Book Reviews | March 2021 | Alex Johnson

New Book Shines Light on Early Color Prints

Credit: British Museum

From a bookplate by German painter and wood engraver Anton Woensam.

From works of art and missals to wallpaper, German printers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were colorfully creative marvels. Their work is explored in detail for the first time in Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum by Dr. Elizabeth Savage, senior lecturer in book history and communications at the University of London.

Credit: British Museum

Bookplate by Anton Woensam, Arms of Johann von Metzenhausen (1492-1540) as Archibishop-Elector of Trier, 1531-40, two-block woodcut (black, red).

“The history of prints is usually in black and white, but early prints were vibrant,” said Dr. Savage, who curated an exhibition for the museum on the subject in 2015. “Late medieval and early modern German printers pushed the technology of the printing press to its limits in their quest to print color. They, not the artists, controlled the artistic effect.”

The book has more than 150 color illustrations, mainly life-size, using material from the British Museum’s unique collection, including examples which have never been reproduced or seen before in public. Among them is work by Anton Woensam, Lucas Cranach, Erhard Ratdolt, Erasmus Loy and his daughter Anna. It is as much about book history and bibliography as it is about art history, so offers a new context for understanding color-printed book illustrations and title pages in readers’ collections.

Courtesy of Paul Holberton

Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum by Dr. Elizabeth Savage.

“Color reproductions weren't available until relatively recently, so centuries of print scholarship was based on written descriptions or black-and-white reproductions of prints,” said Dr. Savage. “Color was ‘written out’ by manipulating negatives and enhancing contrast to show the black outlines. I’m delighted that the publisher Paul Holberton insisted that the reproductions in this book be on thick, matte paper which better represents the original prints and their range of very dark tones. This makes it possible for all readers to see aspects of these artifacts, including evidence of the printing process that created them, in a way that standard illustrations do not.”

As an example, Dr. Savage points to the cover image. “The original was printed with gold highlights, and the book will have gold foil to best represent the print,” she say. “It's difficult to photograph gold and the online image doesn't do the sparkle justice.”

Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum is published by Paul Holberton priced £50 and available from the University of Chicago Press at $65.