I have this lithographed picture from around 1850 of a drawing done by an ancestor of mine, Thomas Ross. The lithographer was Robert Martin of 124 High Holborn who has four lithographed portraits in the National Portrait Gallery.
I bought it because of the fact the artist was related to me and because we like Hastings. I knew nothing about the process involved in making a lithographic picture so tried to find out. It is surprising how complicated it sounds when you look on the internet so I thought I would attempt to write a blog in simple English explaining some of the mechanics of what must have taken place all those years ago in order to produce the print below. Whether I have succeeded or not, I leave you to judge.
- The artist first has to do his drawing IN REVERSE on a slab of limestone using lithography pencils and crayons. Both come in different sizes and degrees of hardness which affect the drawing, just like modern pencils do. These are necessarily greasy. Although my picture only contains a small amount of colour, it would have been necessary for a different slab to be used for each colour.
- He would then sprinkle rosin onto the surface to protect the drawing and then powder it with talc. This helped the chemical etch to lie more closely to the grease in the drawing.
- He then applied the etch to the stone using a solution of gum Arabic in order to establish the non image part of the picture on the stone.
- It would then be left to dry before applying a solvent like turpentine which would appear to remove the drawing and leave a ghost image.
- The slab would then have water applied using a sponge. The stone's surface had to be kept wet so that the ink didn't stick to non-image areas.
- An oil based ink would then be applied and would be repelled by the water but at the same time sticking to the greasy parts which were the original drawing.
- The tricky part was then to load damp paper onto the limestone slab and run it through a lithography press. The ink remained on the roller when it met the water and transferred from the roller to the paper when it met the grease.
- The paper would then be lifted off the slab to get an initial reverse print.
- The process would be repeated with more ink, three or four times. Before putting the paper through the press again they would have marked each sheet so that subsequent presses would be in identical positions.
- The end result would be a print which was the reverse of the original drawing. Presumably the benefit of having your drawing lithographed was that you could have numerous identical copies printed and be able to sell more !
What is clear from my research is that to get a good lithographic picture requires the skill of not only the artist drawing the sketch, but also the expertise of the lithographer who turns it into something which can be replicated time and time again. In the days before photography this would have been the only way to do this.
Click here to watch an excellent video about the lithography process I found on U-Tube.
To read my blog about the artist, Thomas Ross, click here.