Tinto (Italian for 'half tinted'), or the mezzotint.

Hard work is involved in creating a mezzotint. A copper plate is roughened all over by rocking across it a curved metal blade with sharp teeth. The resulting rough metal surface holds the printer's ink in all its recesses, and if inked all over will print a velvety black tone.

This blackness can be modified in any part of the print, through every tone of grey to pure white, by rubbing the plate's pitted surface to differing degrees of smoothness (any area rubbed completely smooth will hold no ink and thus will print as a white patch).

With this technology the printers of the 17th and 18th centuries can reproduce every subtle shade of tone in an oil painting. For the first time entirely convincing portraits are reproduced in fairly large numbers - at a cost which remains high, but which is much less than the previous custom of having oil copies made. A good mezzotint is like the very best black-and-white photograph.

18th - 19th century

Aquatint: AD 1768-1830

In about 1768 a French artist, Jean Baptiste Le Prince, discovers a way of achieving tone on a copper plate without the hard labour involved in mezzotint. His technique is to sprinkle on a fine dust of powdered resin, fuse the grains to the metal by heat and then submit the plate to the acid of the etching bath. The acid eats away at the exposed metal surface around and between the grains, resulting when printed in a fine mesh of black ink around white spaces. The intensity of the mesh can be varied both by the size of the grains and by the depth to which the acid is allowed to bite.

Le Prince's invention of *aquatint gives printmakers for the first time the option of using areas of tone in an etching, to give an effect much like that of a wash drawing.

Le Prince's discovery is eagerly seized upon in England, where a fashion for landscape watercolours is developing. Paul Sandby writes to a friend in 1775: 'I have a key to Le Prince's secret and am perfect master of it... I have already done 24 views in Wales'.

These views, published in the following year, are the earliest set of topographical aquatints. They are followed over the next half century in Britain by a flood of lavish volumes with views printed in aquatint and hand-coloured. The results, looking very similar to original watercolours, meet a growing demand at a reasonable price. The technique holds sway in this field until the 1830s, when it is replaced by the cheaper Tinted lithograph.

Aquatint also provides creative artists with the first congenial tonal method in prints (the mechanical business of rubbing down a mezzotint being more of a craftsman's drudgery).

The first great artist to appreciate the full potential of *aquatint is Goya. He uses it in the eighty prints of the Caprichos, published in 1799, and then again to dark and brilliant effect in the eighty-two plates of The Disasters of War, too controversial for contemporary Spain and not published until years after his death. Goya is also the first great artist to make effective use of the next discovery in printing, that of lithography.

Japanese colour prints: 18th - 19th century AD

Japan, playing a very early role in the story of printing, has for many centuries provided Buddhist pilgrims with simple woodcut images of holy figures. The technology is therefore in place to supply the more secular demand for images of Kabuki actors and courtesans. From about 1740 the protraits begin to be printed in colour. Intead of colouring a print by hand, the printers now cut an extra wood block for every colour in the image. Each block is inked with its own colour and then pressed against the sheet of paper.

With this development, Japan becomes the first region of the world to provide colour prints of a high quality at a popular price.

The demand which makes this possible is linked to ukiyo-e, the floating world. Actors and courtesans are the two most popular subjects. Stylized designs, built up with areas of flat colour, are well suited to depicting their flowing costumes. The resulting Japanese style greatly influences European art in the late 19th century.

There are many individual masters of the ukiyo-e school, each with numerous followers. In the late 18th century Utamaro is particularly well known for his woodcuts of courtesans, while Toyokuni is the leading specialist in prints of actors. His Yakusha butai no sugata-e (Views of Actors on Stage) is published in 1794-6.

In the early 19th century a new interest in landscape is pioneered by Hokusai, the greatest master of the ukiyo-e school. Hokusai is responsible for the best known of all Japanese images, the stylized and intensely dramatic views of Japan's holy mountain which he publishes over several years from about 1830 under the title Fugaku sanju-rokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji).

The other great Japanese master of landscape, Hiroshige, is much younger than Hokusai but is publishing at the same time. He makes his name with Toto meisho (Famous Places of the Capital) in 1831. He brings a new element of subtlety in the depiction of weather affecting the tone of a landscape.

The art of ukiyo-e, like the inward-looking Japanese society which it depicts and depends upon, cannot long survive the unwelcome intrusion of Commodore Perry and the outside world in 1853.

Yet the new links with the west, causing such an upheaveal in Japan, also carry abroad the Japanese colour prints. ukiyo-e lives in the studios of the French impressionists and post-impressionists when its day is already over in Japan.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

Lithography: AD 1798-1875

In 1798 an unsuccessful dramatist, Alois Senefelder, makes a discovery of profound significance in the history of artists' prints and later of commercial printing too. He has been attempting for some while to print from stone (prompted by a famous incident of 1796 when he jots down his mother's laundry list in greasy ink on a slab of limestone). What he comes to realize, in 1798, is that the antipathy between grease and water, familiar in any kitchen, can be used as a basis for printing.

In lithography marks are made on a stone surface in greasy crayon or ink. The stone is then wetted. Newly applied ink will stick only to the greasy marks. Paper pressed against the stone will pick up those marks and nothing else.

England is the first country in which artists take an interest in Senefelder's technique. As early as 1803 a collection of six lithographs by various painters (including Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy) is published under the title Specimens of Polyautography. By 1807 there are six issues, making thirty-six lithographs in all. They are mostly simple drawings in a pen-and-ink style.

In the long run the less restricting crayon style of lithography proves of more interest to artists. It is harder to achieve, but four early masterpieces in this medium are produced in 1825 by the elderly Goya in his series the Bulls of Bordeaux.

The example of these pioneers is not much followed during the main part of the 19th century except in the field of caricature, where artists such as Daumier use the immediacy of the medium to devastating effect in satirical journals. But by the final decades of the century the lithograph returns to fashion, along with etching, in a revival of interest in artists' prints which has never since slackened.

Meanwhile lithography makes steady inroads in the field of commercial printing. Topographical views in crayon lithography become common from the 1820s. Soon they acquire a tint or two, in fawn or pale blue from a second and third stone, to make them look more colourful.

The next stage in this progression is the chromolithograph printed in several colours, each from a separate stone. Bright and cheerful, the chromolithograph is a characteristic feature of 19th-century commercial printing - seen in posters, as book plates and eventually (following the example of the Illustrated London News in its Christmas issue of 1855) in weekly magazines.

The 1850s also see the first attempts to use photography in the making of lithographic plates. In the 1870s the process of offset lithography is invented. Senefelder's invention is poised to become, by the late 20th century, the standard method of printing.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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