Printing colour in Tudor England: a new exhibition

The title page of Ranulf Higden’s Polycronicon, printed in 1527

The Library’s Entrance Hall cases are hosting what is believed to be the first ever exhibition of colour printing produced in Tudor England. The history of the colour print is colourful and surprising. Excepting a few celebrated outliers, technologies for printing images in colour inks (as distinct from painting them by hand) are thought to have developed in the early eighteenth century, after Isaac Newton’s Opticks revolutionised colour theory in 1704 and c. 1710 Jacques Christoph Le Blon invented the trichromatic approach we still use today. His basic colours of blue-red-yellow (and eventually black from the ‘key plate’) have become our cyan-magenta-yellow-key/black, or CMYK. It is known that the first images printed in multiple colours were produced over 500 years ago, shortly after the invention of the printing press in c.1450, but new research has discovered that colour prints were produced across Europe for two centuries before the great breakthroughs of c.1700. The production of these very early colour prints challenges long-held assumptions in fields from the history of medicine to visual culture.

 The period between the first English colour prints in the so-called Book of St Albans in 1486 and the sudden proliferation of colour prints in the mid-1700s is particularly fascinating. Almost all known examples are woodcuts in red and black. Since there is no standard descriptive vocabulary to record their colour printing, they are often described as ‘normal’ prints, without reference to their printed colour. Also, all known examples are visual elements in books; most histories of colour printmaking are art historical and address single-sheet (‘fine art’) prints, not book illustrations. The 250-year gap between the landmarks of the history of English colour printing has been explained with reference to the absence of colour printing technologies, or austere Reformation tastes. However, images were indeed printed in colour in England throughout the sixteenth century, circulating in perhaps thousands of individual impressions.

This exhibition presents aspects of Dr Elizabeth Upper’s research as the 2012/13 Munby Fellow of Bibliography. The brightly printed pictures transform our understanding of the spread of technologies of visual communication in the English Renaissance. The display can be viewed during Library opening hours until 18 January 2014

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