The Wallace Collection


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The World within your Hand: Ink, illustrations and type

What comes to mind when you think of the Wallace Collection? Old Master Painting? Rococo decadence? Perhaps even the hardened steel in the armouries? In a series of blog posts, Helen Jones, our Library Cataloguer, will be exploring the books in the Collection; the processes and science behind them. Should our books be celebrated? Read on to make up your own mind!

Ink, illustrations and type

So far we’ve explored the intricate processes involved in making paper, but equally vital for books is ink. There were different recipes for making ink but it was usually made of a varnish (nut or linseed oil, reduced by boiling, with added resinous material) and colour (lampblack, i.e. powdered soot of burned resin, or ground vermillion for red).

Image 5 Red and black

The first printers used high quality ink, though as the industry spread the quality deteriorated as it was expensive to produce. Very early printed books (known as incunabula) often had hand-illuminated illustrations, which needed a variety of different coloured inks and paint, and, for the most expensive books, even gold leaf. Having a book illuminated was an expensive luxury however, so colour illustrations, except in very rare exceptions, vanished until the 19th century and the invention of colour printing.

Black and white illustrations were not uncommon in books from this period; though including them always meant a greater expense for the printer. Most printers had sets of ornamental page headers, such as for the beginning of chapter, and these would be re-used rather than commissioning new ones for different books. For example, the design pictured below was just one of the decorative devices printers would have owned to make their books look more attractive.

Image 13 Stock image

Any other illustrations would incur a  huge cost; engraved plates being the most expensive to produce. The desired image had to be engraved into a metal plate and the illustrations then had to be printed separately and later inserted into the book at the right place by the binder. Producing these plates could be as expensive as all the other productions costs for the rest of the book put together.

Image 14 Engraved plate

The detail in the image below shows the instructions to the binder as to where in the book this image was supposed to go, positioned in the top right hand corner of the plate.

Image 15 Directions for binder

The ink was of course useless without the type. The earliest sets of moveable type were made by goldsmiths, as they had the necessary skills. These early typefaces resembled scribes’ handwriting to such an extent that with some incunabula it is, at first glance, hard to tell if they are written or printed. As typography developed, the typefaces came to resemble the clear fonts with which we are familiar today.

Once a printer had purchased or inherited a particular set of type, they could make their own replacements (the metal wore down eventually from continual use) but the initial set was an expensive investment. As the page below shows, printers would have needed type in many different sizes and in both Roman and Italic fonts, sometimes just for one page.

Image 12 Roman and Italic

Printers had big cases of type set up which have each letter their own particular compartment. The compositors (those who assembled the type for printing) knew by experience where each letter or mark of punctuation was, so that they did not have to look at the tables as they worked. This skill was the equivalent to today’s touch-typing.




The compositors had to set the type in a compositor’s stick, which held a few lines of text, (and remember, to print properly, they had to set the letters upside down and in mirror-image), taking care to space and justify the text evenly. The text was then transferred to a galley, a rectangular frame which locked the type in place. Various galleys were then set together in a forme, depending on the size of the book to be printed: 2 galleys for a folio, 4 for a quarto, etc. Each page had to be set individually and the type was tied up and could not be reused until the printing had been completed.


Click here  for the next post: the printing process.


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