THE HISTORY OF BEN DAY DOTS, PART 5-AND-A HALF—a predecessor to Ben Day in colour letterpress

Previously on The History of Ben Day Dots:

  • Part 1: Roy Lichtenstein , The Man Who Didn’t Paint Ben Day Dots
  • Part 2: More on Roy; Halftone and Polke Dots, etc.
  • Part 3: Four Colour Comics, RGB Dots On Your Screen etc.
  • Part 4: Ben Day Dots: Origins and Pre-history; 19th Century Picture-printing
  • Part 5: Ben Day Dots in Lithography, 1880 – 1940

Flamberge 1


Introduction: what’s it all about?

(1) Three French Comic Strips in Colour, 1886 to 1888

(2) The Colours of Chef D’Oeuvre

(3) Relief Aquatint, or Resin Grain Tinting

(4) The Original Aquatint Method (Intaglio)

(5) Hybrid Forms

Coming Attractions: what’s next?

Caran D'Ache


Elsewhere on this blog I am running a series on the history of Ben Day dots.

In Part 6 I will be looking at how Ben Day dots were used on metal printing plates, in letterpress printing—including the comic strips which started in U.S. newspapers in the mid-1890s.

In this post I will show some rarely-seen early colour comics, and discuss the kind of dots they used—they’re not the Ben Day kind. Along with the Nelson transfer paper used in lithographic printing (discussed in Part 5) these dots were an important predecessor of Ben Day, in this case on metal plates in letterpress printing of colour pages.

In doing the blog, I have looked at colour printing in the 19th century in some detail. During my researches—a.k.a. spending sprees—I have found several comic strips in both colour and black-and-white which as far as I can tell have rarely, if ever, appeared online or in the literature. I present three of these today—coloured pages from French magazines of 1886, 1887 and 1888. The Caran D’Ache strip is online at one site, but its visibility may not be very high. If either of the others is online and I’ve missed it, please let me know.

A good many comic strips have of course been found which predate the supposed origin of the medium in October 1896—the month of Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid and his New Phonograph.

Many of them, like my three French strips below, are “silent”—that is, they have no text either in captions beneath the pictures or inside the picture area. Others have captions under some or all of the pictures.

Only a few of these early comic strips have been found in colour. Thierry Smolderen, for example, has located some beauties in the pages of the British magazine The Graphic. See though the example below is not pre-1896:


“An Unfortunate Huntress”, Reginald Cleaver, The Graphic, Xmas supplement, 1899 – posted by Thierry Smolderen

As well as the pleasure of simply discovering and reading these strips, and putting them online for a wider audience, I also want to use them as examples of the printing techniques of the time.

By the late 1880s, the French were regularly using the novel photomechanical process (see Ben Day dots Part 4 for details) in magazine illustration. British and US magazines still relied heavily on wood-engraving for their black-and-white pictures. A black-and-white drawing printed by photomechanical means was known as a “line block.”

France got a head start because of a fundamental advance made by Parisian Firmin Gillot in 1848 (or 1850; accounts differ). He discovered how to etch a detailed image onto a metal printing plate using transfer paperGillotage“. This was similar to a well-established method in lithography—see Part 5. Gillot’s key invention was the new—and very complex—method needed to achieve a deep enough etch on the metal plate (or “block”) for relief (letterpress) printing.

From about 1876, his son Charles extended the method, using photography to transfer the image to the metalthe photomechanical process or “photo-engraving.” This became the basis of all letterpress printing of pictures, including comics, for the next century and more. (For a detailed account see:

By 1886 “process” work included not only line blocks, but also early letterpress printing of black-and-white photographs, using halftone screens to break the photographic image into printable dots. (See Ben Day dots Part 2.) But there was no colour printing using halftone plates yet.

For the comic strips I’m showing here, a black plateor line blockwas made from the original B&W artwork by the photomechanical process, and colour plates prepared by a variety of means, all essentially still manual.

A key thing for me about these strips is the way the magazines’ engravers used various kinds of lines and dots for colour, but not Ben Day lines or dots. In theory, they could have done. Lithographers, after all, had been using Ben Day on their stone printing blocks since the early 1880s (see Ben Day Dots Part 5). At least in many countries, they had.

Historian of print Michael Twyman reports evidence that French lithographers used little or no Ben Day. It is likely that they saw mechanical tints as looking “unnatural” or “unartistic,” as did some contemporary British writers on the subject.

Some lithographers re-trained as metal plate-makers, others passed on relevant skills within the trade (as did wood engravers) as letterpress made its inexorable advance. The evidence of the published illustrations suggest that, in France, the lithographers’ prejudice against Ben Day tints was also passed on.

There may have been technical reasons as well. A lot of French colour illustrations in letterpress used a black-and-white halftone as the key plate, tinted by several colour plates. Ben Day tints, with their regular patterns, might have clashed with the halftone dots of the black, producing Moiré patterns. Instead, hand-drawn dots and lines were favoured.

By the time the comics arrived in the New York newspaper Sunday sections of the mid 1890sprinted by letterpress, of courseBen Day dots were there to help colour them. Someone somewhere had made the leap from lithography, and learnt to put Ben Day dots onto metal plates.

I don’t know yet who, where or when that was. I’m still trying to find out. Any help gratefully received!

I will look in more detail at how these French comic strip images were printed later in this post.

Firstly though, the pages of comics, in chronological order of publication.

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(i)  EN CHASSE  (On the Hunt)  by Flamberge, 1886

From PARIS ILLUSTRÉ, 1st December 1886.

This issue of Paris Illustré listed two editors on its front cover, and more prominently: Charles Gillot, Directeur. In later years it would list as “Editeurs” the company Boussod, Valadon et Cie (see below).

All the black-and-white line illos inside the magazine are co-credited to “Gillot Sc” meaning that he (or his company) did the engraving—in this case photomechanical engraving. Crediting the engraver was a custom left over from the days of copper intaglio printmaking and wood engraving—both done by hand, of course. In these photomechanical times it would soon fade out. None of the colour pages in this issue, including Flamberge’s strip, had engraver’s credits.

2 pages. Original image size = approx. 24 x 32 cm (9.5 x 13 inches.). Page size 33 x 44.5 cm,  (13 x 18 ins.).

As always, clicking on an image should take you to a full-sized version. Use the back button of your browser to return here.

Flamberge_En Chasse_p01

Flamberge_En Chasse_p02

Admirers of Randolph Caldecott‘s earlier illustrated narratives in The Graphic might detect an influence here. Caldecott’s stories were always very wordy, though. Here the pictures do all the work. Except for one task… I find it curious that Flamberge doesn’t show the boar actually tossing the dog into the air. Perhaps he was too squeamish—or thought his readers were.

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(ii) CHIEN ET CHAT (Dog & Cat) by Eugene Courboin, 1887

From LA REVUE ILLUSTRÉE, a bi-monthly magazine, which ran from 1885 – 1912. Evidently it prided itself on its high quality photographs and photo-mechanical process illustrations.

These are undated, disbound pages, sold to me as 1887, which is credible. Probably published between January and May as I couldn’t find the strip in the June to December pages available on Gallica, the online archive of the Bibliothèque national de France. (An amazing resource, by the way.)

See also: La Premiere Barbe (The First Shave) from later that year, also by Courboin, at Gallica:

4 pages. Image size  approx. 18 x 24 cm (7 x 9.5 inches). Page 23.5 x 32 cm (9.5 x 13 ins)

Chien et Chat panel 0

Chien et Chat panels 1_2_3_4

Chien et Chat panels 5_6_7_8

Chien et Chat panels 9_10_11_12

In this case there is a credit at the end of the strip: “Typ. Draeger et Lesieur.” I suspect this means that the “typogravure” for the strip was done by a company called Draeger et Lesieur. This would have included the colour separations and the engraving of the colour printing plates.

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(iii) COMMENT ON FAIT UN CHEF-D’OEUVRE  (How to Create a Masterpiece) by Caran D’Ache, December 1888


Figaro Illustré started as the lavish annual supplement of the daily newspaper le Figaro. This Caran D’Ache strip is from the edition for 1888 – 1889, cover-dated 1st December 1888.

In April 1890, Figaro Illustré became a monthly, continuing directly on from the weekly Paris Illustré—where En Chasse appearedwhich published its last issue on March 29th. Paris Illustré was at that time being produced by the same editorial team as the Figaro annual, at Boussod, Valadon et Cie.

Boussod, Valadon et Cie was the successor to Goupil et Cie, a massive firm of art dealers and printers. They had earlier invented the first commercially viable form of photogravure printing, and very successfully sold “Goupil-gravure” prints of artworks—cleverly cross-promoting their art dealership as they did so. The famous Vincent van Gogh was a partner in Goupil et Cie from 1861 to 1872. Later his nephew Theo also worked for them, as did his other nephew, also called Vincent Van Gogh—before he went off to become a not very successful painter.

The artist at work was a frequent source of fun for Caran D’Ache, and here he also gets an early dig in at contemporary art. He would not be the last cartoonist to extract some similarly cynical fun from the subject.

1 page. Image size approx. 25.5 x 32 cm (10 x 13 ins). Page size 32 x 42.5 cm (13 x 17 ins).

Caran D'Ache comic strip_Chef D'Ouevre

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In the U.S.A. at this time the colour pages of Puck and Judge magazines used lithographic printing (see Ben Day dots part 4) but French strips like these did not—though they and other colour pages from French periodicals are often described (and sold) as lithographs.

All three strips shown here were printed by the letterpress method, from metal plates, on which the image areas—the solid colours, the lines and dots—stood out “in relief” above the non-image areas. As mentioned above, the black image in all three cases is made photomechanically from the original drawing.

Colour-wise, the Caran D’Ache strip looks very different from the other two, though. Details are shown below. Each square is approximately 2cm on the original page.

Firstly, the yellow background is not solid colour, but a grained tint of yellow. This is not easy to see in its original form, so I have tweaked the hue to make the yellow into red. Clicking for a larger view will also help in seeing this.

Detail Yellow and red

A tint like this could have been made in several ways. A Ben Day pattern could have been laid down on the plate—as I showed in Part 4, Day made tints which imitated the grain of lithographic stone. However, as noted above, it looks as if this generation of French engravers was avoiding the Ben Day method.

A relief tint plate could have been prepared in a number of ways, with the pattern pre-etched all over it, and the parts needed to print white simply routed or chiselled off. Bamber Gascoigne in his book How To Identify Prints points out that molten stereotype metal could be used to make a relief copy of many different patterns, his example being sandpaper. This pretty much provided an instant printing plate with a pattern ready to use. Other writers back in the 1890s suggested such surfaces as leather, wood and even lace.

Perhaps, in the city where Firmin Gillot had invented gillotage, transfer paper would have been used to carry the pattern from a roughened limestone block to the metal plate. (Ben Day’s method was in effect a massive improvement on this previous, much clumsier, way of doing it.) Masking fluid or a cut-out paper “frisket” could have been used to prevent the white areas of the image getting the tint.

I will come back to this question.

I note that the dog in panel 6 has lost its yellow colour. Whichever method was used to tint the background, I suspect the dog was masked off by mistake along with the puddle of paint it’s standing in.


As well as the yellow, there are a red, a blue and a separate flesh/pink colour, as seen below:

Details x 6

The red and blue dots and lines have an obviously hand-drawn look. They were probably drawn directly onto the metal plates—again, pretty much exactly as a lithographer would have done it. Alternatively, the drawing could have been done on transfer paper, then transferred onto the metal. I think this is unlikely. It would have added a redundant extra stage to the process, and compromised the quality of the dots and lines—such as they have.

Either way, one plate would have been used for each colour, and the ink used on the printing plate would have been black in every case. The craftsman or woman making the plates would have to estimate what the final colour was going to look like.

Apart from the flesh tone, this colouring is closely approaching the four-colour method which I looked at in Part 3. It seemed to take a long time for the trade to work out how to make flesh tones from red, yellow and occasional blue tints. Then again, using crude hand-drawn dots as these guys were doing, one can see why they wouldn’t try it yet. Another reason why they really should have embraced the reliable tints of Benjamin Day.

And while I’m on the flesh colour… it is worth taking another look at this pink colour used on the faces (and the pale orange paint pots). This tint has a very different look from the hand drawn dots of red and blue. Again it looks as if a grained pattern has been transferred to the plate, perhaps.  Or it could have been done a different way, as in the other two strips. I will come back to this question.

Untitled-5 detail

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 (i) Introducing the method

The details from En Chasse and Chien et Chat, below, clearly show the presence of much finer dotted tints. The pattern of the dots is pleasingly random, not “mechanical-looking”—and it was achieved by an ingenious method which has received very little attention from historians of colour printing. This was the old aquatint intaglio technique turned into a relief method for letterpress. It was an important process—certainly in Britain and Europe—for about half a century, and deserves some wider exposure now.

Detail from En Chasse showing colour tints: Panel 9, original size 12 x 8 cm, 4.5 x 3 inches approx. (Click to enlarge)

Flamberge_En Chasse_panel 7

The technique is sometimes referred to as Resin Grain Line Engraving (e.g. a single page advertisement in Penrose’s Annual, 1908-9, with no accompanying text), or Resin-Grain Chromotypography (in The Ilford Manual of Process Work by L.P. Clerc (English edition 1924, translated from the French) which gives it a fairly detailed one-page account. I can guarantee that googling either of those two phrases will get you nowhere—except possibly, now, straight back here.

It can also be called it Relief Aquatint. (Googling that will also get you nowhere fast.)

It was the first method specifically created to make printed tints from metal relief plates in the 19th century.

It arrived about 30 years before Ben Day tints, which were patented in 1879. And, though Day had predicted they might be used on metal relief plates, Ben Day dots were confined to lithographic printing for the first few years of their existence, and took several years to penetrate the world of letterpress.

We know that Day’s dots did end up in letterpress in a big way—in the comics and elsewhere—but this important predecessor produced a huge number of colour pages before Ben Day tints started to take over. Resin grain was still being advertised in Penrose’s Annual for 1908 as a commercially available method, and may have offered a useful alternative to those who still didn’t trust the “mechanical” tints.

Yet resin grain tinting / relief aquatint remains something of a forgotten secret.

Bamber Gascoigne talks about it very briefly in his excellent How To Identify Prints (in section 42a, under the heading Chromotypographs—i.e. colour prints using variable tones from metal relief plates, pre-photoengraving—see below). He mentions:

…the simple device of etching the surface of the block through a traditional aquatint ground. The aquatint pattern can often be seen in relief colour work of the nineteenth century, showing up as a network of fine white lines…

The method was in fact far from simple or obvious, and the pattern is very different from the one seen in ordinary (intaglio) aquatint prints, as I will show later. In fact there are two distinct variations as well. You are more likely to perceive it as a grainy pattern of dots than a network of fine white lines, it seems to me.

He refers again to “direct aquatinting” in his section on Prepared Tints, 63a. That’s about it, and it is one of the few printing methods used over the centuries which his generally comprehensive book does not actually illustrate. (There is a pretty good note on Ben Day dots, for example, and a clear illustration.)

Another authoritative book, William Ivins Jr‘s How Prints Look does not mention resin grain / relief aquatint at all.

One can see why this kind of printing flies below the radar of art historians. It was after all used mainly in popular periodicals, and unlike other commercial methods there is no recorded use of it by a high art practitioner like Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec or Picasso.

In his Colour Printing and Colour Printers of 1910—reprinted in 1983 as it had not been bettered, and still worth reading today—R.M. Burch refers to the method a few times, his most useful description being “tone plates… etched by a modification of the aquatint method, adapted to surface printing.” 

Printer / publisher James Shirley Hodson is the only author to write about it at length, AFAIK, in his book An Historical and Practical Guide to Art Illustration. I will have more to say about Hodson another day—and about his son, Samuel J. Hodson, who reportedly took on The Graphic‘s early colour printing from about 1875. Using resin grain tints, of course.

Now for a closer look at the process in action. These squares from En Chasse are again about 2 cm across on the original page:

Flamberge_En Chasse_details x 4

The resin grain is very evident. Lines in white, crossing the dotted tint, have been achieved by engraving onto the etched plate with a tool borrowed from the wood engravers, the multi-pointed graver or “shooter,” cutting what looks like six lines at a time here. The pale blue shadows, the dust kicked up by the horse and the shape of the clouds hint at the painterly shapes which can be made with this method.

Details from Chien et Chat:

Details x 6

In this strip there is less painterly detail, and the choice of flesh tone is on the grey side, and very pale. Registration of the red plate is unfortunate—a regular bane of colour printing.

Overall these two strips show the delicacy of colour which could be achieved with very fine dots of relief aquatint / resin grain. Sometimes much coarser dot patterns are used. I hope to post some more examples soon.

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(ii) Relief Aquatint, Gillotage and Ben Day Dots

The inventor of relief aquatint was reportedly a printer in London, England, named William Dickes—more on him later—though George Leighton was another very early user. It probably originated in the late 1840s, roughly contemporary with Firmin Gillot’s experiments with transfer paper in Paris.

Gillot’s invention of what he called paneiconographie—soon to be known as gillotage—changed the world of printing forever. At least, it did when his son Charles brought in the photographic element, and created photoengraving.

The original method involved a drawing, in black ink on transfer paper, being transferred to a metal printing plate, in that same black ink, then etched on. The result was a relief plate ready to print the drawing in black-and-white (or other monochrome). The original drawing could have been done directly on the paper or in reverse on a lithographic stone. (See Part 4).

As I will show later in this post, in order for his relief aquatint process to work, William Dickes had to find a way to achieve a much deeper etch on the metal plate than was previously done with traditional aquatint. This was fundamentally the same problem which Firmin Gillot had to solve to make his method work. In both cases the deep etch was the game-changer, though the two men found different solutions to the problem, suiting their different needs.

The parallel development of these two processes may previously have escaped notice. It would be fascinating to know whether Dickes and Gillot ever communicated. I throw this notion out as a gift to anyone looking for a new topic in 19th century printing to study.

There is also one more fundamental link between relief aquatint, gillotage and Ben Day dots. As I have said, relief aquatint was probably the main tinting/colour printing method for many years. Before Ben Day could take over this function, someone had to figure out how to get Ben Day patterns onto metal. As we will see in Part 6, this required the same etching technique used in gillotage—though it may have come via the emerging field of photoengraving.

Gillot père patented his method in 1850 (or thereabouts). Gillot fils was in business as a photoengraver by 1876. Printers could have borrowed the Gillot etching method and applied it to Ben Day patterns, etching them onto metal plates, far earlier than they (apparently) did. Perhaps earlier use of Ben Day on metal will emerge, but for now, it is intriguing to speculate about why the delay occurred.

It may simply have come down to the fact that the French didn’t use Ben Day dots.

This also brings me back to a question posed earlier—was transfer paper / gillotage used to put colour tints onto letterpress pages?

One great difficulty with the accounts of gillotage that I’ve seen is that they all leap quickly to the “sexy” bit—photoengraving (just as discussions of photoengraving leap forward to halftones, largely ignoring line blocks). Charles Gillot, as I understand it, first set up as a commercial photoengraver in 1876. But there were almost thirty years when gillotage in its original, transfer-paper-based form was at work in Paris.

What kind of work was done with that early version? Was it all black-and-white or monochrome? How much did it involve dots / lines / other forms of prepared or mechanical tint? With scanty available evidence, it is hard to say. Again, more room for further study here.

There is one area of gillotage by transfer paper which remains visible today—the illustration of French humour magazines. This is generally seen in black-and-white, using no prepared or mechanical tints, but exploiting the “chalk” or “crayon” texture achieved by drawing on rough lithographic stone or grained paper (see Part 4).

The famous weekly Le Charivari, for example, published one large lithographic illustration every issue up til 1870 (according to A. Hyatt Mayor in Prints & People). Switching to gillotage in that year allowed all four pages of the magazine to be printed by letterpress, cutting costs. Many other magazines in France also reportedtly used gillotage in the same way. Pages torn from them are sometimes marketed as “gillotypes.”

The results, says Mayor, were cruder than litho, but evidently acceptable for the purpose of printing satirical cartoons. He reports that Le Charivari‘s great cartoonist Honoré Daumier, eyesight failing and paid a pittance, had already simplified his lithographic style to the point where it could switch to gillotage without suffering too badly.

The Daumier image below is not my scan. I have borrowed it from Simon at Books and Boots .

The caption translates as “Appalled at the heritage.” It’s about the disastrous Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 – 71.

1871 heritage 1000 wide

As Mayor alliteratively asserts, “The gillotype granulates the greys in a grit that disintegrates any drawing short of heroic.”

I don’t know if Daumier drew on stone or grained paper. Paper is more likely simply due to the convenience of it, compared to a chunk of heavy limestone. Either way, his image was transferred from paper to metal printing plate, then etched. Detail in the “chalk” shading would be coarsened considerably in the final printed result.

The close-up below is slightly more revealing of the texture thus created. Until I can scan some of these gillotypes myself, I cannot compare this pattern directly with the relief aquatint pattern. They are not dissimilar at first sight.

1871 heritage detail A

So far, the evidence suggests that gillotage had its own built-in grain or “random dot” pattern, but this was only used for monochrome work.

If I discover anything further, I will let you know.

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(iii) Use in The Illustrated London News and The Graphic

It is clear that the Parisian printing world had embraced resin grain tinting in a big way by the late 1880s. The technique probably spread from England. In 1855 The Illustrated London News (ILN) became the first weekly to start printing semi-regular colour pictures (often in Christmas and summer supplements) and by all accounts it was an immediate success.  Curiously its great rival, The Graphic, did not follow suit until 1873.

Relief aquatint / resin grain chromotypography was used by them both, though the ILN reportedly switched to lithographs for its colour prints from the late 1880s, while The Graphic continued with letterpress, at least until 1899.)

Here’s the cover of that first Christmas ILN, with some 2cm square details.

Illustrated London News cover 1855

Details x 4

Bamber Gascoigne notes in another essential book, Milestones in Colour Printing 1457 to 1859 (1997) how revolutionary this was. He also says that the huge colour pages (c. 28 x 39 cm, 11 x 15.5 inches) were only possible because of printer George Leighton‘s use of “relief blocks”—i.e. metal plates, and relief letterpress printing.

What Mr Gascoigne doesn’t explain is that Leighton was using the relief aquatint method for many of his colour tints—possibly not all the colours, though. At least initially, Leighton used a hybrid technique. The key plates (in black or dark brown) were still made from engraved wood blocks. Some of the colours probably were also.

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(a) Aquatint and Other Intaglio Methods Compared

I will cover the basics of how actual aquatint prints were made, before moving on to the relief version.
The original, intaglio, aquatint method was well established in artistic and commercial printing long before the 1880s. It was invented around 1720, and used for fine art and devotional prints, commercial prints and book illustration.

Aquatint used acid etching of a metal plate to make an intaglio printing surface. As with engraving or line/stipple etching, ink was held on the printing plate in troughs and/or pits lower than the plate’s surface, and wiped clean from the surface itself. Areas of the plate left smooth, un-lowered, and clean of ink printed as white. Using black ink, the troughs and pits printed as black lines or stippled dots in an engraving or etching, or grey tones of various shades in an aquatint.

This undated print of Caerfily Castle (sic) was printed by aquatint on white paper, probably to go in a book (from which it was removed long ago—not by me). The ink is black, but a brownish kind of black, and looks browner in scanned images. The image is approx. 13 x 19cm, 5 x 7.5 inches.

Caerfily Castle full

In an intaglio metal engraving, lines are essentially black. The illusion of grey is created by “optical blending”—fine lines, very close together, are seen as grey. This 1820 copper engraving of Antonio Canova (image size c. 16 x 20 cm, 6 x 8 inches) might create Moiré patterns on your screen (try it at different zooms) or might show nice grey tones:

Canova full

Close up, Antonio looks like this—no grey:

Canova details x3

Robert Walpole, below, is from 1801. He is a so-called stipple engraving, and many of his dots were etched with acid rather than engraved. Original image size: 9 x 12 cm, 3.5 x 5.45 inches.

Robert Walpole 1801

In “stipple engravings” and etchings, etched dots can be quite shallow on the metal—giving a softer, grey appearance, as seen on the face and hair. The etched lines are fairly full-on black. The background dots are larger, blacker and may have been bashed into the metal with a tool like a “mace head” or “mattoir.”

Robert Walpole 1801_details x 3

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(b) Grey Tones in Intaglio Aquatint

Aquatint creates its grey tones in quite a different way.

Firstly, it produces a fine mesh pattern, and to some extent, the paler the grey area in a print, the thinner the lines in the mesh. With more white paper showing between the lines, a paler grey is to be expected.

In an aquatint, though, unlike an engraving or etching, these lines are actually printed not in black, but in many shades of genuine grey. Or at least, the particles of black pigment are far too small to see, as in a photographic print. And the shade of this grey can be carefully controlled over large areas, which with ordinary etched dots is not feasible.

The details below show these grey tones in the Caerfily Castle print. Each square is approx. 2cm across in the original image. (I turned these images into greyscale, as some unfixable colour variations crept in during scanning.)

Details x 6 G

A closer view of a 1 cm square shows the grey effect more clearly:

Aquatint positive_ super close up G

And here are some microscope views of different tints:

AQT transitional 5b

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(c) Comparison with Mezzotint

Aquatint shares this property with another type of intaglio print, the mezzotint. Mezzotint was a finer process, capable of amazing shading, but also much slower and more expensive. It was only used for high-end luxury items.

I don’t know who this guy is, but his undated and trimmed mezzotint portrait is about 18 x 24 cm, 7x 9.5 inches.


These details are 2 cm squares:

Details x 4

Meanwhile, back at aquatint…

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(d) Spirit Ground Aquatint

How was this grey printing achieved in aquatint with black ink?

The plate was acid-etched through a spotty “ground” and the ground could be made by two different methods.

My example, Caerfily Castle, used the “wet” or “spirit ground” version.

This used resin dissolved in a mixture of water and alcohol to make the ground. A layer of this solution was allowed to dry onto the plate, leaving patches of resin behind, dried and stuck onto the metal, in a reticulated pattern.

Each patch of resin now formed an “island” (my word for it) on the plate. The plate now had thousands of these irregularly shaped dots of resin on it, with what I call “channels” in between them, where the metal was still exposed.

The picture was either drawn onto this ground, or traced from the original, or imprinted by transfer paper.

The first stage in creating the drawing on the metal was to paint over, with an acid-resistant varnish, all the areas which needed to print as white. These parts of the plate would remain untouched by the next stage in the process.

Nitric acid (known as aqua fortis) was used to etch the plate. Each one of the resin “islands” would form a tiny acid resist, protecting that area of metal surface. But the “channels” between the islands would be eaten away just a little by the aid, i.e. etched down by a small amount. This shallow etch would form the palest grey tone of the print. Each island would be a white dot in the grey.

The shallow channels would not hold much ink, and it was thinly spread, which is how it was able to print as a grey. At this stage, the white dots were also of quite large size, representing the full size of the islands. Thus etch number one produces a very pale grey tone—Grey Number One.

The acid was washed off with water. The waterproof resin islands of the ground remained in place. So did the original areas of varnish which had been painted on, protecting the white areas of the picture from the acid etch.

Now a second etch was going to be done, but first those areas which needed to print as Grey Number One needed to be protected from the acid. A second painting-on of varnish was therefore done, extending the varnish protection to those areas of the picture as well.

The second etch deepened the channels. Perhaps each island now started to shrink slightly, as the acid undermined the resin layer. Now the unvarnished parts of the plate would print with a darker grey, Grey Number Two.

The microscopic detail of Caerfily Castle below shows a transition between a pale grey and a much darker etch.

Caerfily 01b

A number of further varnishings and etches were done, each “biting” a little deeper. Eventually the acid really undermined the resin, and channels got wider as they got deeper, until the islands had been eaten away almost completely.

The grey got darker as the channels held more ink, becoming blacker when printed, and at the same time the white dots between the lines got smaller.  The last etch produced areas of metal which would print almost black.

As well as aquatinting, which produced no outlines, lines—and indeed dots—could be engraved or etched onto the metal as well. The print above shows some outlines on the buildings and shading on the figure, for example, which look as if they have been etched on.

This was very laborious process. Caerfily Castle must have had at least six, possibly seven etches. I show six magnified squares below, each 1cm wide, in progressively darker greys—and here you can see the brownish tinge. I think there are two pale greys in the top square (and the bottom square has some etched black lines on it).


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(e) Dust Ground Aquatint

In the “dry” or “dust ground” method, a powdered resin was dusted directly onto the metal printing plate.  The powder could be quite coarse or very fine depending on the final appearance required.

The resin had to be melted onto the plate by heating the metal, then cooled before it had spread out too far and filled in the “channels”. Some of the tiny pools of liquid made by particles of resin would merge together in any case.

Once the ground had been made, the process was the same as the wet method.

The appearances when printed were quite different. Bamber Gascoigne shows the two in How To Identify Prints—spirit ground above, dust ground below:

Bamber G 01

Once all the varnish and resin remnants had been cleaned off with solvent, the plate was ready for intaglio printing. A printing press using very high pressure was needed to force the paper into the channels, grooves and pits of the metal plate. The same press could not be used for relief printing, which used lower pressure and different methods.

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(i) The Baxter Print—Aquatint plus Colour from Wood Blocks

The relief aquatint process evolved because printers were looking for ways to improve on the colour printing methods of George Baxter, in particular. (The Charles Knight / Stephen Sly team was another important antecedent , but will be discussed another time.)

George Baxter patented his method of colour printing in 1835. Though he was building on the work of many previous colour printers, Baxter did effectively create a new technique and set a new standard in naturalistic colour printing. Also, he brought colour printing back into a world which, prior to the rise of chromolithography, was accustomed to seeing to prints only in black-and-white, or coloured by hand—pretty crudely, and often by child labour.

He also started a new movement which, in Britain at least, produced thousands of coloured pictures in the form of prints, book and magazine illustrations, and (a speciality of Baxter’s) smaller items like needle box covers. It also produced many followers, imitators and much evolution of his techniques.

Baxter’s method used a detailed intaglio print as the key image. In most cases this carried all the information needed for a “reading” of the image, and the colours he added were effectively decoration. His ambition was to create a facsimile of a painted picture (and he was always keen to stress that he printed in “oil colours.”) At his best he approached his goal.

His intaglio key print was most often an aquatint, usually with stipple and line etching on the plate as well. He sometimes used copper or steel engraved plates for this stage (and his patent covered use of a lithographed key, though he may never have used one in a published print).

Colours were added by any number of wood-engraved plates, occasionally over twenty, more often around ten. (Later he used some engraved metal plates for colour, but he is best known for his wood-engraved colours.)

Below I show a small Baxter print of Abbeville in northern France. This is only 5.5 x 7.5 cm, or just over 2 inches wide by about 3 inches tall. I have a fairly dark print of the key plate on its own—it is aquatinted and line-etched, very finely, and printed in black. It may have been printed much later than the colour version.

The coloured print (1847) was done very delicately. The key plate was printed lighter than it was on my monochrome print. (Some grey marks in the blue sky on my colour print are smudges, I’m afraid. You can see where Baxter put his bits of grey cloud.)

Abbevile merge 02 lighter grey

Below is another Baxter print scanned by me—The Third Day He Rose Again (1854).  This is a large piece by Baxter’s standards, at about 17 x 21 cm (6.5 x 8 inches) and a more ambitious work than Abbeville.

On The Third Day He Rose Again_George Baxter

The square details below are just over 1.3 cm or half an inch. Again intaglio aquatint, and stipple & line etching, are apparent on the key plate. Much of the wood-engraved colour is overprinted onto grey areas of the key image, but some is clearly printed over white areas left open on the key.

On The Third Day He Rose Again_George Baxter_details x 6

In 1849 George Baxter was able to renew his patent for another five years, arguing that he needed more time to make some profit out of it. He never really did, and died in debt. But, as advised in the patent court by the judge, Lord Brougham (more of him another time), he started selling licenses to other printers to use the method. For their money they also got lessons in how the Baxter print was done.

One of his licensees was a lithographer and wood engraver called William Dickes. Below is one of his Baxter prints, including the standard Baxter-style intaglio aquatint grey key, from Charles “Water Babies” Kingsley’s non-fiction book Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore.

Original image size 8.5 x 14 cm, 3.5 x 5.5 inches.

GLAUCUS plate 12_Charles Kingsley_William Dickes

Details, 1 cm square originally:

Details x 4

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(ii) William Dickes and the Invention of Relief Aquatint

Dickes did a lot of Baxter prints, but was keen to find ways of working more quickly.

He realised that the intaglio key plate was a major stumbling block. It had to be done on a hand press, separate from the wood-engraved (relief) colours. Also, there were various technical reasons why printing over the intaglio key was not helpful for registering the colours accurately.

And, as Dickes knew, the future belonged to those who could print colour on the new steam presses. He was looking for a method whose elements were all in relief.

A standard intaglio aquatint plate cannot simply be used to print in relief. The channels between the islands are too shallow.

Black (or whichever colour ink is used) should print only from the raised surface parts of a relief plate. If an aquatint plate were inked as for relief, the shallow grooves would partly or wholly fill up with ink. Whereas they should remain empty, and so print white, they would partly or wholly print black. The result would be an awful mess. I’d bet Dickes and many others had tried it!

Etching the channels more deeply was possible, but of course this also undermined the resin islands more. You couldn’t get much of a range of tones.

In any case, even if the grooves were somehow made deep enough, relief-printing an aquatint plate which had been made for intaglio would produce a negative image. The smooth surface parts would print black, whereas they should be white. The parts supposed to be the palest grey would print as the darkest, and so on.

As explained in The Colour Prints of William Dickes, by Alfred Docker (1924) Dickes solved both problems. He found a method which produced a deeper etch, using what I presume was a tougher ground, made of  “resin, Burgundy pitch and gum.” Dickes apparently learned this method from “an old aquatinter” called Hunt who had devised it himself. It was laid using the wet, spirit ground technique.

And secondly, Dickes worked his etchings in the reverse order from intaglio platemaking. He protected his black (or solid colour) areas, not his white ones, from the first etch; his darkest grey (or darkest colour tint) from the second etch, not the palest one—and so on.

Eventually he etched his palest tint, leaving only tiny “colour” islands and wide “white” channels, then cut away metal from the parts which needed to print white.

Dickes called his method Chromographic printing and exhibited at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, alongside George Baxter. The catalogue described Dickes as “the Inventor and Producer” of his method of “printing in oil colours from raised surfaces.” But Dickes never patented his process.

The printed result lacked the delicacy of the intaglio aquatint. Relief aquatint made marks on the paper from raised dots, not sunken grooves. Like other relief methods, and most lithography, each chromographic mark could only be black (or solid colour).

Unlike the intaglio version, then, no actual grey (or tint of a colour) was possible with this method. Tints had to be created solely from optical blending of a pattern of irregular dots.

Also, since the plate was to be used in relief, unlike the intaglio version, you could no longer etch or engrave lines onto it.

Perhaps for these reasons, having solved the intaglio problem, Dickes did not simply follow the Baxter style. He often abandoned the aquatint grey key, and adapted his new aquatint relief method for use as coloured plates instead.

Overall, the Chromograph method was fit for purpose. After perfecting it on his hand printing presses, Dickes was eventually able to print mechanically.

The future had arrived.

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(iii) Lady Di and Spanker: The Chromotypograph

Below is one of Dickes’ less ambitious plates. He did a lot of this kind of cheap commercial material, but also a good deal of more accomplished work. I hope to show some of it another time. I chose this picture because the dots are very obvious.

This is an illustration from Moral Tales, by popular children’s author Maria Edgeworth (undated, but published between 1865 and 1873; 9 x 13 cm, 3.5 x 5 inches). It’s a good thing we know the tales are moral, or we might have thought that Lady Di thrashing Spanker sounded a bit kinky.

Lady Di thrashes Spanker

The characteristic pattern of Dickes’ relief aquatint can be seen below.


Like a Baxter print, this was a hybrid technique. The key was printed in a very dark brown, almost certainly from a wood-engraved block. (These are very sharp lines, and it is just possible they were engraved in relief on metal, but this would have been an extra expense, and is less likely.)

Some of the colour is done in lines also suggesting a wood block—e.g the orangey brown seen at top left in the square below, and I think the same colour, over blue, at bottom left. It also appears in the grass.


It is very obvious that, like the chromolithographers, Dickes was using many colours and not attempting to combine three primaries to make all his hues. However, you are probably thinking he might have made his green out of blue and yellow, which was a favourite trick of colour printers of all persuasions. The detail below, taken from the bottom edge of the image, gives the game away. The yellow and blue inks show themselves quite clearly here. Elsewhere, the yellow might be taken for a yellowy green.

DICKES green b

Dickes’ own name for his technique, the Chromograph, never really stuck, even within his own workshop. But a very similar 19th century name for this kind of hybrid print has survived—the Chromotypograph. Or rather, the name chromotypograph covers a number of different types of print, of which Lady Di and Spanker is but one variation.

Bamber Gascoigne in How to Identify Prints is of the opinion that this old-fashioned word is worth holding on to. I agree; it is analogous to chromolithograph (printed from stone) and chromoxylograph (printed from wood) and defines the distinctive properties of this type of print.

If one wished to explain to an eBay seller, for example, or the British Museum, that they have mislabeled some of their prints as chromolithographs, how useful to be able to say, “They are in fact chromotypographs.” (As enny fule kno.)

Mr Gascoigne says:

…the term chromotypograph (implying colour printed from raised metal, as type is) was used for a wide variety of colour prints which made use, partly or exclusively, of metal relief blocks… such prints may include colours engraved on wood… or they may be entirely composed of the more random tones made possible by etched metal blocks.

This is where he also notes that various tones can be transferred to metal plates (a.k.a. blocks) by transfer paper (gillotage) and he has noted elsewhere the alternative method of casting textures like sandpaper in stereotype metal, which could also be part of a chromotypographic process.

The key thing here is that there is no “line block” yet, i.e. no photomechanical process is involved in a chromotyopograph—at least as defined here.

The early colour pages in the Illustrated London News and The Graphic were certainly chromotypographs. There is evidence that some later pages in The Graphic used line blocks—photoengraved plates—as their key plates. I will come back to this another time.

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(iv) 19th Century French Comic Strips: Chromotypographs or Colour Line Blocks?

The French comic strips I showed above are another hybrid form—their blacks come from line blocks (photoengraved plates) and their colours are the resin grain / relief aquatint type. Because they have a photomechanical element, they don’t really fit the above definition of a chromotypograph.

Bamber Gascoigne has another definition which almost fits, the Colour Line Block. This is where we meet, at last, the world of the comic strip, since a colour line block is a black photoengraved image coloured by mechanical tints (such as Ben Day dots).

But the tints in our French strips are hand-originated, not mechanical.

Can Mr Gascoigne help here?

The term chromotypograph could be extended, he says, to include all colour prints from metal blocks where no halftone screen has been used.

Our French strips would then fit the definition. And so would a Sunday newspaper comic strip from The Yellow Kid onwards. But hold on…

… as Mr Gascoigne continues:

However, there is a clear distinction to the eye between the nineteenth-century version where the blocks were prepared by hand with a wide range of delicate textures and its twentieth century successor, familiar mainly from comic strips and advertisements, where the colours are in mechanical tints. In this book the former are referred to as chromotypographs and the latter are called colour line blocks.

We are allowed to use the term chromotypograph for our French strips, then, since despite using line blocks (and despite being comic strips!)  they use hand-originated tints.

Phew! Glad I cleared that one up.

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(v)  A Negative View

Before leaving Dickes, one final thing. If a relief aquatint is effectively a negative version of an intaglio aquatint, you are probably wondering, “How do William Dickes’ tints compare with a negative image of an ordinary intaglio aquatint?”

I’m glad you asked that question, because here is one I prepared earlier. It shows in close-up part of Caerfily Castle, then a B&W negative version of that, then some Dickes’ paler blue sky tint from the above, turned into B&W:

AQT neg cf Dickes positive

Allowing for slight differences in technique, I reckon this is close enough for rock’n’roll. It’s not just for fun either. It’s proof of concept for one final investigation:

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(vi) French Comic Strips: Spirit Ground or Dust Ground?

We know that Dickes used a spirit ground method for his relief aquatint, because Docker tells us in his book. In the other 1924 book quoted above, The Ilford Manual of Process Work, L.P. Clerc tells us that Resin Grain Chromotypography was at that time done by the dry, or “dust ground” method.

Which of these two did the French comic strip engravers use in the late 1880s?

My only current source for enlarged images of dust ground aquatint patterns is Bamber Gascoine in How To Identify Prints. I have therefore taken the middle tint of the three he shows in his book, and turned it into a negative image (below). I compare it with two patterns from the strips which clearly used resin grain tints, En Chasse and Chien et Chat.

This shows fairly close similarity of pattern. Certainly the spirit ground pattern at the bottom—a negative image of the Caerfily Castle tint again—is not very similar. Its dots are too rounded and regular. I conclude that these engravers used the dust ground method.

Dust ground comparisons

How they overcame the difficulties of deep etching remains a mystery. Dickes, as I said, needed to use his wet method derived from Mr Hunt. I must assume that the later resin grain tinters had some way of improving on the old intaglio aquatint dust ground etch.

Finally, to return to that yellow background tint from the Caran D’Ache strip, which I turned into red so it was easier to see:

Detail Yellow and red

Comparing that, in black, to Gascoigne’s palest dust ground tint in negative form:

Caran D'Ache yellow cf Dust Ground s

Again, allowing for slight differences in scale and technique, it looks as if that strip too used some resin grain / relief aquatint tinting, as well as its hand-drawn dots and lines.

And that is where my story comes to an end… for now.

Text and original images copyright © The Legion of Andy 2016


Coming attractions:

^^Table of Contents

I will take this further in future posts.

I will look at the history of colour printing in relief—going back to the 1400s—with:

  • more chromotypographs!
  • chromoxylographs!
  • and more detail on important printers like George Baxter, Charles Knight, Stephen Sly, Edmund Evans and Benjamin Fawcett than you will find anywhere else online (or most other places).

Another post will present some picture narratives from The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, including some borderline comic strips, and some out-and-out sure things.

Next time though:

The early adventures of Ben Day in the world of letterpress.

Wid dis guy…

da Kid close up

…and dese guys.

Nemo n Flip close up

Be seeing you.

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Aladdin sane big eye 2

As I start typing this, it is January the 12th, 2016.

Yesterday the death was announced of David Bowie, aged 69, from cancer.

There are probably people running blogs at this time who feel they can let the death of this pop artist pass without comment. The Legion of Andy is not among them.

The Legion does not propose to go over the facts of Bowie’s life or, in so far as we know them, of his death. Other sources of information are available.

This will be a personal reflection, and it will focus on three things.


Firstly, a selection of today’s British newspapers, scanned from the papers themselves. Clicking on these should take you to a larger version.

The Guardian has a truly beautiful image on its front page—Bowie was a bit photogenic, wasn’t he?—and an anxious looking lad insane on its special supplement. (Did these people really put together their pages within a day of getting the news?)

Guardian front merged enh  Guardian merged enh

The Grauniad wasn’t the only one to give Bowie all or most of its front page:

Indy front  Mirror front

But only Rupert Murdoch’s Times thought him worthy of both front and back:

Times front and back

Two papers with similarly “end of the spectrum” political outlooks decided the NHS junior doctors’ strike was worthy of the same or more attention:

Telegraph placed  Morning Star front

The Morning Star did go to town—Brixton town— on pages 2 and 3:

Morning Star inside

The legion almost regrets not adding the Sun and the Mail to pile, but of course, there are limits. Finally then, another paper that almost didn’t get bought, but look… it tried so hard! It managed to find a picture of the Dame looking almost chubby, and it goes for a quote from the new song Lazarus. (Next Monday’s headline: Walking Is Cause Of Most Back Pain.)



And speaking of Lazarus, and its really rather good video (which can be seen here: )

Lazarus still

The Legion does not have a huge social media presence—a Twitter feed and a Facebook, um… thing. Someone there posted a link to the video for Lazarus on its release day, January the 7th. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have seen it before Bowie’s death. We hadn’t heard the single itself before then, though it had been out for a few weeks.

As it was, we were able to experience Lazarus—if only that once—without knowing how near to death Bowie was. This feels, rather obscurely, like a great privilege, and to whomever posted the link to the video… thanks. The video remains unwatched since. The time will come. But not just yet.

What first impressions did the Lazarus video make, then? In that state of innocence, as it were, before realising its real implications?

Its imagery of ageing, illness and death struck more forcefully than the song itself. The music was certainly impressive, and seemed worth further listening.

Bowie’s singing, if lacking some of its former power, appeared passionate, and his performance compelling. The lyric at first hearing seemed somewhat slight, on the trite side even. It made little impact in itself. Clearly it requires more thoughtful attention in light of what we now know.

It has helpfully provided the headline writers of at least one newspaper with a handy quote, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” That opening line had seemed to be only a piece of curious irony. In heaven? While lying in a hospital-type bed, apparently in a state of some distress?

Was this an allegory for life in the autumn of ones years?

Bowie certainly looked old. Not a whole lot older than many other 69-year-olds, perhaps. Was it simply the fact that he had not tried to hide the ageing process with hair dye and make-up that came as something of a surprise? This was a level of honesty not often seen in pop stars. Did he want, perhaps, to communicate very directly with his audience?

Again, a sense of irony there. David Bowie had of course for much of his career been the epitome of the pop chameleon, arguably hiding himself behind a series of artfully created personas. The likelihood was that this was in fact merely the latest of those.

In retrospect, 2013’s single Where Are We Now?—released as a surprise move on his birthday, January the 8th—and the album which followed perhaps foreshadowed this new openness to some extent. Certainly, they established Bowie’s ability to astonish the world by unleashing something which had been kept a secret until the last minute.

But being honest about his age didn’t mean that Bowie was going to be straightforward with us. The Lazarus video raised more intriguing questions than it provided easy answers. Why was Bowie lying in a hospital bed? What’s with the skull in the background? This appeared to be a song, a video and a man confronting his own mortality.

In the context of David Bowie, five days ago, “confronting mortality” could simply have meant: “69-year-old artiste, retired from live performance about ten years ago after heart attack, finds appropriate subject matter for new work.”

The bandaged eye area, and the odd metal objects stuck over each eye—blinkers? Or viewing aids for the visually impaired? Is it relevant that when he stands up and perhaps has some kind of fit, Bowie has lost the bandages and the (?)blinkers?

The wardrobe was also a bit of a mystery. Being English, and of a certain age, The Legion naturally tends to associate people emerging from wardrobes with Narnia. This didn’t seem to help with understanding Lazarus. Bowie came out of the sexuality closet a long time ago. This seemed as if it might just possibly be relevant, but if so, why was he getting back into it at the end of the song?

Lazarus wardrobe

On hearing of Bowie’s actual death, only three or four days later, the wardrobe made a lot more sense—something like the venerable Bede’s well-known parable about the sparrow flying through the King’s hall. This modern translation of the lines from his Ecclesiastical History of England tells the tale. It is around the year 625 A.D. and Edwin, the pagan Saxon king of Northumbria, is discussing with his advisors whether they should all convert to Christianity.

Bede writes:

Another of the king’s chief men… added thereafter: “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter… while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all…”

Or, to put it another way, we enter this world from some mysterious unknown place, live here for a short time—finding it, if we are lucky, fairly comfortable—then go back to the Other Place.

The Legion is reminded, too, that the author of the Narnia books was the very Christian C.S. Lewis, and that his books have been seen as Christian parables for young readers.

David Bowie’s relationship with Christianity in his latter years is not something the Legion knows anything about. But we recall, wincing still, his recitation of the Lord’s Prayer onstage at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. At the time it seemed in very poor taste to the staunchly secularist Legion, and the years have not mellowed its impact. Bowie had, in earlier times, seemed almost emblematic of a world leaving behind it religious past and facing reality with fewer illusions. How little we know our pop icons, eh? And this is hardly the place to reflect on whether our illusion that we do know them is in part fulfilling the same urges that led our ancestors to believe in the gods.

On balance, it is more likely that Bowie believed he had a chance of ending up in a Christian heaven than in Narnia.


English chap: “You have got to be fucking kidding.”



The Legion does not wish to seem to be taking David Bowie less than seriously. On the contrary, let us nail our colours to the mast and say: he is one of the few makers of “pop” or “rock” music who does deserve to be taken seriously. A giant, a titan. Often—how very often!—imitated, and never (at least by his imitators) equalled. And seldom by any of the others.

Was he a “genius”? Well, if that word is to have any residual meaning when applied to the likes of Albert Einstein, perhaps not. Bowie was after all only a crafter of pop music. But it’s undeniable that few have made pop music so well.

Bowie certainly had a genius, in that slightly different sense of the word, when it came to his chosen craft. A genius, appropriately enough for the pop chameleon he was, which is hard to pin down. It was more than a genius for self-promotion, though he had that. He had a way with a tune and a lyric. His voice, at its peak, was a powerful instrument which he used well. Likewise he made the best of his abilities on instruments such as the saxophone and the guitar, though he was the first to admit they were fairly basic. Bowie should arguably have had more confidence in his instrumental talents. He left us regrettably little of his playing to enjoy. There should have been more.

But then, part of his genius lay in finding more talented musicians with whom to collaborate. Producers too. Assembling the right team to craft the settings for his songs was a skill which Bowie had in spades. And that is not to mention the designers and artists of record sleeves, costumes, stage sets…

db iggy lou

Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed & the spirit of Marc Bolan


Nile Rogers with Bowie

Nile Rogers with Bowie

Tony Visconti, Bowie's longest-serving producer

Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longest-serving producer

Mick Ronson

Mick Ronson

He was a songwriter of a rare talent, who more than most was a barometer of his age to boot. Many performers have changed tack in their music, their appearance, their stage show, often quite radically, usually to fit in better to changing times. Bowie did his fair share of that, but at his best he challenged the times—the pop times, at least—to change with him.

Etcetera, etcetera.

You can read plenty of that stuff elsewhere. The Legion of Andy is here to give you a personal perspective. Though there are probably already far too many of those around already as well.

Which brings us to our third thing.

When the news broke of Bowie’s death, many in the Twitterverse and Facebookworld let their friends and followers know about their favourite Bowie songs. Often they could not stop at one, which is fully understandable. The Legion, if pushed, could not hope to stop at twenty.

The first album to get played at Legion HQ was Aladdin Sane, an old favourite to be sure, but also handily at the top of the iPod’s alphabetical listing. Next we turned to Diamond Dogs, a record of which we once firmly opined that it seemed possible to formulate an argument that it might perhaps be considered to be in some ways Bowie’s best—on certain days of the week, at least.

The Legion has never liked playing the favourites game. Too aware perhaps that moods change and what was top of the pile yesterday may not be today’s choice. Too indecisive, some might say.

In fact, The Legion has in the last couple of days, inevitably, found its whole long relationship with Bowie sauntering, if not flashing, before its eyes. This had to include the uncomfortable fact—awkward to relate right now, anyway—that we had not had much of a relationship with his music since 1983’s Let’s Dance album.

The love affair had been losing its fizz anyway, since the second and third albums in the Berlin trilogy had seemed to lack the excitement of 1977’s Low. They provided a couple of great singles, admittedly, and Fripp & Eno were still, incontrovertibly, Fripp & Eno.


Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Bowie

Unfashionably, the Legion was also unconvinced by most of Scary Monsters, though it had its memorable moments. Also some forgettable half-hours.

So it turned out that as Bowie morphed into a worldwide stadium-filling superstar he became less interesting to many of us who had dug his earlier stuff so much. No real surprise there.

But oh, those glory years! Looking back, they seem so few. For The Legion, 1973—when we also took on board Bowie’s material from 1970 onwards—to 1977. But never mind the width, feel the quality! Those few years embraced Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low… did I miss any out? A live album or two? Perhaps they weren’t in quite that order…? Who cares!

Anyway, we have to face the facts. For most of us, the golden years of Pop cannot be defined by some arbitrary decade on the calendar. The Golden Age wasn’t the 50s, the 60s or even the 70s. It was the age when—and for a while after—you discovered Pop for yourself, when you first made that connection with The Music. Somewhere between 12 and 15 probably. (Though aren’t the kids growing up fast these days?)

Thinking about David Bowie takes me right back there.

Pa legion had been a jazz fan in his heady (?) youth. Deceased junkie saxophonist Charlie Parker was a favourite with Pa, though illicit drugs probably didn’t feature much in his own student life. He did though have one university pal who wore something closely akin to a Zoot Suit. In his later years it was Charlie Parker that Pa stuck with.

Ma liked slushy old ballads like “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and the occasional gin & tonic. The songs, it must be said, were consumed even more rarely than the G&Ts. It was not one of those households that resounded constantly with merry tunes.

Ma and Pa Legion had three children, born between 1958 and 1962, and they were terrified that the 60s were going to get them. They seem to have determined that Pop Music was the gateway drug to all the other undesirable ones including promiscuity. So they did their best to insulate us three from the horrors of Pop. TV’s Top of the Pops was firmly banned, though once accidentally glimpsed. Not, alas, that magic Starman moment—which even if seen, would probably not have been grokked—just a tiny portion of Brown Sugar (in black & white).

Once the young Legion saw The Monkees on a friend’s TV. Micky Dolenz sang Going Down. The Legion didn’t get it. Why was this bloke singing in the middle of the story?

During our family’s year in Canada, something which the Legion later found out was called Big Yellow Taxi drifted over from the neighbour’s garden on more than one summer’s afternoon. So did Petula Clark’s Downtown. The Legion knew why downtown was a special place, at least in London, Ontario. You could cycle there, and it had the best spinner racks of comics.

But it wasn’t until the family moved back to England that the Devil’s Music really started to worm its way into the young Legion’s brain. The start of Big School meant travelling on the school bus. For a few years it was a safe, neutral zone. But then we got a new driver. And some mornings he played BBC Radio One. Pop music was still firmly excluded from home, and not part of the Legion’s day-to-day mental landscape at all. But the school bus was now a Danger Zone. The siren was blaring. And more importantly, singing.

Well, as Bowie was later going to put it:

There’s gonna be sirens, trying to wake up tomorrow… here they come!


Not that one, you fool. That was later.

Three singles from that time, that bus, called strongly enough that they will be forgotten only in the last stages of senility. Freda Payne’s Band Of Gold can’t have been a current chart hit. But there it was, and here it still is. So is Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The Legion may wish that it wasn’t, but this isn’t a matter of choice.

And then there is Sorrow, a 1973 single by David Bowie.

A very few times, as our buses passed like ships in the morning, The Legion would glimpse a very special girl travelling the other way, towards her own school, back in The Legion’s home town. This girl was the sister of a schoolfriend, and the object of a hopeless crush. She had long blonde hair and eyes of blue.

When Sorrow came on the radio, she and her bus and her hair were nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t the point.

The Legion was a sentimental little wanker.

Not long after that, Ma Legion’s kitchen radio was being tuned to a pop station while she was out, and back to Radio 4 before she got back. Most of the music it played seemed more pap than pop, but one day it gave the special gift of Bryan Ferry’s version of These Foolish Things, and something in The Legion went ping. A summer job meant a little of one’s very own money in one’s pocket, and there was this thing newly-discovered thing called a record shop.

Once Ferry’s LP of the same name was in the house, opposition crumbled. It was 1974. High time for the 60s to arrive in that corner of suburbia.

Freda Payne became a one-hit wonder in the Legion’s personal hit parade. Elton soon became a bit of bore.

Bowie didn’t, nor did Ferry and his band Roxy Music. They were entry drugs alright. Before long, Ma & Pa Legion had to put up with unimaginable horrors within their previously impregnable walls.

Lou Reed! The Velvet Undergound!

Matching Mole, for fuck’s sake!!

Twenty-five or so years later, The Legion was sitting around with a couple of friends in a London flat. Three very different people, unlikely to find a large overlap in the Venn diagram of musical taste. The CD we could agree to put on was Hunky Dory. And all three of us sang along and we all knew most of the words to most of the songs. And we were only drinking tea. Or that last part might be made up.

And about Diamond Dogs… if there is a favourite Bowie moment round these parts, it might be the first few tracks on that album. Most of what used to be quaintly known as “Side One.” (The Legion forgets why.) The last track on that side is the mighty single, Rebel Rebel. But it’s the stuff that precedes it that The Legion really took to its teenage heart and keeps there to this day.

Diamond Dogs 01

Record sleeve as owned by 1970s teens

Future Legend/Diamond Dogs describes what is ostensibly a New York setting, but its dystopian future may also be a fantasy—no kidding?!—and the vibe is very J.G. Ballard. Science Fiction which is about us here and now, Earth is the alien planet etc.. Which means it’s a metaphor for life in the big city, maybe, which means for Bromley boy David Bowie and for the Legion of Andy, it is really about London. Just as much, or as little, as Ziggy Stardust was, with that red phone box on the cover.

Side Two of Diamond Dogs is the remnants of a planned adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, so that’s another London link if you want or need one.

Which, and this is the point really, means that what follows the title track, Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)—which plays as one song—can be about London too. And this is the nasty throbbing heart of the record.

It seems to be about politicians, cocaine and sleaze; older men and rent boys and the various dives where their worlds meet. Think Times Square before it was cleaned up if you like. But to The Legion its territory is around Piccadilly Circus in London, and is rooted in the 1970s and yet timeless.

Dilly 01

It will always be there because it is a mythical place. This song looked back to an old Soho that was already a legend, and also echoed forward to the songs of Morrissey and the Smiths, Piccadilly Palare and Manchester-so-much-to-answer-for. Mostly though it looked around, as the young David Bowie must have looked for himself while trying to break into the Soho-based music biz. We suburban teenagers of the mid 70s heard terrible, alluring tales and looked on at “the Dilly” from safely outside—mostly.

The Legion and his pals played safely at the game of Sleaze in the unwilds of Buckinghamshire, occasionally slumming it in the real centre of things, but never after dark. Not ‘til were a bit more grown up, anyway, and if not exactly streetwise, mixed in at least with a punky gang of locals, a degree of safety in numbers.

A lot of others were not so lucky, and if you think the story of authority figures and cocaine and sleaze is tucked away in the past, what planet have you been living on?

Dilly 02

Anyway, Elton John sang about some of this stuff in another guy’s words: “You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough… back to the howling old owl in the woods, hunting the horny-backed toad…” By no means a terrible song, but a somewhat mundane lyric, and a melody that’s eager to please, plonked out on Reg’s old Joanna. And very much about walking way from it all, to a life of imagined bucolic bliss, innocence regained. Yeah, right.

Whereas Bowie sang lines wot he wrote himself, while his own noisy electric guitar and squalling sax misbehaved something chronic.

Lines like:

I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate… we’ll pretend we’re walking home because your future’s at stake. My set is amazing, it even smells like a street… there’s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friends…


Having so much fun with the poisonous people, spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up. Some make you sing and some make you scream, one makes you wish that you’d never been seen. But there’s a shop on the corner selling papier maché, making bullet-proof faces… Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay…


Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain? Do you think that your face looks the same? Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted. It’s a street with a deal, and a taste… it’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you…

And though one has to admit there’s a lot more to London than that, Bowie certainly had his finger on one of its pulses there.

Diamond Dogs 02

Uncensored version

He was too ambitious and too talented to be confined by any one city, nation or continent. He had to conquer the USA and Europe too, and tomorrow the world. And no-one could keep up the passionate intensity of early Bowie for a whole lifetime—unless it was quite a short one, like those of some other hard-living rockers.

Bowie may have been living on borrowed time since his heart problem of 2004, but really it is nigh on a miracle that he didn’t succumb years before that, even. The Legion is glad that he had a good few calmer years in what seems to have been a happy place.

And we’re glad he had a late resurgence of music-making. If we couldn’t be as appreciative as some were of his 2013 album The Next Day, we are at least looking forward to making the acquaintance of Blackstar. It might be a record to fall in love with, it might not. But it’s evidently a brave, ambitious piece of work by a man still finding interesting collaborators, and with something big on his mind.

But of course, the Legion of Andy knows it doesn’t matter a tiny wee damn what The Legion of Andy thinks about all this. What does matter, we consider, is that a man who deserved to be appreciated on a massive scale died knowing that his lifetime of unique art was indeed loved by a huge audience.

And knowing that the recent work—which, sick as he was, must have cost him dearly—was going to intrigue and delight and probably annoy a heckuva lot of people.

Over all, not a bad legacy. And not one to have escaped the notice of the British newspapers, which is where we came in.

And on which, a final thought. When The Legion was first listening to Bowie in 1974, many of these papers—certainly the more upmarket ones—would not even have been reviewing rock and pop records on their inside pages, let alone giving a dead pop star major front page coverage. Was it the Times or the Telegraph that said, around that time, “When rock musicians start making art, we will put them on our arts pages,” or words to that effect?

To young people today, it may just be part of the New Normal. To a 70s kiddie from the suburbs it’s a case of ch-ch-ch-changes… turn and face the strange.

Or: welcome the world that David Bowie made.

Well, maybe he didn’t really, but we’re allowed to say that.

Just for one day.

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Elric: Volume 2: Stormbringer

Titan Comics / Éditions Glénat

Click on most images to see larger versions.

Stormbringer graphic novel cover 72

Stormbringer is the second volume in a new series of French comic albums—or graphic novels or romans graphiques—adapting Michael Moorcock‘s Elric prose fantasy saga. It is the second of two volumes reworking the 1972 book Elric of Melniboné. The first was The Ruby Throne (Le Trône de Rubis) which I have written about previously, and found very impressive. (Previous post.) Titan has published English-language versions of both books.

Compared to Robert E. Howard or Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, there have been relatively few adaptations of Moorcock’s stories by other hands over the years—some more faithful to the originals and some less so. As Alan Moore points out in his introduction to this book, most of them have been in the comics medium.

Far more numerous than adaptations have been the outright rip-offs.

In a career reaching back the late 1950s, one of Moorcock’s many notable contributions to fiction—his own and other people’s—has been The Multiverse, that near-infinite series of nested or fractal parallel worlds. In the Multiverse, the same story might play out a number of times, with more or less variation, depending on how close together the realities in question are in the shifting structures of space and time.

Faced with another book, comic or game with concepts or storylines blatantly stolen from Moorcock, followers of his oeuvre must learn to say tolerantly to themselves, “There is room in the Multiverse for many, many stories.” The alternative is a life spent in a downward spiral of anger, hatred and despair. Or at least, frequent afternoons slightly spoiled by recurrent episodes of righteous indignation.

Likewise, when exposed to a less-than-authentic adaptation of a Moorcock, we might simply remark, “That obviously happened on another plane of the Multiverse,” and get on with our lives.

This was how my younger self responded to Robert Fuest’s 1973 film version of The Final Programme, Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel. I thought the end was utterly messed up, but found enough to like about rest of the film that I was prepared, on the whole, to forgive Fuest his trespasses. Over the years, as I came to a fuller understanding of the Cornelius series—that’s fuller, as opposed to full—my opinion of the film swung strongly to the negative. Fuest had, I felt, betrayed the serious purpose of Moorcock’s work, trivialising and even reversing some of its thematic content.

More recently, I’ve started to enjoy parts of the film again. It may be a curate’s egg, but there certainly are some good moments—especially where the cast are having fun with the material. Perhaps it’s partly just nostalgia, or maybe as Bob Dylan sang, “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”


The late, great Jon Finch as Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s film of The Final Programme

A fuller understanding of Jerry Cornelius might start with the fact that The Final Programme—the book—was largely a re-write of some of Moorcock’s earlier fantasy stories, featuring the inhuman albino swordsman and sorcerer Elric of Melniboné. (The Melnibonéans are a different race sharing with humans an earth that exists literally before the history of our world has begun.)

I discussed the parallels between early Elric, Jerry and the young Michael Moorcock when reviewing The Ruby Throne. That handsome hardback covered approximately the first third of the book Elric of Melniboné. The 1972 novel itself was a prequel to the original cycle of Elric stories from a few years earlier, filling in background material and providing, essentially, an Origin Story for the doomed albino.

Elric of Melnibone HB

Elric of Melniboné, first UK hardback, 1972

Further prequels, and some more, er… Multiversal… stories followed. (In the Multiverse, things don’t always happen before or after other things.) The entirety of Elric’s adventures now fills a good many more pages than the three slim paperbacks he had accrued by 1972. Glénat’s graphic novel series plans to tell a version of the saga in four albums.

In The Ruby Throne, broadly following the plot of Elric of Melniboné, Elric’s cousin Yyrkoon fails to kill Elric and to usurp him as Emperor of Melniboné. Yyrkoon has however kidnapped Elric’s lover, Cymoril, and disappeared with her to seek further revenge. In desperation, Elric calls on a powerful supernatural entity, Lord Arioch of Chaos, for help.

In Moorcock’s original story, Arioch reveals to Elric that Yyrkoon is seeking two ancient and hugely powerful magic swords. These Chaos-blades will give Yyrkoon mastery over Melniboné and the world. Elric has little choice but to swear loyalty to Arioch in return for help in chasing down his cousin. As with Faust, this bargain with a demonic power is of course very important to the entire saga. Furthermore, Elric will have to wield one of those swords himself, risking its ancient evil curse.

I (and many others) noted several differences between The Ruby Throne and Moorcock’s original story. Those changes seemed to most commentators to strengthen the narrative. There were a couple of things which I thought were mistakes, but on the whole—like Moorcock himself—I liked The Ruby Throne very much, and looked forward to the next instalment.

Now it’s here, rather unfortunately called Stormbringer. Moorcock’s original novel of that name was the grand finale of Elric’s saga, its ultimate end point. Elric of Melniboné was the saga’s beginning. Anyone expecting this graphic album to be an adaptation of Moorcock’s Stormbringer will be particularly baffled. This kind of confusion haunts the Elric series. Elric of Melniboné was originally published in the USA as The Dreaming City. Moorcock’s own The Dreaming City was the short story which kicked off the whole saga in 1961. So it goes.

I serve Chaos

Elric of Melniboné has a substantial middle section, in which Elric bargains with the King of the Seas for a magical ship, sails to the edge of the world with a small army chasing Yyrkoon, defeats his cousin’s forces in battle, and finds Cymoril. His evil cousin escapes into another dimension.

In the final third of the book, Elric follows the escaped Yyrkoon, and meets a new ally, Rackhir the Red Archer. With Rackhir’s help, Elric is able to fight off an attack by demons, and track Yyrkoon to the mystical, womb-like cavern where the great twin black swords are hidden away—supposedly beyond any further use, but in fact waiting to be reborn into the world.

Arioch cannot free the swords himself. He needs a mortal agent for that task. (In the graphic novel, Arioch can apparently hand them out to his chums like candy bars. Just one more minor niggle…? Hardly the greatest misdemeanour these books commit, as I will come to later.)

Elric has been manipulated by Arioch into taking up Stormbringer, one of the cursed swords, in order to stop Yyrkoon. Thinking himself master of the sword, which feeds strength to his feeble albino body, Elric little realises that he has saddled himself with a treacherous and addictive ally which may yet deliver the world into the hands of the Lords of Chaos forever.

Elric of Melnibone pb

Elric of Melniboné paperback, 1973

For this new graphic adaptation, original writer Julien Blondel is joined by co-scripter Jean-Luc Cano. They shorten the narrative considerably. As with many changes in the previous volume, this makes a certain amount of sense. Arguably, the main thrust of this tale lies in establishing what Stormbringer is, getting the sword into Elric’s hands, and exploring the implications for the albino of wielding this most two-edged of weapons. In an adaptation intended to lead on to further instalments of a lengthy saga, there is an obvious temptation to move the story forward at a faster pace. Compressing the middle parts considerably could potentially work out well.

To some extent the changes made here are inoffensive, and as with The Ruby Throne, some could be seen as improvements. The end of Elric’s confrontation with earth deity Lord Grome, for example, did not seem entirely credible to me in the original. Sadly in this new version it simply peters out, which is no real improvement. Also, the visual storytelling in this sequence is less than clear. I had to stop and re-read it to figure out what was going on. This does not help narrative flow.

The new setting for Elric’s big confrontation with Yyrkoon is nicely drawn, both graphically and verbally—an ancient city, where Law and Chaos fought a mighty battle long ago. So far, so Moorcockian. Arguably this is more visually exciting than the unremarkable town which it partly replaces in the narrative, and even perhaps than the womb-like “Pulsing Cavern.”

Dhoz Kam

Unfortunately, the writers have gone far beyond that, and changed the storyline in ways which in my view move too far away from the essence of Michael Moorcock’s Elric.

What is that essence, and why does it matter?

In the prose books, Elric is the youthful emperor of an ancient Empire which has been in decline for generations. The island nation of Melniboné formerly ruled most of the known world, using military might, dragons which rained fire from the skies, and superiority in magic—this world’s equivalent of science. As I have said before, the allegorical or metaphorical relationship between Melniboné and especially Britain, but also any other post-WW2 nation with an imperial past—France, for example—was not far beneath the surface of the Elric stories. Similarly, Moorcock himself was not unaware that in Elric he was in part writing the disguised autobiography of an alienated young man.

In Elric’s world, the Young Kingdoms are no longer directly under Melniboné’s yoke, but still largely dependent on her for trade, and jealous of her remaining wealth. Melnibonéans were cruel and ruthless as rulers of the world, and as the sun sets on their empire, they remain contemptuous of the Young Kingdoms.

Melniboné itself has sunk into a state of decadence. Its leaders understand that a terminal decline seems inevitable, though some believe that Melniboné could rule the world again if it embraced its true destiny.

Elric, as written by Moorcock, represents a new strand in Melnibonéan thinking. As a physically weak, somewhat isolated albino, he has grown up with a taste for scholarship. He has come to believe that Melniboné must learn lessons from the Young Kingdoms, and find new ways to co-exist peacefully with them. He thinks Melniboné can only survive, indeed thrive, by sharing around its ancient wisdom. In this Elric is pretty much alone amongst his countrymen. But since he is, after all, their emperor, he hopes to carry the nation with him somehow and see his vision fulfilled.

Throughout the series, the reader is led to understand, and then to witness, how Elric is doomed by a terrible destiny, one written for him by the Fates millennia ago. But this mystical species of destiny, like the classical Greek version, or the Saxon notion of wyrd—now a familiar trope of fantasy fiction—is mirrored by a personal doom more grounded in Elric’s own ideology. This is typical of the Romantic strand of Moorcock’s fiction, in which the environment, for example (be it your basic miserable rainy day, or a nightmare landscape mystically transformed into a boiling morass of pure Chaos) might reflect the psychological state of the protagonist.

So too, in that “as above, so below” or fractal kind of way in which The Multiverse functions, is Elric’s Terrible Mystical Destiny a reflection of something a modern reader can perhaps relate to more directly—his ill-fated idealism. For Elric can surely never succeed in steering Melniboné towards the kinder, gentler future that he wants for his nation. He is perhaps doomed to fail not only by the adverse characteristics of Melniboné itself, but by his own nature as a Melnibonéan.

In the original Elric story cycle, published in 1961 to 1964, these issues were mainly, perhaps entirely, under the surface of the text. A few years prior to 1972, when the prequel Elric of Melniboné appeared, Moorcock had rewritten the early Elric stories into the contemporary 1960s narrative of The Final Programme, with Elric transformed into Jerry Cornelius. In Jerry, the relevance of 20th century idealism, of rebelling against the society that you grew up in, was a good deal more obvious than it had been thus far in Elric.

Final Programme front cover

The Final Programme, first UK hardback, 1969

In Elric of Melniboné his author undoubtedly sought to bring Elric’s youthful idealism more to the fore. At the same time he is shown to be steeped in Melnibonéan culture. His differences from the modern reader’s sensibilities are underlined, for example, in the scene where he is required by protocol to watch his official torturer, Dr Jest, deal very nastily with some Young Kingdom spies. Dr Jest enjoys his work. As written by Moorcock, Elric does not enjoy watching it, but neither is he disturbed or disgusted by the spectacle. He is merely bored; he has better things to do.

This scene also occurs in The Ruby Throne. It is amplified and in some ways improved by Dr Jest and his tortures being shown as not only horrendous, but also weirdly magical. At the same time, the scene’s value in telling us something about Elric’s character is diminished, because we are not shown how he feels about it.

Similarly, a powerful statement of Elric’s amoral Melnibonéanism is seen in The Ruby Throne’s scene where Elric bathes in the blood of slaughtered human slaves—an original conception of the graphic novel team. This is old Melnibonéan magic, revived by Elric’s beloved Cymoril, restoring strength to the weak albino. (In the next book he will take up the cursed sword which will give him strength, but that has not happened yet, hence Elric’s need for other sources of energy.)

Blood bath 72

Cymoril and Elric take a bath in The Ruby Throne

As seen above, Elric in this version might also be taking power from the souls of the slain—or this may be a dark jest.

In Moorcock’s original, Elric gains energy not from blood, but from concoctions of herbs and other drugs. The introduction of this scene in the graphic novel not only gives Cymoril a more substantial role, but underlines what decadent, arguably evil, Melnibonéans both of them are. Elric’s greed and insouciance in the face of this multiple murder can be seen as a strong point in the adaptation, an advance on Moorcock’s attempts to make similar points.

In the original book, for example, human slaves have been surgically altered so they can sing only one pure note, and a choir of such slaves makes music for the court. In the medium of the graphic album, the bathing-in-blood scene can rightly claim to be a visually more powerful statement of a similar idea. It is also more directly relevant to Elric personally than the choir.

But looked at from another perspective, this scene rings warning bells regarding this creative team’s understanding of their main character. Elric has gone from Moorcock’s vegetarian stance, magically speaking, beyond meat-eating directly to vampirism and soul-stealing. This might be all well and good, making a more powerful statement than in Moorcock’s book etc., except for one very important factor—Elric is supposed to become a vampire when he takes up the soul-drinking sword Stormbringer. If he is effectively already one before accepting the sword, the thematic thrust of the entire storyline is weakened.

Elric’s compromise when he makes his Faustian pact and accepts Arioch’s logic—agreeing to gain a new source of strength from Stormbringer’s magic—is a major part of his wyrd. He has taken up a weapon of Chaos, fuelled by killing and the stealing of souls, in order to fight Chaos. Destiny-wise, it sets him on the path which will lead not only to the end of his world, but also to his own role in making the best of that bad situation. To the extent that Elric is an allegory for the modern idealist, he has now taken up The Man’s weapons to fight The Man. He has become an urban guerrilla with a gun and some explosives—Jerry Cornelius in whiteface.

Moorcock’s story takes Elric from vegetarian to vampire. The graphic novel takes him from Countess Bathory to Count Dracula. The step is hardly of the same magnitude or significance.

i want

Amongst its undoubtedly excellent qualities, The Ruby Throne made a few mistakes of this kind. Stormbringer, though again a powerful and well-constructed book for the most part, compounds and intensifies this kind of error.

Not wanting to go into great detail, I will say just three things about the storyline.

Firstly, major narrative liberties are taken, understandably enough,  to shorten Elric’s road to his first encounter with Stormbringer—to “cut to the chase.” Some of what the authors have done is certainly quite clever, excising non-essential elements like the Mirror Of Memory to speed up the story. But in some ways, as an adaptation of Elric of Melniboné, this rush to the finish weakens the work. The absence from this version of Rackhir, one of Elric’s few friends and a future ally, is particularly noteworthy.

Secondly, the end of the story and the nature of Elric’s bargain with Arioch are both altered considerably. Again, the authors might argue that they have crafted something here which is easier to grasp than Moorcock’s more ambiguous version, or seems more logical to them. But it is very different from the original and to me feels misguided.

In Elric of Melniboné, Elric decides to wander the Young Kingdoms for a year, to learn about their cultures and prepare for his transformation of Melniboné. He leaves Yyrkoon—the next in line to the throne—in charge, as his regent, as tradition demands. Elric trusts that his cousin has been so soundly defeated that he will now accept his duty as a Melnibonéan royal.

If Elric really thinks he is going to return to the throne in twelve months, welcomed back by a dutiful Yyrkoon, he is very naïve. If this is actually a way of abdicating his throne and his responsibilities, without acknowledging even to himself that that is what he is doing… well, either way, it’s a major step, and it is his own decision.

In Blondel and Cano’s Stormbringer his exile from Melniboné is of a very different nature. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who might soon read it, and I know from the reviews that many have found it compelling and excellent. But I will say this: in the graphic novel, Elric is forced into exile by a second bargain with the demonic Arioch. This in turn relates to his love for Cymoril, which has pretty much taken the place of his idealism in the narrative.

Arioch talks of love 72

Arioch appears to Elric for the first time in The Ruby Throne, speaking of love

This love is the driving force behind his bargain with Arioch in the first place, which is largely true to the Moorcock version. But it is possible to read the Blondel/Cano version and get the impression that it is only Elric’s capacity selflessly to love another Melnibonéan which separates him from his countrymen.

The fact that he is also a man who wants to change his world for the better—and believes he has been granted the power to do so—has fallen by the wayside. To me, this is enough to fatally wound the narrative as an adaptation of Moorcock’s book.

Talk w Cymoril 72

A talk with Cymoril in which Elric’s idealism is not mentioned… unlike Moorcock’s original version

In fact there is actually a scene in Stormbringer in which Elric realises that The Young Kingdoms are utterly worthless to him and his kind. “What is there [here] even worth desiring…” he asks his lady love, in his head, “…except you?” Again, this might be seen as a powerful realisation in light of the fact that he is soon to be exiled there, without his beloved. But it also, yet again, removes one of the factors which in Moorcock’s version motivates this young idealist—his regard for the Young Kingdoms.

YK 72

By the end, when the full implications of his second bargain with Arioch are made clear, I had already lost faith in this version, due to another occurrence in this earlier part of in the story. This is my third complaint.

Travelling the Young Kingdoms, heading for the confrontation with Yyrkoon, not yet in possession of the runesword, Elric is put up overnight with his soldiers in a village of humans. In order to prove to his men that he is a true Melnibonéan commander, and to strengthen his bond with Arioch (who demands “Blood and Souls” from his followers), Elric orders the villagers slaughtered in the morning.

Souls for Arioch 72

Again, this is Blondel and Cano’s way of showing us that Elric really is a nasty piece of work, an inhuman member of an alien race with values quite different from ours. But I would contend that if readers do not identify with Elric at least to a reasonable degree, and share in his life dramas and especially his moral dilemmas, we are not reading about Michael Moorcock’s Elric. We are reading about another character altogether.

And desperate though he is to find his beloved Cymoril, this slaughter is not the action of the Elric we know from reading Moorcock.

Which is why I gave up on this book even before the final scenes.

Which, by the way, really let the book down in another important way. It is after all called Stormbringer, after the cursed runesword so central to the narrative. And here the problem is with the artwork, which in places throughout Books 1 and 2 has been truly impressive. In these closing pages, the depiction of the Black Sword itself is poor.

Black sword new 72

This is particularly disappointing after the preview drawings we saw in Volume 1, where Stormbringer looked very different from this version.

Elric 72dpi

Not only did it look better, the sword also swelled and got longer as it went into battle—a great visual trick to underline the phallic nature of the cursed blade—one of its powerful metaphorical features in Moorcock’s original.

The Black Sword 72

Stormbringer, the sword, is of course a hugely important element in the story of Elric, indeed possibly the key allegory—or bundle of allegories— in the whole saga.

How fitting, then, that in this graphic adaptation, it looks decidedly less impressive than it should.

Because The Ruby Throne and Stormbringer cannot be forgiven as just “the story of Elric as it plays out on another plane of the Multiverse.”

This, to paraphrase René Magritte, is La Trahison des Romans Graphiques—the treason not of all graphic novel adaptations in general, but of these two in particular.


Et, malheureusement, ceci n’est pas Elric.

2 Books





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Another Old Photo of Cute Kids Reading Comics a Long Time Ago

I stumbled on this photo, below, on eBay and I just had to have it. Most of you reading this won’t need me to explain why.

Kids reading comics in color Summer 1948_01_72dpi

And I won’t need to point out that, whereas pictures of this sort tend to be in black & white, this one… isn’t.

In fact, the image is so colourful, and with a certain 1940s tone as well, that at first I read it as a Norman Rockwell painting. No real need to try and explain that any further either, I suspect.

The seller said it came from a calendar, but unfortunately it has been removed from its context, and probably trimmed pretty tightly to boot. The copy now owned by me measures 19.0 x 25.4 cm. The reverse is blank.

Apart from simply enjoying the picture, “the game” is now afoot, of course.

For anyone who hasn’t played before, the rules are simple enough: try to figure out when the photo was taken based on the comics on view. Which must all be identified and listed, obviously.

This time there is a tougher extra round: Can anyone identify the calendar the photo appeared on? This round may be difficult, but possibly attracts very few points, as it doesn’t really matter much. As ever, it’s all about the old comic books!  (Of course, if the calendar turns out to be a special “nostalgic old photos of old comics” calendar, that could change everything.)

At the risk of spoiling your fun, I’ll say that one of the comics is Action 120 from May 1948. And another is from July of the same year: Patsy “Looking good for her age in 2015 on Netflix’s Jessica JonesWalker, no.17.

I must admit that I had to look these up. I know that most of you, unlike me, won’t need the help of the Wikis. Extra points for knowing the comics from memory, and triple points, natch, for having them all in your very own humidity-controlled vault.

You will already know that comics went on sale something like two months before their cover date. And its pretty obvious that the combination of that Norman Rockwell lighting and the kids clothing denotes a summery day.

Clicking on the main image (or any of them) would, last time I posted, have given you a super-large version to delve into. That doesn’t seem to be happening today. So here are a few close-ups to help the game along:

Kids reading comics in color Summer 1948_07_72dpi



All Star

Frisky Fables


Joe Jumbo

Calling All Kids



Prize West


Finally, the traditional extra question: what nostalgic old comics are the cute nostalgic kids in the nostalgic picture of cute kids reading nostalgic old comics actually reading?

This is also a tough question – at least in parts – but attracting mega-points. I mean, little girl, were you not thinking about nostalgic comics historians of the future at all ?!?  Or worse still, were you thinking of us and mercilessly teasing us ?!?

Kids reading comics in color Summer 1948_06_72dpi

Wee lassie's comic.jpg

The outright winner will be anyone who can conclusively prove that they are one of the kids in the photo. You will probably do well if you can prove you are a descendant, or even just that you have a bunch of prints of other pics from the shoot.

Anyway gang, have a ball!

Feel free to leave comments and links to other resources.

And don’t forget to claim your No-Prize.

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Ben Day in the Printing Business

Part 1: Lithography (1880s to 1940s, approx)

See also:

Part 1: Roy Lichtenstein, the man who didn’t paint Ben Day dots

Part 2: Lichtenstein dots, comic-book dots, half-tone dots and Polke dots

Part 3: RGB dots on the screen, CMYK four-colour in the comics

Part 4: Ben Day dots, pre-history & origins

New January 2016, part 5-&-a-half: French comic strips from 1886 – 1888 and the forgotten technique used to print their colours


The Rise and Rise of Colour Lithography

As always:

  • click on a picture to enlarge
  • many pictures can be clicked again to enlarge more—you’ll see the + sign
  • use your browser’s back button/arrow to return here

FOOTNOTES will be linked and made clickable when I can get round to it. Apologies. I just want to get this post up for now.

Moonrise off Gravesend_DETAIL 00_72dpi

Detail of lithograph using Ben Day dots (The Boy’s Own Paper, 1891)

In my previous post I looked at the main methods that were used to print illustrated material up to the 1880s, when Ben Day dots came on the scene. Printing was a rapidly expanding industry throughout the 19th century in Britain, the USA and Europe, as demand for books, newspapers and magazines increased. (Not to mention art prints, stationery, forms, tickets, chits etc.) In the later part of the century the packaging and advertising of foods and other products also required more and more printing—of advertisements, labels, posters, leaflets and other promotional items.

Lithographic printing was a new arrival in the early years of the century. Invented by Alois Senefelder in the late 1790s in Munich, Germany, it became established as a regular trade in large European cities in the mid-1820s. For some purposes, especially pictorial, lithography offered real advantages in speed and economy. Michael Twyman has charted the rising numbers of printing businesses in London—letterpress, intaglio and lithographic—from just over 200 in the early 1820s to about 1500 by 1890. (1)

Twyman’s figures also show how lithography grew proportionately more rapidly than other types of printing, from small beginnings in 1822-23 to almost a third of all London printing firms by 1890. Similar booms in lithography were happening in Europe and the USA. As the 19th century went on, smaller towns started to have their own local lithographic printers.

Letterpress printing—a much longer-established method, for books, newspapers and magazines—was also thriving, mostly for black & white material. Lithography found a particular place in the printing of colour images, but was also useful for one- or two-colour items such as contracts, forms, diplomas, certificates and labels. It took a lot of business away from the old intaglio processes for printing in B&W, i.e. engraving and etching on copper and steel.

Amazing though it seems now, in the early years of the Ben Day process, the 1880s—and for some time after that—lithographic printing was almost exclusively done from heavy stone blocks. As seen in Part 4, pictures engraved on wood dominated the pages of magazines and books. For illustrations and posters, one advantage of lithography over wood engraving was size. Wood blocks were small and slow to engrave. Litho stones could be a lot larger in area, as well as faster to prepare. Of course, the larger the stone, the more cumbersome it was.

The stone in the picture below—dating from slightly later—was used to print a cigar box label. The label would have been about 25 x 18 cm, the stone in this case about twice that size. It looks as if it was printing two copies at a time. With small labels and cards, 30 or more copies might have been printed at once, from a very large stone—more on this later.

Social Smoke screensize

Cigar label and printing stone, 1888-1907, from

Larger stones than this were also used for posters. Because of the weight and thickness of the stones—and because stones could break—lithographic methods using thinner, lighter metal (zinc) plates were gradually developed. Eventually these evolved into the “offset litho” used for printing almost all paper material today (2).

However, when Ben Day patented his “printing films“—later known as “shading mediums“—in 1879, the surface used for most colour printing was still a hefty chunk of limestone. As I showed in Part 4, Day described in his patent documents how his new semi-transparent gelatine sheets could be used to imprint patterns of lines, stippled dots or other shapes onto drawing paper or a lithographic printing stone.

The method might have been attractive to some illustrators, working on paper and board—and I have shown that Day himself used his films this way—but it was the burgeoning field of colour lithographic printing (chromolithography) which responded most enthusiastically to his new shading process.

Twyman photo 01b crop

Ben Day screen on lithographic stone. Photo from M. Twyman’s History of Chromolithography.

Later, from the early 1890s, this carried over into the brand new area of metal-plate photoengraving or “process” printing. This was in its infancy in 1879, but would gradually come to dominate the printing of pictures and graphics. It was here that Ben Day shading went on to find its place in the comics—of which, more later.

It is clear that in their first decade—before they were widely taken up by photoengravers—Ben Day’s lines and dots were very extensively used in colour lithography, itself a large and growing field.

Indeed, I will show in this post that Ben Day’s shading mediums did not just share in the success of colour lithography, but were themselves an important factor contributing to that success.

Commercial lithographic printing from stone as well as zinc did not really die out until the 1940s, at least in Britain—though its heyday is usually quoted as the 1870s to 1920s. Shading mediums, including Ben Day’s, were in constant use in commercial lithography from the early 1880s for 50 or 60 years.

This is the forgotten history of the Ben Day dot.

If Ben Day dots are remembered at all in the 21st century, it is for the printing of colour comics—a photoengraved letterpress method—or the exaggerated version of comic-book dots painted by Roy Lichtenstein.

Next time I will move on to photoengraving. This post is about the use and success of the Ben Day method in lithographic printing.

Starting with:

(i) The Importance of the Adjustable Frame

As discussed in Part 4, following the 1879 debut of his printing films, Ben Day’s next patent in 1881 was just as important for the success of his method—the “Adjustable Frame for Printing Films.”

As seen in the 1879 patent, each transparent shading sheet, with its pattern of lines or dots (shown as dotted area A in the diagram below) was fixed to its own wooden frame (B). This framed film became known as a “Ben Day screen“. For clarity, I have tinted the screen orange in the picture below, taken from Day’s 1881 patent document. The new Adjustable Frame held firmly on to the screen, and being hinged, allowed the inked screen to be lowered into position, flat down onto the surface which was to be imprinted with the Ben Day pattern.

The frame was at a suitable height to be used with a lithographic stone, as shown below. I’ve tinted the stone purple.

Holding Frame 1881 purple and orange cropped

The great advantage provided by this mechanism was the very accurate placement of the Ben Day film on the stone.

I suspect the Adjustable Frame was inspired by—one might say derived from—a similar-looking frame which had been recently introduced in lithography. This was used to line up stones in the best possible register, when printing in two or more colours.

502305_grammar-167_DETAIL_FRAME_purple 72dpi

The picture above is taken from W.D. Richmond’s The Grammar of Lithography (3)—published in book form in 1878, the year before Ben Day’s first patent, but originating as a series of magazine articles starting in 1875. After detailing various ways of registering stone blocks by hand, Richmond has this to say about the new-fangled device:

Registering machines have also been employed by some lithographers with success, and though they are not usually on sale by dealers… they may be had to order. [The illustration] shows one of these contrivances adapted to a stone. It consists… of a frame adapted to the stone by means of set screws, which answer the double purpose of securing the frame to the stone and adjusting it in position.

The Ben Day screen was quite a different proposition. It often did not need to be positioned on the stone or drawing with any degree of perfect register. For a single application, the screen could be placed by hand, so long as the craftsman could hold it steady while rubbing down the pattern. As seen in Part 4, areas of the image which were not to be shaded were “masked off” with a paper “frisket” (as per Day’s own patent description) or, in lithographic studios, with a layer of liquid gum, painted on and allowed to dry. It was the careful positioning of this “mask” which determined the accuracy of the shaded area, not the precise placement of the Ben Day screen itself.

However, Day realised that applying his shading films more than once would be useful, to create repeated or enhanced patterns. His ingenious twist was to use a device similar to the registering machine—his Adjustable Frame—to mis-register his line and stipple patterns between applications, but by very slight amounts and under very tight control.

On Day’s new device, the adjustment screws moved the frame one thirty-second of an inch per complete turn. “By means of the pointer V and the scale on the dial W the most minute movements of the screws can be regulated and measured,” as Day said in his 1881 Letter Patent.

A 1948 book (4) reports that precise movements of 1/640 of an inch—about 4 hundredths of a millimetre—could be made, implying that the dial had 20 divisions per turn of the screw, which is credible. Day does not actually state this in 1881, and it could have been a later refinement. Clearly though the original device was already quite efficient in its adjustability. (5)

This had a very important application: after imprinting its pattern on the stone once, the Ben Day screen could be lifted off the block, re-inked, replaced in the frame, moved a fraction of an inch, then used to apply a second print of the dot or line pattern. This print would sit alongside the previous one, creating a double pattern. A third was also possible, more if needed.

In Part 4, I showed Day’s parallel line pattern being used for cross-hatching, in which a second set of lines was imprinted over the first—seen below in his own drawings from the 1879 patent. This was shown as a manual procedure.

Cross hatching fig 7 & 10

From 1881, with the Adjustable Frame, it became clear that there was much more utility in his “printing-films” than it might at first have seemed.

Every individual film, Day had now revealed, was able to print multiple patterns.

In diagrams provided with the 1881 patent, Day shows how this could work in practice, with two simple examples. First a line pattern X is repeated at an even spacing to produce a doubly-dark line shading pattern, X’:

1881 X & X'

Then he shows us some Ben Day dots—the first time we have seen any in his own documentation—albeit not the regular grid of dots which we now know so well, but a stippled dot pattern, looking very much hand-drawn. (As we will see, this hand-drawn pattern was not simply a case of technical limitation.)

The original pattern Y1 is shown being doubled to Y2 and tripled to Y3:

1881 Y x 3

Finally at Z he shows a stipple which has been re-applied up to four times, with different areas being pressed with the stylus “according to the shading of the picture or print desired.” In other words the user can to some extent draw with the dots to create a graduated shading effect.

1881 Z

Two notable points emerge from this:

Firstly, whereas today we think of Ben Day dots as regular round dots in a mathematically precise pattern, in their early days they were intended to look like hand-drawn stippling. Day was mimicking the kind of dots that artists and printers were already using. These might be semi-regular—perhaps laid out in curved lines—but they were recognisably marks made by hand.

Secondly, this was just what the commercial lithography industry needed at this point in its continuing development. Benjamin Day’s 1878/9 patent text may have seemed rather tentative about the use of his shading mediums in lithography, but in 1881 they were poised on the brink of major success.

I will now look at the various different ways lithographers had made images on their stones up to this point—and how Ben Day’s patterns fitted into their world.

(ii) Lithographic Shading Techniques Before (and With) Ben Day

Among the various printing techniques of the 19th century, lithography was something of a magpie and something of a chameleon. Its pioneers looked at other, long-established printing methods, worked out what they could borrow or adapt, and/or how to mimic the look of wood engravings, letterpress text, copper and steel engravings, etchings etc. When photographic printing methods took off in the latter part of the century, ways were soon found to imprint photographic images on stone.

Before 1837 though, hand-drawn black and white or two-colour work was the bread-and-butter of the lithographic printers. One of their great advantages was mixing text and images on one stone and in one print run, with text that could be more creative than that of the letterpress printers. The latter needed a set of cast metal type for every style of lettering, which had to be printed in straight rows and columns. The lithographer could potentially draw a new style of lettering for a client’s particular needs, and it could flow around the page and be integrated with images.

The Italian billhead below shows some of this, as well as a scene illustrating lithography itself. Click to enlarge, and you should be able to read the original caption which I have left in place.(6)

Italian billhead 1889_72dpi

The basic techniques listed below could be used for:

  • making a single-colour (monochrome) print—usually black ink on white paper, but not limited to that
  • or for one of the stones which would be printed in coloured ink as part of a tinted print (black plus one or two colours)
  • or one of the stones used for a fully-coloured lithograph. A typical colour print might use 9 colours, and so require 9 stones. Fewer stones, or more, could be used as needed.

In every case, the ink used to make the image on the stone was black—a special grease-based black ink. Once that black image had been drawn—including writing and shading if needed—the final, printable, version was “etched” chemically onto the stone. The original black greasy ink was removed. The printing ink then used with that stone could be whichever colour was required. For more detail, see Part 4.

The main techniques used in making images on the stone were:

Ink drawing directly onto smooth, polished stone

A brush or pen could be used, with the black greasy ink in a liquid form called tusche. This gave a solid line—or dot, where needed—and could be used on a smooth stone to imitate fairly closely a drawing done on paper.

“Engraving” on stone

Fine line work imitating closely the look of copper or steel engravings could be achieved. The stone was coated with a thin gum layer, then a fine point used to scrape the gum off, creating a drawing in lines and dots of exposed stone—or if the point scratched off the stone surface, actual lightly engraved stone. Lithographic ink was applied to the exposed lines on the stone, masked off from the non-image areas by the gum. The final inked image, with the gum washed off, could be etched onto the stone in the usual way. The stone then produced prints almost indistinguishable from a real metal engraving.

When wood engraving became the world’s favourite method for printing pictures (see Part 4) lithographers learned to mimic the “white lines on black” look by laying down ink on the stone, then scraping it off to create the white lines of the final image. Again the final effect was a very close copy of the wood engraving technique.

Both of these techniques were complicated and required a great deal of training and skill to execute. They would only be used for special jobs.

Shading in lithography

Generally speaking, lithographic printing, like letterpress, could print only solid areas of colour—in the case of a black & white image, no shades of grey. However, each line or area of solid colour could be very thin / small.

Small dots could be drawn with a pen, larger ones with a brush—again, on smooth stones. This kind of shading—stippling—came into its own later in the day, and will be looked at below.

The main earlier form of dot-making was…

Crayon or “chalk” drawing on rough, “grained” stone

On a rough textured or “grained” stone, a greasy black crayon—called rather misleadingly “chalk”—could be used. This gave a pleasing “natural” effect something like a drawing done with actual chalk, charcoal or soft pencil on a “toothed” paper. This was useful for shading in lithography because it was essentially a pattern of tiny dots—a fairly random distribution of dots of many sizes. Each dot on the stone could be printed from, as a small area of solid colour.

This illustration, from a 1940 book by renowned lithographer Thomas Griffits, shows some typical patterns achieved with crayon / chalk. The upper rectangles are about 40 x 35 mm on the page. (7)


And below is a very skilled example (only 20 x 50 mm in size, originally) by Charles Hullmandel, one of the pioneers of lithography, reprinted by Michael Twyman. Again, I have left his caption in place. (8)

Twyman photo of crayon from First 100 y_72dpi

This kind of drawing was not as straightforward as it might look. At a basic practical level, it had to be done without the slightest touch of the artist’s hand onto the stone. Due to the method used to etch the image, any tiny, unseen greasy residue from human skin would show up on the final print as an unwanted mark.

The drawing itself could easily turn blotchy and uneven, whereas an even tone or a smooth transition was usually what was required. This uneven effect is deliberately shown in the “flat chalk” example above. The others have been carefully worked using repeated strokes with the point of a sharp crayon, not a flat edge.

“Crayon or chalk work calls for a delicacy and refinement. Only the most experienced lithographic artists are capable of doing real justice to this class of work.”  So wrote Henry J. Rhodes, lecturer in lithography at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow, in a book of 1914 (9). He also stressed that crayon work required great skill from “the provers, transferrers and printers”—i.e., even if the artist did his or her job well, shoddy printing techniques could easily mess it up. (I will return to “transferring” later.)

Artists like Delacroix, Goya, Manet, Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec famously used crayon lithography for prints or posters, but an army of mainly nameless commercial artists also had to master it for their day-to-day work.

Below is a fairly commonplace lithograph from 1834, bearing the name of its publisher but, typically, not its artist—though the eagle-eyed will spot a semi-legible date and initials in the space at bottom right. This was almost certainly drawn on grained stone. Under the main image I have shown some details at different levels of enlargement. The grained, hand-drawn character of the shading can be clearly seen.

The full image is about 23 x 15.5 cm. Finer details (bottom row) each about 12 x 9 mm.

Stipple BW Litho w details

With his 1881 patent, Ben Day demonstrated that his shading technique could produce a great variety of patterns, including something rather like the random “natural” dots of chalk / crayon drawing, as seen at Y and Z in his diagrams. Also, this could be done using not only a very fine degree of control but also some creative skill or spontaneity, as the job demanded. Furthermore it might be done without employing a trained / skilled artist—potentially a significant saving in time and money.

Later on, Ben Day also produced shading tints which directly imitated areas of crayon drawing, without the need for second, third or more applications. I have selected the most crayon-like below, from Ben Day proof pages printed sometime between 1911 and 1936. (The numbers like “9 1/4 x 12 1/4” refer to the size of the Ben Day screens, in inches.)

It is likely that some or all of these same patterns were in use much earlier than that. Bamber Gascoigne, in his 1986 book How To Identify Prints, reports an early Ben Day advertisement from 1887, stating that more than a hundred varieties of screen were then available, including grained tints. (10)

grains x4 72dpi


Here is a direct comparison of Hullmandel’s ideal chalk shading, a real lithograph, and one of Ben Day’s patterns:

Crayon on stone montage

I have shown black & white examples, but crayon / chalk drawing on stone was used for a lot of early chromolithography, i.e. colour work. Godefroy Engelmann, pioneer and early patenter of colour methods (1837) used mainly crayon work.

From the very start of his endeavour, though, Day would also have been aware of another key factor—one which had already pushed lithographic image-making away from chalk drawing on rough stone and inexorably towards the use of smooth, polished stones and a lot more of a different kind of shading: stippling.


By the 1850s and 60s steam-powered lithographic printing presses were increasingly replacing the old, slow hand-presses. An early pioneer of the powered litho press was the Parisian, Hippolyte Marinoni.  We shall be meeting him again later in the Ben Day story.

The future of commercial lithography clearly lay with the powered press.

And as a general rule, the powered presses could not handle rough stone, only smooth—mainly because they used different ink rollers from the manual machines, and did not dampen the paper between printings (11).

That meant that the future also belonged to techniques for creating images on smooth stone.

This was when stippled shading gradually started to take over from chalk/crayon work.

As Michael Twyman puts it, “Pen and ink stippling (with or without the support of mechanical tints [i.e. Ben Day patterns]) became the bread and butter technique for commercial work, and was adopted for the reproduction of popular paintings, magazine and book illustrations, greeting cards, scraps, advertising and ephemera. It remained the staple method of chromolithography until the demise of the process, and is especially obvious in trade cards and labels, where its visual characteristics often seem to have been exploited for their own sake.”

I showed examples of hand stippling on a scenic postcard in Part 4. I don’t know the date of this, but judging by the lack of regularity in pattern of the dots, most or all of the stippling looks hand-done to me:

Inversnaid waterfall

Henry Rhodes provided this example (original image 20 x 50 mm) of various ways stippling could be done by hand, in his 1914 book:

Rhodes Hand Stipple

I note that in places dots and lines are used together in this hand-drawn example. This could be done by superimposing more than one Ben Day pattern as well.

Rhodes goes on to describe “shading mediums” and how they were applied to a stone, though without mentioning Ben Day by name, and provides this example of one (54 x 50 mm):

Rhodes Shading medium

The “festooned” or “fan-shaped” hand-stippled pattern became a firm favourite in lithographic printing. In their idealised form, the curves overlapped each other constantly, so the pattern could be extended indefinitely over a large area.

Lithographic artists, craftsmen and printers learned during their apprenticeships that, when drawing stipple, they must avoid dots in straight lines. In this they were partly imitating the copper engravers who came before them. Curves and festoons of dots were to be preferred, as giving a more “natural” look that was easier on the eye. In addition, the human hand is quite well suited to drawing a curved array of dots. You can easily try this out for yourself.

Similar forms were occasionally seen in wood engraving, amongst the generally relentless linearity, in the negative version—white dots on black. H. Pisan, engraver of Gustave Doré‘s  Bible illustration Achan Stoned (c.1865) used a few curved arrays of dots on his black sky, for example:

Achan-5 black sky white stipple

The examples below are from various pictures printed in The Magazine of Art, 1891 & 1893. The bottom right detail shows how wood engravers also had their own version of black dot stippling, created effectively by carving cross-hatched white lines on black, leaving fragmented black lines reduced to a dotty pattern. Missing “dots”, clearly seen here, might be where the tiny remaining bits of wood simply broke off.

B&W stipple x 5


Ben Day and Stipple

The Ben Day shading mediums, or mechanical tints, were ideal for use on smooth stone. Indeed, the polished hard surface of lithographic limestone blocks took the pattern from a Ben Day screen better than the rougher, more absorbent surface of drawing paper. (The same advantage applied to smooth, hard zinc—i.e. metal—printing plates in later years.)

Though the early years of the Ben Day tints are not well documented, it appears that these curvaceous stippled patterns were introduced into his range from the very beginning of their commercial use, or very near it. The 1887 advertisement reported by Bamber Gascoigne offered line, stipple, grain and other patterns.

Ben Day’s first patent for an actual dot pattern, in 1900, was for just such a stipple pattern:

Patent 1900 STIPPLE_72dpi

A close-up look at the shapes of these dots (below, enlargeable) shows that they probably originated on a specially made etched copper plate. The shape of each dot is characteristic of copper etched by acid. From the copper plate they were moulded in gelatine to create the printing surface of the Ben Day screen, as described in Day’s 1878/9 patent text (see Part 4).

Patent 1900 STIPPLE_detail_72dpi

The only other Ben Day dot patent I have found was for a graduated tone of the same or a similar pattern, in 1901, as seen below:

Patent 1901 STIPPLE_72dpi

I have a catalogue of Day’s products, sold to me as 1911 vintage. The cover does have a 1911 copyright, but the booklet is designed for newer pages to be inserted. One of the interior pages is copyright 1936. (12)

Front cover

In these pages 172 different screens are shown. Below I have collected, from different pages, all the 26 stipple tones. Most of them are on one page headed “Hand Stipples.” Lithographic studios would typically have kept a limited number of Ben Day screens on their shelves, perhaps ten or fewer, which they were familiar with and could use flexibly. Special orders might be put in for unusual screens where needed.


It is worth noting that several of these patterns are not flat, even tones, but graduated from light to dark, and that three of them use white dots on a black ground.

I have yet to find any definite examples of Ben Day lines in full colour lithographic illustration, though it is likely they would occur in black & white work, e.g. for shading of lettering, and it is documented that many coloured maps used Ben Day lines—more later.

The evidence shows that, in lithographic colour work, the so-called “hand stipples” were the favoured Ben Day tones. The regular grids of dots which we know from 20th century comics were a later development, giving a look more like the new “halftone” process—of which, more in a future post.

Not everyone was keen on stippling, however. In 1905 David Cumming, lecturer in lithography at the Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, wrote: “Hand stippling… is really an imitation of grained stone drawing, and is well adapted for machine printing. In artistic effect and softness it comes far short of grained stone work, but for commercial purposes it answers admirably…” Later in the same book, he is more judgmental: “The stipple dots, especially if visible in the stronger colours, are very offensive from an artistic point of view.” (13)

Bamber Gascoigne says of Ben Day screens: “It was argued that such textures would look natural since the originals, on which the embossing was based, had all been hand drawn. In fact they have a very mechanical look. The ordinary late 19th century lithograph, sometimes to the eye but certainly through a [magnifying] glass, will seem to have an advanced case of the measles.”

The same witticism had been applied to Roy Lichtensteins’s so-called Ben Day dots in the 1960s. Actually, any spots seen on people’s skin in old lithographs are most likely to be hand-drawn. I will show a typical example later. Nonetheless, Gascoigne’s point is not wrong—the dots on many areas of many pictures are somewhat obvious, though I would emphasise that Ben Day stippling is no more spotty than its hand-drawn counterpart.

Thomas Griffits managed to write a whole book on The Technique of Colour Printing by Lithography (1940) without once mentioning the distasteful matter of stippling, hand or mechanical. His book provided the images of chalk shading above. As Frank Pick’s introduction made clear, this was a book about lithography as art—or at least, a craft capable of producing faithful reproductions of proper art, i.e. oil or water-colour paintings.

“Now the lithographic poster is back in the streets on the ubiquitous hoarding,” wrote Pick. “The commercial printer discovered the ease with which the invention could be exploited, the cheapness by which copies of anything could be multiplied, and lithography has had to bear the unjust burdens of these sins against its honour.”

As joint pioneers of the British railway poster, now seen as a lithographic artform in its own right, perhaps Pick and Griffits both felt they were themselves sinners—or more likely, feared they were being seen as such. Possibly they sought to atone by writing stippling out of the story of lithography. (14)


Ben Day Dots in Action

(a) Simple Tints

The scholar of the Ben Day dot is concerned less with the refined artistic print, more with the commercial end of the lithographic trade. Alongside some admittedly shoddy work, a great deal of admirable image-making was done. This gold-edged peacock, for example, was printed as a label for a bale of cloth, probably in Manchester sometime in the first half of the twentieth century.

Peacock textile label UK

Generally, hand drawing and hand stippling would have been used for details like faces, hands, most clothing—anything which needed careful delineation and individual “modelling”. Though Ben Day was keen to stress the variations that could be achieved with his dots, in practice they were often used, as here, for flat areas of tone like backgrounds.

On this label, lines and stipples done by hand are evident on parts of the peacock and the mound he stands on, but the background is done with two colours of Ben Day, yellow and pink, sometimes overlapping to make a pale orange. Each detail shown here is about 30 x 12 mm on the label. Full image area = 4.25 x 5.25 ins or 107 x 134 mm approx.

Peacock details x3

Like the peacock, the Naranjada label shown below is probably an early 20th century production—perhaps a conscious British emulation of the famous brightly-coloured Californian fruit crate labels. The oval is 90 x 70 mm, 3.5 x 2.75 inches. Here the background clearly shows a doubling up of the blue dots in places. In addition, I think some of the orange dots on the fruit itself are done with Ben Day.

Naranjada full and details ii

As Twyman points out, because the Ben Day stipple patterns imitated hand-drawn dots, it can be difficult or impossible to tell them apart when looking at a lithographic print—especially when hand work could be added to augment mechanical tints. Looking for precisely repeated elements in the pattern, and comparing the patterns to known examples, e.g. those in the catalogue, may help.

Another way to detect Ben Day dots might be to look for evidence of the edges of masked areas. At the stage when the Ben Day dots were imprinted onto the stone or plate with black ink, a liquid gum was painted on first, to mask off areas where the shading was not wanted. Any whole dots, or parts of dots, which were inked down over the dried gum layer would have been washed off with the “mask”.

I think this can be seen on the Naranjada orange segments, where small masked patches show as orange-yellow ovals between the darker orange dotted areas. At the edge of these areas some dots seem to have been “cut in half” where they overlapped the mask.  I have tried to show this in 20x and 400x magnifications below (15). Also, in places on the orange segment, the dot pattern is overlapped on itself for a darker colour.

Naranjada micro twice

Hand-drawn dots, I’m fairly certain, were simply drawn on the stone without requiring any masking—thus every hand-drawn dot should show as a full round dot, with no “cut off” fragments. The handmade dots would often get smaller at the edges of shaded areas, but each dot would still be a round shape, no semicircles etc. The whole fruit seen on this label shows definite hand-stippling, in two shades of brown.

The image below is earlier, and can be dated quite precisely, as it is from an advertising insert in the April 1888 edition of The Magazine of Art (16). Image size= 125 x 195 mm, 5 x 7.75 inches approx. The black image is probably taken from a wood engraving, transferred to stone. On the red stone, the lithographer appears to have used two types of Ben Day shading, line and stipple, overlapping in places. This works quite well, as part of the shadowing accentuating the “3-D” look of the folded paper, but shows the danger of creating “Moiré”-type patterns where tints overlap. A hint of such a pattern is emerging here. More on this later.

Sun-life full and details72 dpi


(b) More Complex Use of Ben Day Dots

The Boy’s Own Paper, or B.O.P. as it liked to be known—launched in 1879 and surviving until 1967—provides an enduring record of trends in illustration and printing. Bound hardback volumes are available fairly cheaply. I have an example from 1890/91, complete with advertising inserts and the colour lithographs occasionally issued with this mainly black & white weekly—both often missing from such books. The majority of the illustrations are still wood engravings at this time. A very few are printed directly from line drawings by the new (ish) photoengraving process.

The first lithograph, at the front of the book, is a fold-out more than three pages in length. Readers of the B.O.P. were never treated to pictures of exotic ladies, however. The subject of this picture is the uniforms of the British cavalry—far more suitable for good Victorian boys. The two illustrations below show only the left end of the print (which is the full height of the image area, 260 mm) and part of its right end.

Detail_left side_72dpi  Detail_right side_72dpi

Below are areas of sky in close-up. (Each image approx. 40 x 40 mm.) These views reveal the complexity of the Ben Day work. Not only has a stipple pattern of large blue dots has been laid down multiple times, it is also joined by a different, tighter pattern of much smaller blue dots. Some areas which at first may look plain white or pale blue also have grey dots, in addition to the more obvious grey areas themselves.

Sky details x 6

In these other close-ups, below: the red stone was clearly off register (by a little less than 1 mm); dark Ben Day dots appear to have been used on the clothing of the soldiers, which is somewhat unusual—alternatively, they might have been drawn on Nelson paper, and transferred to stone (more on Nelson paper later); Ben Day is used extensively in background areas; complex mixing of overlapping colours makes it very difficult to see how many colours were used.

Details x 4


Below is Moonrise off Gravesend, a lithographed copy of an 1889 painting, which appeared with the B.O.P. of May 2nd, 1891. (Picture area c. 160 x 240 mm. The framing colour in this case was not done in metallic ink, unlike the peacock label above). This is a good example of the art of “facsimile”—the closest possible copying of an actual painting—though a commercial product like this is a far cry from the expensive, largely crayon-worked artistic prints which would have satisfied the demands of a Thomas Griffits. For the young readers of the B.O.P. though, it provided a tasty treat. For us, it also supplies ample use of Ben Day’s shading mediums for enjoyment and study.

Moonrise off Gravesend 72dpi

All I would add in words to the details below is this question: would the picture look any better if some underpaid stipple artist had driven themselves insane—and possibly first blind—drawing each dot by hand? (17)

Moonrise off Gravesend_DETAILS x8b_72dpi


Also from my own collection comes another commercial product, like the B.O.P. aimed at a middle-income market, I would guess—though she may have been a promotional item, given away free. The calendar girl below was published in 1886 for the year ahead, 1887. Her background, outside the oval, is a slightly shiny gold, though not as sparkly as the peacock’s border, and sadly has been affected by moisture over the years (crinkled).

72dpi Calendar 1887 small

The image area is large—405 x 470 mm or 16 x 18.5 inches approx.—and that is with the calendar itself trimmed off. (Not by me, I hasten to add.) Imagine the weight of those stones! And how many stones—how many colours, that is—do we think were used? Perhaps a look at some close-ups will help us find out…

72dpi_3 details

Having used a magnifying glass on the original print, I think there are nine colours here, as well as the gold—which makes the print absolutely typical of its kind. The colours I see are: flesh tone, dark brown, mid-brown, dark green, pale green, pale blue, mid-blue, scarlet red and a tiny bit of yellow. What looks like black is, I think, dark brown plus dark green.

At first glance, the yellow seems to have been used only on her ear-ring, which would surely have been a huge waste of the large stone used to print it. A closer look shows that the gold border is almost certainly printed over yellow, to give it more “body”. Magnified, the yellow just shows at the edges.

The background within the oval uses Ben Day patterns—dark green and mid-brown dots over a pale green ground, with multiple applications of the dots in the darker areas. On her face the pale blue (looking grey) and scarlet dots printed over the flesh tone are, I think, hand-drawn—likewise the mid-brown dots in the more shadowy areas of her skin. The details below show the blue and red dots in typical curved arrays, like the Ben Day versions, but varying in size and distribution in a way which is characteristic of hand-stippling. The brown dots under the eye have been done in a combination of large, probably brush-painted, dots with some tiny pen-stipples.

72 dpi face details x2 AB

Before leaving this fine example of commercial work, let us reflect on the challenges facing its creator or creators—there was probably a team, each working on one or more of the stones. One person had to break down the image—probably an original painting—by a process of sketching and thought experiment, into a printable range of colours. An outline image was traced from the original and copied onto each of the nine stones, in a non-greasy ink, which would not become part of the printed images. (As described in Part 4.)

Then, using their skill and judgement, they drew images (and imprinted Ben Day patterns) on the stones, one for each colour, in black ink—visualising in their heads how the final coloured combination of images would look. Time and budget permitting, they may have printed proofs of some individual colours or colour combinations as they went along, to guide them further in preparing the next stones in the sequence.

As if that wasn’t hard enough, the images all had to be in the closest possible register, not to mention the technical challenges of removing gum masks without taking off any ink, “etching” each stone correctly, etc.

Given all that, is it any wonder that lithographers embraced the savings of time and effort which Ben Day’s shading mediums offered?

And finally…

Before leaving the subject of stippling, one last image from my own collection—just for the fun of it. It’s by Tom Browne—artist of the Johnnie Walker whisky man, and creator of the comic strip Weary Willie & Tired Tim—from The Boy’s Own Paper of 1902. The name of the company which did the lithography, Tom Browne and Co. of Nottingham, is no coincidence—it was indeed Browne’s own.

Tom Browne chromo lithograph full 72dpi

I’ll let the stippling on this one—and the drawing—speak for itself…

Tom Browne chromo lithograph details x 6_72dpi


This technique of dot-making is closely related to stippling, and also known as “splatter”, “splash work”, “sprinkling”  or simply “toothbrush” after the main tool used in creating it.  Quoting Henry Rhodes’ Art of Lithography:

“A means of obtaining an irregular flat tint… It is effected by dipping a tooth or similar brush into lithographic writing ink and then going over the tips of the hairs with some such instrument as the small blade of a pocket knife in such a way as to cause the hairs to spring smartly forward. The splashes thus thrown produce a tint.”

If that is less than clear, perhaps a picture will be worth the proverbial thousand words:


The illo is from Thomas Griffits’ book—the one that failed to mention stipple. Spatter / splatter on the other hand clearly had the seal of artistic approval. Griffits added that a fine wire mesh held between the toothbrush and the stone could break up the larger blobs of ink, making a finer pattern.

Rhodes wasn’t kidding about “irregular” tint. The randomness of the spatter pattern was (and remains) part of its appeal, and something it had in common with the stone grain. Spatter also anticipated the airbrush, with its much more regular, controllable jet of ink droplets. That came into use through the late 1880s in the US and the 90s in the UK, its driving force of compressed air initially produced by a foot-pump.

The hands-on excitement of spatter ensures it will continue to inspire young artists, at least as long as ink remains in use. (I’m not aware of a precise computer screen equivalent.) The examples below are from an unpublished comic strip from 1978, done on paper, of course, not stone. The close-ups are 20mm and 30mm across respectively. Occasional imperfections in the masking process can be seen. (18)


Spatter work is said to be quite widely used in lithography. Did Ben Day, magpie and chameleon in his own right, set out to imitate it? No. 329 in the catalogue is certainly similar.

329 spatter grain_72dpi


Transfer Paper

In the very early days of lithography, its inventor Alois Senefelder realised that once he had printed an image from a stone onto paper with lithographic ink, when still wet the image could be transferred by pressure onto another lithographic stone. Michael Twyman says that Senefelder considered this as important as the printing process itself. Thanks to him, and the ingenuity of his fellow lithographers who developed the idea over the years, he was not far wrong.

Special transfer papers were soon produced, with a coating which took lithographic ink well while absorbing as little of it as possible. By dampening the back of the paper and pressing the paper down onto a fresh stone, an image could be transferred from one stone to another, even days after it was put on the paper.

Transfer paper was a direct ancestor of the Ben Day process.

But long before Benjamin Day had his great brainwave, as commercial lithography grew and developed, transfer paper was crucial to its expansion. It was used in many inventive ways well beyond the basic taking of images from one stone to another, or “re-transfer”. Before describing in detail how to make eleven different types of transfer, David Cumming says in his 1905 book:

“Before the era of power driven machines there were comparatively few re-transfers used, a large proportion of the work being drawn direct on stone and printed from these original drawings. The introduction of power machines… made the use of re-transfers imperative for rapidity in printing and cheapness in production. Instead of a few labels being put on a stone 10 x 15 or 15 x 20 [inches] and printed at the rate of a few hundred sheets each day, printing stones and plates are now made up to double or quadruple these sizes (see below), and printed at rates from 900 to 4,000 sheets per hour.”

Uses of transfer paper included:

  • Drawings and lettering—even typeset text—on transfer paper could be done the right way round, unlike work directly on the stone, which always had to be left-right reversed or mirror-imaged. When transferring to stone from paper, the reversing happened automatically. This was massively advantageous, though details could be lost and fine lines broken up in the transferring process.
  • Artists could work more easily from home or studio on paper. Stones could be, and were, sent out from litho studios to artists but their size and weight made this a difficult undertaking. Just imagine being the printer’s errand boy who dropped and broke a large stone on the way back from the artist’s studio to the print shop…
  • Michael Twyman points out that Rodolphe Töpffer, Swiss pioneer of an early form of comic strip, re-drew his graphic narratives on transfer paper from 1837 in order to have them lithographically printed for the public. Previously, only pupils and friends had seen his pen-and-ink versions. As noted above, the freedom to draw and hand-letter his stories at the same time was a particularly lithographic advantage. His Les Amours de Mr Vieux Bois was successful enough to be bootlegged, initially by tracing a copy on transfer paper in Paris. The 1842 U.S. bootleg (as The Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck) is often seen as the first American comic or graphic novel. We shall be meeting Mr Oldbuck later on in the sometimes surprising story of Ben Day.

Bro Jonathan extra

  • Transfer paper could be made almost transparent, so images—including handwritten letters and signatures of the famous, which became a popular feature in magazines—could be copied easily by tracing.
  • Given the original printing blocks or plates (or an electrotype or stereotype) a wood or metal engraving could be printed on transfer paper, put on a stone—with or without amendments—then reprinted lithographically.
  • Litho stones could print thousands of copies, but the surface did eventually wear down and begin to lose its image. Using transfer paper, an original “mother stone” could be kept safe and sound, its image transferred to other stones which did all the hard graft of printing.
  • The small images that made up a coloured label or card could be copied many times onto a large stone and printed in quantity, as mentioned above. The photo below, from Michael Twyman’s First Hundred Years, is an uncut sheet (625 x 478 mm) printed by this method. Assuming the two women were drawn together, 29 copies of the original image (80 x 55mm) had to be made, plus an extra half for the woman squeezed in on her own at bottom left. This was done perhaps on 7 stones, if 7 colours were used—perhaps 210 transfers in all. The pay-off for all that work was a quick print run yielding 29-and-a-half times as many cards per impression, plus a set of mother stones which could be used again.

Multi litho first 100y 72 dpi

More pertinently to the Ben Day story, not just images and letters, but any pattern which could be printed onto transfer paper could then be laid down onto a smooth stone. Masking was used to ensure only the necessary areas of the stone took the pattern from the paper. If you are thinking that this sounds very much like the way Ben Day’s screens worked… read on.

  • It was often desirable in the early days of smooth stones / powered presses to re-create the texture of crayon-work on rough stone. This could be done relatively simply by drawing on a real rough-grained stone, printing by hand-press onto transfer paper, and transferring to a smooth stone. Either a whole drawing might be transferred, or an area of grained pattern for use as a tint on the smooth stone.
  • A stipple or lined pattern could be etched or engraved on the whole area of a copper printing plate, using the same techniques as making a picture (see Part 4 for details). The plate could be then be inked, the dots or lines printed on transfer paper, then transferred onto a smooth stone. Once a metal plate had been prepared in this way it could be used over and over again. Cumming shows some of these line patterns in his 1905 Handbook of Lithography. The black semi-circle at the top is for contrast with an area of “solid” colour. (His original rectangles are 28 x 42 mm.)

Transfer patterns black x 4 72 dpi

  •  The Morocco pattern above also shows how other printing surfaces, not just engraved metal plates, could be used to make patterns on transfer paper. The original Morocco print would have been made directly from leather.
  • Cumming also shows the patterns in green, as an example of colour printing from a stone tinted in this way. I have put one next to the black version here.

Transfer patterns black & green cross 72 dpi

  • As Cumming also notes, transferred lines were very useful for colouring maps. Importantly, the colour mixes achieved in this way were very predictable. They used what W.D. Richmond, in his Grammar of Lithography, calls “quarter tints”—lines giving 25% of the full or solid colour—transferred at the correct angles. Cumming shows seven colours being made from the three primaries (below). He could have added several more if he had used the full available range or “gamut” of combinations—but that many colours were generally not needed. Richmond and Cumming both note that the stone must be thoroughly washed between each transfer of lines, which was largely not required with the Ben Day method. The arrival of Day’s screens must have made all this so much easier—something I will return to below, and also pick up on in my next post.

Litho colour maps_72dpi

  • In a further clever twist, using the same kind of prepared copper plates, or a rough stone, but with no ink, transfer papers could be embossed by pressing them very firmly onto the metal with its line or dot pattern, or the stone’s rough surface. The surface of the paper then held a pattern of raised lines or dots which could be drawn on, with a lithographic crayon. Careful use of the crayon produced an image in a similar way to drawing on rough stone—an image that looked like rough stone crayon work, or a more regular pattern of dots or lines, depending on what had been embossed on the paper. The resulting drawing—or just an area of tint for shading—could be transferred onto a smooth stone. Cumming shows a number of these stone-grained patterns in his illustration below, noting that skill and care is needed to draw on them, just as it was on rough stone.

Grained paper black top row black & green_72 dpi

In his Grammar of Lithography, written in 1875-78, W.D. Richmond wrote about the new type of embossed transfer paper which had been patented in 1867 by Thomas Nelson, of Edinburgh, Scotland. Richmond noted, somewhat in contrast to Cumming above, that the regularity of dots on Nelson’s stippled paper made it easier to draw on than rough stone, and produced a crayoned image “more open and better fit for transferring and printing from.”

Comics historian Andy Bleck recently found a book published in 1890 by T. Nelson and Sons of Edinburgh and New York—which I am fairly certain is the family company of the same Thomas Nelson (though it was named for his father, Thomas Senior). Pictures of the Childhood of Jesus is illustrated with six really splendid full-page colour lithographs, as well as its cover. I reproduce one below. (Original image 192 x 240mm.)

72dpi_Childhood of Jesus page

Close-up views show that the stipple used is almost certainly not done using Ben Day—there is generally a lack of the characteristic semi-circular festoons of dots. I strongly suspect that we are seeing Thomas Nelson’s patented transfer paper at work here. (Left hand column about 35mm across on the page, right hand column 17mm.)

72dpi_Childhood of Jesus details

Writing about Nelson’s embossed dots, W.D. Richmond added: “Nevertheless, the stippled plate, by its mechanical mode of production, produces a kind of pattern that is objectionable to the practised eye, which, added to its high price, has given an impetus to paper prepared by the old method. [I.e. from an inked grained stone.]” Both of those objections would later be raised to Ben Day dots.

And, as with VHS vs. Betamax, or MP3 vs. Super Audio CD, the technically superior product is not always the one that wins the day. Twyman reports that the same author, Richmond, wrote in his later book on colour lithography (c. 1885) that patterns transferred on paper from copper plates had largely been superseded by mechanical tints, i.e. the Ben Day screens, which had “led to a great saving in labour… ” And he admitted: “The results are such as are unattainable by hand labour.” In other words, embossed or printed transfer paper may have won out over transferring patterns from stone, but was then itself largely wiped out by the next evolutionary step.

Thomas Nelson’s own lithographers probably weren’t the only team to continue using Nelson’s embossed paper into the 1890s, though. It may have been more than loyalty to the family firm—the results they got were undeniably very good. (19)

Ben Day as Successor to Transfer Paper

As noted above, the stippled pattern on gelatine film which Ben Day patented in 1900 was almost certainly created used an etched copper plate as the mould. This, along with their very similar method of use, makes it clear that the Ben Day film was a close relative of embossed transfer paper.

In fact, going back to Day’s Letter Patent which he submitted in January 1878 for his original “Improvement in Printing-Films,” he describes how his early lined films were made from lines “prepared or engraved upon wood, metal or other suitable material,” from which moulds were made (see Part 4). Because he was using hot liquid gelatine to make his films, his method had to be different from embossing patterns onto transfer paper. Otherwise the principle was very much the same.

Also, we have seen above how transfer paper was inked with a pattern in two distinct ways, before the pattern was transferred to a smooth lithographic stone:

  • a patterned surface—rough stone, leather, a metal plate etched with dots or engraved with lines, set metal type—was suitably inked up, and the image of the pattern printed onto the transfer paper.
  • Embossed transfer paper, on which the pattern existed as a series of small raised “pimples” for dots or ridges for lines, was inked using a lithographic chalk / crayon.

It may appear from my account above that Ben Day’s Rapid Shading Mediums were specifically designed to do some of what transfer paper did—in effect, combining the two roles described above—but to do it faster and better.

Is there any actual contemporary evidence that this was Day’s express intention?

In Part 4 I looked in some detail at Day’s own words, in the 1878 Letter Patent. I noted a persistent lack of clarity in his statements about how his product would fit into the printing methods of the time. Having looked in detail at lithographic image-making, it is worth revisiting Day’s original text.

Ben Day was clearly aware of predecessors to his own shading mediums. The very name of his patent, “Improvement in Printing-Films,” makes that clear. He also says:

“I am aware of the processes described in English patents… of 1867 and 1871; but these do not show a thin, tough, and transparent printing-film like mine, nor the process of producing the impression by the abrasive action of a stylus upon the back of the film…”

I’m certain that at least one of these “English patents” was Thomas Nelson’s, for his embossed transfer paper.

Day also noted that his films were “designed for… printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings, printing and copying surfaces, &c.” Also: “…the quick and rapid production of printing and copying surfaces for lithographic printing…” The main “printing surface” of the time was lithographic stone. The only “copying surfaces” were transfer paper and lithographic stone, as in the “mother stone” method as noted above.

Though his patent showed only lines being imprinted, he mentioned that it could be used for “…any kind of stippling, graining, hatching, lining or shading… with the utmost precision, rapidity and excellency of finish…” Unlike transfer paper, Day’s films were semi-transparent, so lithographers could see where they were putting their shading (20). Combine this with the Adjustable Frame and precision and rapidity are certainly enhanced.

Day also emphasized repeatedly how flexible his patterns were—that is, varying the pressure used when laying a pattern down could produce a darker or lighter tint (or even a wobbly or “waved” line. While this may have been possible to a slight extent with transfer paper, it did not have the rubbery, elastic surface of Day’s film, which theoretically gave the latter far more variability.

Day also notes that a piece of typeset text could be imprinted on a Ben Day film for reproduction. This baffled me at first, as I was thinking in terms of shading and tinting. Using type as shading may not seem shocking to us now, but it would have been very avant-garde in 1878. Day was of course thinking of far more conventional use of text, which many lithographers would have been copying onto stone via transfer paper as a matter of routine.

They rarely attempted a whole book or magazine’s worth of text. It was too time-consuming and the results of uncertain quality—the transfer process always degrading an image slightly. Some short children’s books were printed this way—”nursery” books with very limited amounts of text in a large size, and a lot of pictures. Otherwise, lithographed pictures and letterpress text were separately printed, and the pages combined at the binding stage. Day may have felt his more direct method of imprinting text would offer a useful advantage here. In practice, it probably didn’t—at least, I haven’t seen any accounts of it being used this way.

Discussing how difficult making lined shading or cross hatching is “either in drawing or engraving by hand in the usual manner” Day claims that his new method can achieve “in one hour’s time… an amount of work that would require a month’s labor if executed in the usual manner.” This seems like an exaggeration, but if “the usual manner” included the original engraving of a lined or cross hatched copper plate, from which transfer paper was to be printed, it might be about right. If the lithographer had his prepared metal plate on hand for regular use… perhaps not. Equally, Day might have been comparing a lithograph made using his lined film with a copper or steel engraving done from scratch, or a similar engraving on stone, in which case a month was again perhaps not too far off the mark.

Day’s text repeatedly stressed the savings in time and labour offered by his new method, and, exaggerations aside, he clearly had a point.

A lithographer used to preparing new transfer papers for every job—either printed from a metal plate or rough stone etc., or crayoned onto embossed paper—would have immediately seen the advantages of Day’s system. For example, inking a Ben Day film with a roller was a lot easier than carefully drawing an area of even tone on an embossed paper with a lithographic crayon. And, unlike a piece of transfer paper—used once then discarded—each Ben Day film could be inked, used, re-inked, used again if need be, in doubling up or tripling the pattern—and the ink was then washed off the screen and it was put back on the shelf for next time.

If only Ben Day had been more explicit about all this in his original patent, instead of dropping vague hints… how many weeks of painstaking research might have been avoided? Others have noted that patent texts are sometime written with just enough detail to ensure a patent is granted, but not so much that all one’s secrets are given away. It may even be that Day’s repeated emphasis on the “artistic and decorative purposes” of his films was something of a smokescreen, meant to hide their true primary utility for printers.

The arrival in 1881 of the Adjustable Frame, as noted above, gave Day’s films further major advantages. And it appears that from then on, the printing business took them up in a very big way.

Ben Day as Success Story

Michael Twyman states, in his History of Chromolithography, that English patents for the Ben Day method were taken out in 1881 and 1882. He also shows an American Ben Day advertisement from 1891 stating that the system was “Patented in the US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and Belgium.” The photo below of a Ben Day screen is also from his book. It shows instructions printed in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and what I am fairly certain is Russian.

Ben Day screen and case Twyman History_72 dpi

In British publications of the 1880s and 90s, it is common to find colour lithographs—with Ben Day dots clearly on view—which had been printed in Germany and Holland. This does not necessarily mean that the whole book or magazine was printed abroad. The bulk of the pages may have been printed by letterpress closer to home.

However, there must have been some reluctance to use the new mechanical tints, in some cases on a national level. Twyman shows evidence that, in 1889 at least, French lithographers were not keen on Ben Day, preferring to continue with hand methods.

I would love to know more about how Day marketed his “printing-films” to the printing business, especially in the early years. I haven’t been able to find any contemporary sources for this. But there is little doubt that the Ben Day system was very successful, significantly changing the industry—indeed, contributing to its continued growth in a fairly major way. How do we know this?

Accounts from Twyman and Gascoine tell us that Ben Day shading was highly prevalent in the last ten or fifteen years of the 19th century, and into the 20th.

I have found a few pieces of more contemporary evidence, the earliest so far being a short piece in an early “Penrose Annual,”  then called The Process Year Book for 1898. Subtitled “A Review of the Graphic Arts” this book, aimed at the printing trade—specifically those using photoengraving—was published in London, England. The anonymous writer was probably editor William Gamble. The article was headed Day’s Shading Mediums. The author is clearly well aware of the different ways Day’s films are being used. Leaving out a couple of sentences about photoengraving, which I will return to next time, he says:

“We have pleasure in again drawing attention to this excellent invention, the advantages of which are by no means so well known as they ought to be. [His remarks aimed mostly at photo-engravers, not lithographers.] These “mediums”… with either lines, dots, grains, stipples or other tints in relief on the printing side… This side, having previously been inked, and the film having been placed by means of the regulating apparatus on the stone, is pressed with a  stylus… the pressure printing the tint on the drawing.

By moving the film a trifle to one side, by means of the dials on the apparatus, thus throwing it out of register, the colour of the tint is increased by re-tinting and thickening the lines or dots, etc., etc. A variety of effects can be obtained also by combining two or more styles of tints.”

The article concludes with some revealing discussion of Ben Day’s expanding repertoire:

“Although there are already over one hundred tints from which the artist can select, Mr Day is always on the look-out for new effects and ideas, and in this way not only keeps his clients well up to date in the way of novelties, but is yearly making his shading mediums a more valuable adjunct to the studio.”

The next piece, written fourteen years later, is more explicit about the prevalence Day’s mediums have gained by that time in the trade. It is from an article on chromolithography in the London Times newspaper, from September 1912.

“The artist proceeds to draw, by hand, each separate colour… The actual draughtsmanship may be in lines, small dots, or on grained stone, in addition to areas of solid. The ink used is always the same black, fatty matter. The disuse of grained stone commenced before 1880, and in its place the artist dotted or stippled on the stone, in a mechanical evenness…

After 1885 the hand stippling was largely replaced by mechanical stippling. [My emphasis in each case.] The latter is done by means of semi-transparent films manufactured with a grained, dotted or lined surface, upon which transfer ink may be rolled… to be rubbed down onto the stone. The best example of these is the Ben Day film.

Their introduction has been a great boon to both the printing trade and the public. They have saved labour and time, and can be employed for lithographic drawing, and designs for photographic and letterpress production. They have largely cheapened the publication of works by chromo-lithography.

By “cheapened” the Times doubtless meant “made more economical” rather than “demeaned, degraded or devalued” as we might use the term. Critics of the “chromo” on artistic grounds might have agreed with the modern dictionary on that point though.

My third piece of evidence comes from British magazine The Artist, March to July 1941. (21)

Printer W. O. Page set out to explain colour lithography to his readers, in a series of articles called Lithography—Modern Methods. Three things are noteworthy about this.

Firstly, as late as 1941, Page’s article was sub-headed with the words: “…lithography constitutes one of the most important of present day commercial methods of reproduction in colour.” I found this somewhat surprising, and I suspect even at the time some of his readers must have been thinking, “Oh, really?” Process colour—printing using halftones and photoengraved metal plates—was taking an increasing share of the commercial printing market by then. Nonetheless, there is evidence that UK servicemen in 1946 were being trained in lithography for the post-war world—not perhaps the wisest of career choices (22). Cumming’s Handbook of Lithography was reprinted in 1946 in an edition “For the use of H.M. Forces—not for resale.” (23)

Secondly, in Part III, May 1941, Page says:

…each colour is drawn on polished stones, and the artist is greatly assisted by films called “mediums.” The best films come from America and are called ‘Day’s medium’ after the man who invented them.

Below is the selection of patterns he showed in his article, presumably reflecting the patterns which he himself—and perhaps lithographers in general—found most useful. The top two are shown overlaid with themselves in different ways. Most are  “hand-stipple” or grained patterns. Even at this late date, Page chooses no regular grids of dots in the “halftone” manner, which were being widely used by the photoengraving opposition—of which, more next time.

Artist_1941_BEN DAY PATTERNS stacked

Thirdly, Page advises his readers that a more affordable alternative to Ben Day mediums is available, made by a company called Penrose. Could this be the same Penrose who published the 1898 Process Year Book, which so effusively praised the Ben Day mediums?

Why, yes, it could. As well as publishing the Year Book, this London-based company’s core business was the supply of chemicals, printing plates and camera equipment to the photoengraving industry. One factor which helped Day’s competition is the fact that the Ben Day machines and shading sheets were not sold to their end-users, but leased, at some considerable expense. Penrose’s machines and films were sold directly, Page tells us, not leased.

Michael Twyman says that Penrose licensed the use of Ben Day machines from Day’s own company, though I suspect this was only until Day’s patents ran out. Evidently Penrose saw a money-making opportunity in marketing—possibly undercutting—the world’s number one in the shading medium business.  Clearly the arrival of cheaper competition can be taken as a sign that the Ben Day company was enjoying a high degree of success. I know of at least one other competitor, and Twyman discusses others. I might discuss these in a future post.

While the Ben Day leasing system may have had advantages, for example when a machine broke down or screens were torn—assuming the contract included repairs or replacement—it was costly, which meant that only businesses of a significant size could afford to use the system.

Ben Day meets Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Having recently read Michael Twyman’s excellent History of Chromolithography, I cannot resist re-presenting from that book one final example of Ben Day dots in action. Again, I have left the original caption intact.

For now this is a relatively low-resolution reproduction using the British Library’s scanning system (which generally has been an excellent recent innovation, I must add). I will replace it with a better copy if and when possible.

This is a portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, done completely in Ben Day tints, printed in the magazine The British Lithographer in 1893. This was surely a promotional gimmick, and not something that would often have been attempted. Ben Day patterns were usually integrated into lithographs which used a variety of colouring and shading techniques. But what a splendid gimmick it was—a tribute to the Ben Day method which deserves to endure, and a fitting image with which to close my piece.

Twyman Tennyson 72dpi

Concluding Remarks

In summing up, I will quote David Cumming again, from 1905. After discussing the huge increase in speed of lithographic printing brought about by the powered press, he continues: “It will thus be easily seen that the production of lithographic work is now enormous compared to what it was previous to the year 1870.” Cumming was also reflecting on how important transfer paper was in this revolution.

I would add that the addition of Ben Day tints to the lithographer’s repertoire, from the 1880s onward, completed a triumvirate of technical factors significantly contributing to its ongoing expansion.

I do not discount the importance of photo-lithographic techniques, zinc plates or offset printing, but these innovations came to prominence later, and are outside the scope of this article.

Of course, if there was not also a great demand from the population for printed matter, especially in colour, no amount of technical proficiency could have driven such an increase in capacity. The stories of Victorian and Edwardian art prints, book and magazine illustrations, sheet music, theatre and railway posters, maps, labels for cigar boxes & fruit crates, postcards, greeting cards, advertising material, “scrap” & other ephemera etc. have been told elsewhere, and placed in their socio-cultural context by others.

If the true importance of lithography in these stories has arguably been underplayed, at least authors like Graham Hudson and especially Michael Twyman have in recent years redressed that imbalance.

To some extent that has included discussion of the importance of the Ben Day dot, but about this there is also still a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation abroad. I hope I have started to fill an important gap at least in the material available online.

And if there is one take-home message from this post, it is probably this:

Ben Day dots aren’t just about comic books and Roy Lichtenstein. Remember also the years of the stone-printed lithograph…


—respect to the stipple!

Next time:

Photoengraving, metal printing plates, letterpress on newsprint and finally…

….the comics!


(1) Michael Twyman seems to have made the study of lithography his lifetime’s work. I may never have embarked on this post at all if I’d seen these two books of his earlier, as he almost says it all. The number of times I quote his work speaks for itself. Luckily I was forced to find out a bunch of stuff for myself too, so I’ve been able to add a bit here and there.
Breaking The Mould: the first hundred years of lithography  (London, The British Library, 2001)
A history of chromolithography : printed colour for all  (London, The British Library, 2013)

There is also this indispensable item:
The encyclopedia of ephemera : a guide to the fragmentary documents of everyday life for the collector, curator and historian, by Maurice Rickards ; edited and completed by Michael Twyman. (London, British Library, 2000).

(2) As lithography entered the 20th century, zinc plates were increasingly used. Eventually offset lithography evolved, in which the image prints onto the paper from a rubber surface, after being “offset” onto the rubber from a metal plate. Nowadays most printed paper material is produced by offset litho. It only gradually achieved this dominance. Older readers will remember “the inkies” still prevalent in the 1970s and 80s—newspapers and magazines printed on newsprint by the letterpress method—whose ink so readily came off on your fingers. Now many books are printed directly by digital presses… perhaps offset litho is on the slippery slope to oblivion dock…?

(3) The Grammar of Lithography: a practical guide for the artist and printer, by W.D. Richmond (London, Wyman & Son, 1878). Originally published as a series of magazine articles in The Printing Times and Lithographer, from 1875.

(4) Modern Photoengraving, by Louis Flader and J.S. Mertle, Chicago/Cincinnati USA, (Modern Photoengraving Publishers, 1948).

(5) Twyman reports that later Ben Day advertising claimed that adjustments as small as 1,000th of an inch—or 0.025 mm—were possible.

(6) From a photograph in The Design and Printing of Ephemera in Britain and America 1720-1920, by Graham Hudson (London / Delaware, USA, The British Library / Oak Knoll Press, 2008)

(7) The Technique of Colour Printing by Lithography, by Thomas Griffits (London, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1940)

(8) From a photo in Twyman, Breaking the Mould (see above). Inevitably, and unavoidably, halftone dots from the printed photo will intrude on any attempt to appreciate fully the detail of the dots here.

(9) The Art of Lithography, by Henry J. Rhodes (London, Scott, Greenwood & Son, 1914; revised second edition 1924).

(10) How To Identify Prints, by Bamber Gascoigne (London, Thames and Hudson, 1986; second edition 2004.) And yes, it is the same Bamber Gascoigne who famously presented University Challenge on British TV. How many Bamber Gascoignes did you think there might be?

(11) Michael Twyman has researched this in depth (as he has all areas of the lithography story). Leather rollers put the ink onto the stone before each print onto paper. The new rollers had to be smooth, for speedier inking, and so as to be easy to clean. They used the outer surface of the leather, stripped of all hair, glazed to a smooth shiny surface. They were too smooth and too fast to ink the tiny dots of the chalk drawing on rough stone. The old manual rollers had used “nap” leather, the fuzzier inner surface of the skin. In addition the early powered presses probably didn’t use high enough pressure.

(12) Ben Day catalogues may be hard to date, but they are even harder to find. Michael Twyman reports that “A catalogue from 1901 listed in St Brides Library has not been seen since at least 1939.” Alas this historic library of printing recently closed for lack of funds, though The St Brides Foundation is still open for now. If you have a few spare million, please consider helping them out.

(13) Handbook of Lithography, by David Cumming (London, A. & C. Black Ltd, 1905, revised 1919 and 1932, reprinted 1946.)

(14) Thomas Griffits (see note 7, above) worked, as lithographer, on Vanity Fair’s famous Spy lithographs, and many railway posters. The introduction to his book was by Frank Pick, a senior administrator of London’s railways who designed much of the look of the London Underground, and is credited with much of the success of its celebrated posters.

(15) The USB microscope which I use takes pictures at 20 times and 400 times magnification. I do not mean to imply that the image I am putting on the screen is 20x or 400x the size of the original print. That will vary according to the size you view it on your screen anyway. The numbers are just meant to indicate the level of magnification used in getting the images.

(16) The Magazine of Art (London, Cassell & Company Ltd, 1878 to 1904) is a treasure trove of wood engravings, etchings etc., occasionally available at reasonable prices as unbound copies and bound volumes.

(17) To which you may be inclined to reply, “At least they might have still had a job, if Ben Day hadn’t put them out of work.” The flipside of “progress” in the post-industrial-revolution world, and a problem which we haven’t yet seen the end of.

(18) That Miss Brunner… such a potty-mouth. Apologies to the great Chris Welch for messing with his lovely lettering. Hunter Tremayne wrote the script. Blame him.

(19) The idea of transfer paper lived on in many forms, including Letraset dry transfer tones and lettering, and the “transfer”—pictures of people, animals etc. which children in the 1970s and 80s were given to rub down onto printed cardboard scenes. It is also the distant ancestor of the tattoo that came with my Avengers Assemble Candy Sticks the other day. Instructions: place backing paper and tattoo on hand picture side down, wet back of tattoo with water, press down 20 seconds then peel away paper.


Two words of warning: generally, I’m very fond of candy sticks (or “sweet cigarettes” as they were known in a more guilty age) but these were, disappointingly, quite disgusting. Secondly, I wouldn’t try putting the tattoo on your laptop lid. Didn’t work at all well. Stick to skin use, as per instructions.

(20) I know I said there was a kind of transfer paper that was quite transparent, but this was not suitable for general use. The process that made it see-through also made it second-rate at actual transferring. It was OK when you needed to copy out a letter or a signature.

(21) I am particularly indebted to comics historian Andy Bleck for the discovery of this series of articles.

(22) Indeed, Michael Twyman thinks that the end of World War 2 in 1945 itself provided an incentive for a general retooling of the printing business and spelled the end for chromolithography.

(23) I may or may not have bought a copy myself. I’m not admitting anything, Colonel.

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From the Eighth Production Yearbook, 1948. Ad may date back as far as 1919.

See also:
Part 1: Roy Lichtenstein, The Man Who Didn’t paint Ben Day Dots
Part 2: Halftone Dots and Polke Dots
Part 3: RGB dots on your screen, CMYK dots in your old comic books
Part 5: The Forgotten History of the Ben Day Dot: Lithography 1880 -1940

New January 2016, part 5-&-a-half: French comic strips from 1886 – 1888 and the forgotten technique used to print their colours


Introduction 1—Just what are these Ben Day dots, anyway?

Introduction 2—The Roy Lichtenstein effect

Part (i)—Printing Pictures Before Ben Day

The Press Before Pictures—Letterpress

The Arrival of the Illustrated Press

The Printed Image: Means of Production

  1. Wood engraving
  2. Copper (& steel) engraving
  3. Lithography
  4. Chromolithography
  5. Photoengraving

Part (ii)—The Ben Day Method

  1. Earlier Inventions by Benjamin Day
  2.  U.S. Patent no. 214,493
  3. What did Ben Day Design his Printing-Films For?

Coming attractions 


Introduction 1

Since this is Part 4 (of a series that just keeps getting longer) it’s about time I showed you some honest-to-goodness Ben Day dots.

This is an illustration from a book on advertising production—(Dalgin, 1946; see footnote 1). After reading a footnote, use the back arrow in your browser or the link provided, if using iPad etc. to return to the text.

(Clicking on any image takes you to a larger version, some of which may also be clickable/further enlargeable. Again, use the back arrow in your browser to return here.)

Ben Day screens x three w caption_100dpi

Are these at last actual Ben Day dots? The real thing?

Well… these are pictures of dots from a catalogue selling the products of Ben Day, Inc. Or rather, once upon a time, they were photographed from that catalogue, then printed in a book. Now, having been scanned by me and posted online, they are a bunch of pixels on your screen. Are they still Ben Day dots?

Ben Day dots originated in the 19th century. One way of defining the “real” Ben Day dot would be to look at the original process as used in the Victorian era. This could lead to an unreasonably narrow definition—or, as I hope to do, lay the groundwork for a definition of Ben Day dots which takes into account how the concept has survived into the 21st century.

Benjamin Henry Day Junior patented his new shading method in 1879. Later in this post I will be looking at his actual patent document.

Day patented a new way of producing what would later be called “mechanical tints.” His idea was to save some of the time and effort which was being spent drawing dots and lines by hand in the printing business. His was not the first such idea, but it was the one which dominated the field for decades to come.

From a 21st century perspective it is impossible to imagine just how many dots and lines were being hand-drawn (and/or engraved) in those days.

Printing on paper in 1879—in particular, the printing of pictures—was done using methods which have largely vanished from today’s world. I’ll be looking at those methods in detail before moving on to look at the Ben Day process itself. Understanding how pictures were printed back then will help to explain why and how Day’s invention became a success.

For about 60 years, that success was on a huge scale. By the time Dalgin (1) was writing about Ben Day dots in 1946, their glory days were over. The method was still in use, but newer, faster ways of printing similar-looking tints were rapidly taking its place. This makes defining what was and what was not a “true Ben Day dot” after, say, 1940 more problematic than it might at first seem.

Does this image from a 1964 DC comic contain Ben Day dots, for example? (2)

Girls' Romances 105 M-maybe

Here’s a close-up which makes the question easier to answer… or does it?

Don't Kiss Me Again! p6 pn2 detail_72dpi

Perhaps the precise question should be, “Did the original comic book, printed on paper, contain Ben Day dots—for example, the particular copy of the comic book obtained at the time by New York artist Roy Lichtenstein?”

What about the painting which Roy made based on this comic book panel, M-Maybe (1965)? Any Ben Day dots on that?


^^Table of Contents

 Introduction 2

This series started with a post about that famous Pop artist and his comic book paintings. Prior to 1961 the phrase “Ben Day dots” was part of the specialised language of graphic art, of publishing, production, engraving and printing. From that year onwards, Lichtenstein’s paintings brought the dots from obscurity into the public consciousness. As a helpful short-cut, I would like to designate this popularising of the dots “The Lichtenstein effect.”

A lot of the dots I looked at in Part 2 and Part 3—comic book dots, half-tone dots, inkjet & process colour dots, those pixels—are trying to create the illusion of something they’re not; an area of flat colour, a continuous graduated tone, a full-colour image.

And some of these other dots get mistaken for Ben Day dots. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the “real” Ben Day dot is an elusive thing.

dots x 5

Various dots—in a comic, a newspaper, from an inkjet printer, in a magazine, on a screen—pretending not to be dots.

The sub-title of my first post was “The Man Who Didn’t Paint Ben Day Dots,” a slightly mischievous but also quite serious assertion.

Roy Lichtenstein didn’t simply paint magnified versions of the dots he saw in the comics and small ads of the day. He painted his own personal vision of them, his response to them—Roy Lichtenstein dots. His dots were arguably doing the opposite of creating illusory tones—rather, being much larger than the originals, they set out to unmask the illusion. These, for example, are dots from his painting M-Maybe, as seen above.

M-maybe dots square

Roy Lichtenstein dots, being themselves

After the Lichtenstein effect set in, not only did a lot more people know about these dots—whole new levels of meaning attached to the phrase “Ben Day dots.” In fact, an online search reveals a great deal of misunderstanding about what they are, and what they are not.

Partly this reflects confusion about the technique itself, which gets muddled up with some of its 20th century successors such as Zip-A-Tone, seen below in this 1950s panel from the IDW book Wally Wood’s E.C. Stories.

ZIP Wally EC

Partly it is due to issues arising from the Lichtenstein effect itself.

This post attempts to dig out the truth about Ben Day dots—or at least, to make a start. It will include their “Secret Origins”—perhaps not actual secrets, but much of this stuff has not appeared online before, or is not easy to find. Nor is it covered in the histories of the comics. (3)

In this post I will:

  • look at how images were printed before the coming of Ben Day dots—this will be a lengthy section, setting the scene in various ways
  • Look in detail at Benjamin Day’s original 1879 patent

In future posts I will also attempt to answer these questions:

  • Who was Benjamin Henry Day Junior?
  • What did he do apart from invent dots?
  • How was his process used in the printing industry?
  • How successful was it?
  • Precisely how were Ben Day dots used in the comics?
  • If and when the comics stopped using them, what did they use next?

Finally I will return to 1961 and ask again: did Roy Lichtenstein really paint Ben Day dots? This time my answer will be totally and utterly definitive.  ;0)

^^Table of Contents

Part (i): Printing Pictures Before Ben Day

By “printing pictures” I don’t mean single works of art, or short-run limited editions of a few copies—though they may use the same methods I’m about to discuss. Artists making prints today (2015—and doubtless beyond) have kept many of the old techniques alive, long after their use in commercial printing ended.

Here though, unless specifically noted, I’m referring to mass production—the printing used for newspapers, magazines, illustrated books and postcards, for example. I include the colour lithography used to make early advertising posters and large editions of cheaper prints for framing on the wall.

Printing at that time Ben Day patented his dots was very different from what we see today. Clear accounts of this online are hard to come by. Some detailed explanations will help to clarify where Day’s invention fitted into the contemporary world of graphic art and printing.

If you read through this historical material, you will start to see why Ben Day did what he did, and why his new method had 60 or more years of success.

^^Table of Contents

The Press Before Pictures—Letterpress.

In 1879 newspapers and magazines, in general, were printed only in black & white. Special editions—e.g. Christmas numbers—or colour inserts, occasionally appeared.

Newspapers as such were also almost exclusively made up of text—with no illustrations. (4)


A Chicago paper, 1879, pages 1 & 2. Front page mainly advertisements, as was the custom.

When printing text pages, in books, magazines or newspapers, ink was transferred to paper from raised areas on metal surfaces, a process known as relief printing. Two other basic types of printing are possible, as shown below—intaglio (ink below the surface level of the plate) and planographic (flat plate surface)—more on this later.


From Dalgin 1946 (see footnote 2)

Text was printed from metal “movable type,” set into frames letter by letter and locked into a “forme” before printing. Since early newspapers and magazines used only type, the name letterpress was used for this kind of printing. The name stuck around even after various radical changes had occurred—e.g. the old flat “formes” had to be copied as curved “stereotypes” to go on the new rotary steam presses which came in during the 1870s.

The inclusion of pictures was another, earlier radical change to letterpress. If pictures and text were to be printed together on a page, involving only one “print run”—paper going through the same printing press only once—the illustrations had to be in relief at the exact same level as the type.

For technical reasons, until the 1840s, illustrations had mainly been printed by intaglio or planographic methods, incompatible with letterpress, and included only in relatively expensive books. (The exception to this was the crudely produced pamphlet known as the “chap-book” which we will meet below.)

Result: newspapers and periodicals in which pictures only rarely appeared—outside of humorous magazines like Le Charivari and Punch anyway—until 1842, that is.

^^Table of Contents

The Arrival of the Illustrated Press

Starting in 1842, The Illustrated London News (ILN) was the first weekly illustrated newspaper. Prior to this, the press would occasionally include illustrations of some royal special occasion or a sensational murder trial. ILN Founder Herbert Ingram realised that his newsagent’s business always sold a lot more copies of these editions.

His great innovation was to fill his publication with illustrations every week. (For a detailed account of the ILN, a lot of archive material, and interesting links, see )

ILN 1852

The technique used for the pictures, a relief method, had been around since the 1790s, mainly used in book illustration—the wood engraving (see Section 1, below).

After an uncertain start, the ILN became a real success, and many imitators followed, on both sides of the Atlantic. The combination of words and pictures was clearly something which the public was very much ready for. This was a major development in the media, comparable to the coming of cinema in the 1890s or radio in the 1920s.

And these magazines didn’t just need illustrations for their stories. They contributed to the irresistible rise of another institution that we now take for granted—the advertising industry. Increasingly, advertisements used pictures to draw attention to themselves, and this was a snowball that would keep on rolling.

Both editorial illustrations and advertisements would later be major users of Ben Day’s method, but they had to get by without him for the first 37 years.

Tea 72dpi

The London Tea Trade, ILN, Dec 1874

Some key points must now be made about this period—from the arrival of the ILN in 1842 to Ben Day’s first patent in 1879. There were a few exceptions to these statements, and things were rapidly changing as we will see, but on the whole:

  • Books remained relatively expensive, and book illustration was a different world from the periodicals and papers. From the mid-1840s, high-quality photographic prints could be used as book illustrations—thanks to a number of advances in intaglio printing techniques. But these were costly, slow, and could not be printed alongside text because they were not relief methods. (5)
  • Thus magazines and newspapers by 1879 still did not include photographs. That would require the halftone screen (see Part 2, and footnote 6) currently still in its infancy—widespread use of halftones only came in during the 1890s.
  • Even simple black & white line drawings done on paper could not be transferred directly onto printing plates for the relief presses until another breakthrough had been made—the photo-mechanical process, or photoengraving. (Section 5, below). In 1842 this was still a long way off. It was technically possible before 1879—but it only arrived in the world of commercial mass printing during the 1880s.
  • For true mass production during this period, a drawing, photograph or painting—even a simple line drawing on paper—had to be re-created by hand in printable form, on a printing surface made of wood, metal or stone.
  • Wood and metal had to be engraved and the lithographic stone was drawn on.
  • Furthermore, pre-halftone, the printed black & white image could not have any shades of grey. All such shading or “tonal effect” had to be achieved by varieties of line and dot work.
  • Similarly, coloured images were being printed (from lithographic stone, and from wood). These also required dots (stippling) and lines to create “tints” or paler tones from any given colour of ink.
  • These lines and dots were essentially hand-drawn/hand-engraved, though by the 1870s the human hand was starting to get some mechanical help.

^^Table of Contents

The Printed Image: Means of Production

The main methods used to make images for printing at the time Ben Day was working on and patenting his technique were:

  1. Wood engravingmostly black & white (B&W) periodicals and books, colour possible for special editions.
  2. Copper engraving—steel also used; mostly B&W; for high-end prints and books, maps, sheet music, currency
  3. Lithography (monochrome)—mainly B&W; books, art prints, maps, advertising and promotional meaterial
  4. Chromolithography (colour)—special colour inserts for magazines; books, art prints, posters. Increasingly, mass production of greetings cards, cheap art prints etc.
  5. Photoengraving—in its earliest stages at this time; not yet widely used; however, a major bombshell whose fuse had been lit.

^^Table of Contents

Looking at these in more detail:

1. Wood engraving

The large-scale publishing of illustrated magazines in the 1840s and 50s greatly revived wood engraving, which had been a fairly minor craft, if not quite a “dying art.” Though it was gradually edged out by newer methods, wood engraving remained the dominant form of illustration in the mass-printed press from the 1840s/50s until the early 1890s.

The precursor of the wood engraving was the woodcut—printed from a carved wooden block, originating in China, developed in Japan. It came to Europe around 1400 CE/AD—just in time for the movable type printing revolution started by Johannes Gutenberg. Like letterpress, woodcut was a form of relief printing. This meant words and pictures could be locked into the same frame and printed together.

The mediaeval version is probably what comes to mind when we hear the word woodcut—something like this 1551 illustration from an edition of the popular book Fortunatus. (7)


Phenomenal German artist and mathematician Albrecht Dürer started as a woodcut artist, taking the technique to new heights. Thanks to Wikipedia I can show you both his pen & ink drawing of a rhinoceros, and the famous woodcut print made from it (1515). The drawing was not only further embellished in going from drawing to print, but also mirror-imaged or left-right reversed—of which, more later.

Dürer's_two Rhinoceroses

Dürer’s two rhinos. Above, pen & ink. Below, bestselling woodcut print.

To make a woodcut block, a drawing was made on a very flat wooden surface, either by drawing straight onto the wood, or tracing an existing picture from paper. The wood was then carved into by the block-maker—often not the same artist who did the drawing. Cutting the wood was a very specialised skill.

Printed images were made by applying ink to the wood surface standing out in relief above the cut-away areas. Any area of wood left flat and unworked would print solid black. Where the craftsman cut away lines and shapes from the wood was where the print would come out white.

In book illustration, the woodcut peaked before the 1700s. It was superseded by higher quality techniques of engraving and etching on metal. These intaglio methods needed a very different type of printing, and separate presses from text, so illustrations of this kind took up full pages, added in to books or periodicals during the binding process.

However, as illustration for cheap, popular printed material (ballads, chapbooks, almanacs etc.) the humble woodcut continued to thrive into the mid-19th century. Below is early superhero Jack the Giant Killer, from around 1820. Spoiler Alert: don’t read the cover of the chapbook too closely.

jack 2

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Wood engraving was the evolved descendant of the woodcut, originated by the English engraver Thomas Bewick in the 1780s-90s. His two great innovations were: working “against the grain” of the hard end of a boxwood block, rather than with the grain on the sides of the block; and use of fine tools (burins) previously used by engravers on metal. This combination allowed for finer detail.

On the print shown below, “del & sculpt” means that Bewick both drew the picture and engraved it. (“Delineavit” in Latin = “drawn by,” “sculpsit” = “engraved by”.) Later on, with factory-like production of commercial woodcuts, this was rarely the case.

Bewick horse 1790

Early Thomas Bewick, published 1790

The wood engraver achieved shading or the effect of grey tones mainly by various forms of line work. Parallel lines, often curved, and of varying thickness, were easier to make on wood than cross-hatching, which early on tended to be used sparingly if at all. (Indeed, another of Bewick’s innovations was the use of more “white lines” and the dropping of the time-consuming imitation of cross-hatched lines—though that technique came back later, as we shall see.) Dots and irregular stipples were occasionally used, generally white on black.

Though it had a place in the illustration of books, wood engraving did not take off in a big way until the second half of the 19th century, with the boom in illustrated weekly papers. Being a relief method, the wooden blocks could once again sit alongside text on the printing presses. With the massively increased demand from The ILN and its many imitators, wood engraving was soon being done on an almost industrial scale. (8)

As The Encyclopedia of Ephemera notes: “By the 1880s, ruling machines were in common use; they allowed very accurate tints to be engraved, and with much greater speed and precision than could be achieved by hand.” (9)

Also, from the 1860s, increasing use was made of photographic techniques. Both pen-&-ink drawings and photographs themselves could be “fixed” photographically onto the wood blocks and copied directly by the engraver, though it altered the working surface detrimentally.

In imitating line drawings, the tedious replication of cross-hatched lines now came back in fashion. This could not be done directly, as engraving created white spaces, not black lines. Instead, each white square or “diamond” shape between the drawn lines had to be individually cut away.

Before long, critics including John Ruskin complained that wood engravers working for the magazines had lost any creativity they’d once had, being reduced to mere technicians—copyists, in a style called “fac simile”, “fac-simile” or eventually “facsimile.” This simply meant “making an exact copy,” and originally applied to the very precise copying of pen-and-ink drawings—right down to details like squiggles and, of course, cross-hatching. This was adapted for the close copying of photographs.

In imitating photographs, with better paper surfaces and better printing allowing finer lines closer together, the best wood engravings approached the fidelity of the photograph itself (See also 8)

The Prince of Prussia, below, was very likely engraved directly from a photo. He also provides an example of cross-hatching. (10)

Prince of Prussia

Prince William Frederick of Prussia, wood engraving from the ILN 1870 (detail) (from Wikipedia)

Owners of engraving companies not only gained influence over what was published but branched out directly into publishing themselves. Frank Leslie, a senior engraver on The Illustrated London News, went to the U.S.A. in 1848, started Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855, and got rich. We shall be meeting him again—or at least his paper.

Wood engravings also continued to be used in books—now increasingly so. Some of the best known are probably Sir John Tenniel‘s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (1865). Tenniel’s drawings were engraved by the major commercial studio of the Dalziel Brothers—one of whom, Gilbert, bought the comic magazine Judy in 1872 and owned its massively successful 1884 spin-off, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. (11)


Gustave Doré and his engravers, in the 1860s and 70s, provided the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Don Quixote and many other books with highly sophisticated wood engravings. Dore’s name appears by convention in the bottom left hand corner of his illustrations, and the block-maker’s at bottom right.

Dore Bible

John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness by Doré

The increasing level of detail possible in wood engraving made mass colour printing from wood blocks more feasible. From the late 1830s, George Baxter led the way in this. His prints, and those of his many imitators, were based on black or grey images printed by an intaglio metal plate. Colours were then printed onto the key image, solely or mainly with wood-engraved blocks.

Later practitioners, notably Edmund Evans, abandoned the black or grey metal key plate, working solely with wood blocks. Known as chromoxylography, this method was increasingly used in the second half of the 19th century. Some illustrated books used a sophisticated type, and many paperbacks and cheap pulp periodicals somewhat simpler versions.

In the weekly magazines, similar methods were pioneered first by a short-lived paper, The Coloured News, in August to September 1855, then sporadically by the Illustrated London News, starting with its 1855 Christmas edition. But here the wood-engraved blocks were increasingly joined by metal printing plates, etched by acid, for some or all of the colour work—in some ways anticipating the later photo-engraving process. By the 1870s, the better-off periodicals were using this method, sometimes called chromotypography, for occasional special editions. The Graphic, notably, regularly had colour pages in its Christmas and Summer special editions from 1875.

I shall return to these key developments in colour printing in a future post.

Very often by the mid-19th century original wood engraving blocks were preserved, and the images actually printed from metal copies, originally made by stereotyping (new metal plates cast from papier mache moulds of the original formes) and increasingly by the higher quality electrotyping. To make an electrotype, a cast of the engraved wooden surface was made in wax (or other soft material) then coated with a fine layer of graphite—an electrical  conductor. A thin copper (or zinc) replica of the original was made by dipping the wax cast in a bath of metal salts and running an electric current through it—copper (or zinc) atoms being deposited on the negatively charged graphite. The thin metal copy was strengthened before being used as a printing plate.

If you are thinking at this point, “All this engraving and electrotyping and what-not must have taken a lot of fairly skilled man-hours—and ended up pretty expensive”… hold that thought. I’ll be coming back to it. For now, let us note that engraving on wood—though it might take days to finish a picture—was at least a good deal faster than the old copper method (below). If it hadn’t been, the magazines could not have existed.

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Before wood engraving took off, 19th century books were largely illustrated by engravings done on copper plates, or by the cheaper, faster lithographs.

2. Copper (sometimes steel) engraving

This had started in the 1430s. It involved cutting an image with hard steel tools into a copper plate, sometimes assisted by acid etching. In this it appears similar to wood engraving, but there is a crucial difference—this is an intaglio method. To make a print, ink is applied to the plate then wiped off the surface. The lines or dots cut into the copper hold ink and transfer it to paper under high pressure—i.e. the areas lower than the surface will print black, not white as in wood engraving. On copper, a flat unworked area prints white, the opposite of the relief method on wood, where it prints black.

Copper engravings tended to be used more in high-end, small edition printing, for expensive books or prints to go on the wall. Below is Robert Walpole, father of Lord Walpole, in an engraving from 1801—a copy of a painted portrait. The print in real life is just over 9 x 12 cm. The copper plate would have been the same size. Check out that dotted shading—stippling—every dot cut or etched by hand into copper. Every line carefully cut—hours, days or weeks of painstaking craftsmanship!

Robert Walpole 1801_whole_small  COPPER STIPPLE WALPOLE detail face

The pattern below is a typical stipple pattern of the kind William Blake learned to make during his apprenticeship as a copper engraver in the 1770s.

However I am cheating here—it is actually one of Ben Day’s dot patterns from over a hundred years later. While Ben Day was at the forefront of mechanical printing methods, some of his dots were decidedly backward-looking. Stippled patterns were key to Ben Day’s early success—of which, more later.


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3. Lithography

This was widely used in books from about 1820. Many periodicals also used B&W lithographs as illustrations and cartoons. After the wood engraving boom of the 1840s/50s, lithography continued to be used—especially, from the 1840s, as a colour method, chromolithography (see next section). (12)

In lithography, a drawing was made (or copied) in greasy ink on a flat block of limestone—about 10cm thick, heavy and cumbersome. Amazingly these blocks were actually used in mechanised printing presses (the foot-pedalled type giving way to the modern steam-driven variety) though they were later replaced by thinner, lighter metal plates using a similar grease/water method. (13)

Two things are particularly notable in the 1834 lithograph which I have scanned below. Firstly, the stippling here (seen in the close-up detail) is achieved by drawing on a rough stone surface with a greasy crayon or “chalk”—a much faster process, if giving less control, than making marks on copper.


1834 lithograph, original image size c. 23 x 15.5 cm

Secondly, the printed version would have to be drawn in reverse on the stone plate, as shown below. This applies to any image on a printing plate—text too. (14)


Above print, flipped left-right or mirror-imaged, as drawn on stone

Drawings could also be done on special paper, which allowed the greasy ink image to be transferred to the stone. From the 1860s, these “transfer papers” were increasingly used, the paper being made with grainy or other patterns which allowed for stippling or other variations in the lithographic image. Also, the paper drawing could be done the right way ’round, as it was to be reversed when transferred to the stone.

When an image had been completed on the block, the stone was treated with a watery mixture of weak acid and gum arabic, which chemically changed the surface layer of stone without appreciably eating it away. (This was called “etching” but was very different from the stronger acid-etching used in copper engraving and the making of “etchings” as such, and from the later photoengraving method (below)—all of which dissolved the metal to a greater depth.)

The image areas, covered by greasy ink, were protected from this chemical change. The non-image parts, once treated, had the property of attracting water. The original ink image was then washed off with a solvent, leaving a thin greasy layer bonded to the surface of the stone where it had been. The image thus remained on the stone as a flat water-repelling version of itself.

Now when the stone was wetted, the image repelled water, the non-image areas attracted it. Oil-based ink could be rolled onto the wet stone, adhering only to the image areas. The image could now be printed by repeatedly wetting and inking the stone.

Because the stone stays pretty much flat, lithography is a planographic technique—as seen in the Dalgin drawing earlier. As with copper plate engraving, because neither is a relief method, lithography required a separate print run from letterpress, with illustrated lithographed pages added in during binding. Alternatively, letterpress magazine pages could be run through another press, with lithographs printing onto blank spaces left between areas of text. Either method was an appreciable added expense.  (15)

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4. Chromolithography (Colour Lithography)

A lithograph often had a second colour added, e.g. a pale yellowish ink, which needed a second stone to be drawn—then for landscapes, a three-colour combination of black with pale brown (earth) plus blue (sea and/or sky). These tinted lithographs were popular and led to the widespread adoption of multiple-colour chromolithography, at  first for artistic prints, later book illustrations, postcards, greeting cards, cigar labels—and pictures to be inserted into the more expensive magazines. Vanity Fair, for example, only became a success after it started its famous series of caricatures in chromolithograph form (1869-1914). Though the technique was available from the 1840s, it really boomed in the 1880s and 90s. (Partly due to help from the Ben Day dot, as we shall see.)

Every colour added to a chromolithograph needed another stone to be made—drawn by hand—and a separate print run. The stones and images had to be very accurately positioned or “registered” so that the coloured images printed precisely on top of each other. One of the darker colours would be chosen as the “key” stone, and the others all lined up against this one. This is why the letter K—for key—is used for the colour black in the later four-colour CMYK printing, as seen in Part 3.

The craftsmen making them also had to work out how coloured inks would look when printed over each other. This accumulated knowledge would be passed on to printers working with newer techniques. (More next time in Part 5—Ben Day and colour.)

Below is an example from the entry on chromolithography in the famous German encyclopaedia, F.A. Brockhaus´ Konversations-Lexikon (1894 edition). I think the colour illustrations in this book were themselves printed lithographically. Nine colours are used here, shown in order of printing. Note how no green ink was used, despite all that vegetation.


Also, no black was used in this picture, and most chromolithographs used no black ink. (If the job did call for black outlines, as later styles sometimes did, the black would be the “key”.) In order to make the block for each colour, an outline drawing (below) was copied lightly in non-greasy/non-printing red chalk—or “stained”—onto each of the nine stones, but only as a guide for the craftsmen. This is shown below. This might also be called the “key” drawing—in German, it was known as the “Konturen” drawing—i.e.”contours” or “outlines”.

Chromolithographie_K pic_small_72dpi

Below is my scan of another chromolithograph, this time a postcard of a scene in Scotland (date unknown).

Waterfall at Inversnaid_72dpi

As noted above, each colour of ink could in the main only print as its pure self—there were no graduated or “half” tones. In fact, for the higher end of the market, ways were found to create paler washes and—by scraping ink off the stone—the effect of a “white chalk” highlight. These however were complicated and time-consuming.

Overlapping of colours could be used to gain extra hues, and stippling was widely used to give the illusion of lighter tints, if on a white background, and in colour mixes. Unlike engravings, the drawing methods used on the lithographic stone did not readily lend themselves to drawing fine lines. Again, there were exceptions to this, and I will come back to the subject in part 5.

Below are nine details from the postcard image, showing stippling in many colours. Though instruments were tried to speed this up, it was essentially a hand-drawn process, using pen and ink. (16)

9 pics_b

To sum up so far: when Ben Day launched his new process in 1879,  wood engraving was the main method used to create (mostly) black & white illustrations; chromolithography was a very large and still-growing industry for making a variety of colour images. Copper engraving remained in use for expensive projects. I haven’t mentioned aquatint and etching which were also used, largely for artistic prints, because they aren’t very relevant. Gravure, another not very pertinent printing method (though classy, expensive and eventually widely used) was just being perfected in 1879…

….but so was another new process that was starting to change the world of printing radically at the same time that Ben Day’s new method came on the scene…

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5. Photoengraving.

The importance of photoengraving to the Ben Day story cannot be over-emphasised. This is the type of printing in which the Ben Day dot would have its biggest and most lasting success.

Photoengraving is often discussed as if it were the same thing as halftone (see note 6 again). In fact photoengraving of plain B&W artwork came first, and took some time to perfect. The later addition of the halftone method greatly added to the possibilities of photoengraving, but for our purposes it is worth keeping line work and halftone work distinct. The Ben Day dot is part of line art photoengraving, though often mistaken for halftone and vice versa.

This definition of the photoengraving process is adapted from Flader & Mertle, Modern Photoengraving(1948) (see note 3):

A method for the production of metallic printing surfaces in relief, usually for illustrating purposes from drawings, photographs etc., the process being characterised by the following steps:

  • A photographic image of the subject is obtained by a camera—in this example, as a negative.
  • This is transferred by photographic exposure directly onto the metal,
  • which has been prepared with a light-sensitive coating,
  • so that light from the “white” parts of the negative image hardens the coating
  • which gives those parts of the metal a protective layer in the exact shape of the original image.
  • The metal is exposed to acid, eating away (etching) the unprotected (non-image) areas making the non-image areas lower than the image areas.
  • An image in relief has now been created on the metal
  • and can be printed from.

An early version of the technique was famously created by Paris engraver Firmin Gillot in the mid 1850s. Significant improvements were made by his son Charles who started the first commercial photo-engraving business in Paris in 1876. From the later 1880s, photo-engraving started to seriously challenge wood engraving as a way of reproducing pen-and-ink drawings. (17)

In 1893, the ILN Company launched a new weekly, The Sketch, which was the first to print all its illustrations using the photoengraving process. (See Beegan, note 8)

This diagram (also adapted from Flader & Mertle) shows the photo-engraving process in very basic form:

Flader diagram w text_72dpi

Flader & Mertle’s diagram originally illustrated halftone dots of different sizes being photo-engraved on copper. The same basic steps apply to line art—that is, any black & white picture with no grey tones. Line art would normally use zinc plates, not copper, which was reserved for finer halftone work. Coarser newspaper halftones would also use zinc. (18)

This brief account of photoengraving makes it all seem too simple. Dalgin (1) has a more detailed account that gets closer to the messy, smelly industrial reality. His account of how things were done in 1946 is not far removed from when Ben Day first went into the business. (19)

Dalgin’s Figure 1, below, shows the engraver making his own glass negative by pouring on a thick gummy liquid called collodion—a colourless, transparent solution of gun cotton in ether, which dries quickly.


In Fig.2 the coated glass is sensitised—soaked in a solution of silver nitrate, which is absorbed by the collodion layer, effectively turning it into a large piece of photographic film. This is the “wet plate” or “wet collodion” method, invented in 1851. Before this advance, photoengraving was not feasible. The sharpness and quality of the negative image was now greatly improved, and it could be peeled off its glass backing as a thin transparent layer.


In Fig.3 the glass/collodion plate is mounted in a large camera, and a negative image of the “copy” is made. The copy is the line art, or as Flader & Mertle’s glossary defined it in 1948: Copy—Popular but inept term for “original.”


At this stage the negative can be made smaller or larger than the original copy. Line art would generally be reduced for printing. The negative has to be the same size as the image on the printing plate, though—i.e the same size as the final printed image.

Fig.4 (20)

Fig.5:—After the negative has been peeled off the glass, using a solution of India rubber in benzene, it exists as a delicate sheet of dried collodion. This is generally laid down alongside other negatives on a “flat”, another large sheet of glass. For reasons of economy, several negatives are dealt with at one time.


The printing plate now has to be prepared.  Fig.6 shows an engraver coating a zinc sheet with bichromatised albumen. In the very early days a variety of bichromate-based coatings may have been used, but by the time photoengraving was in widespread use, this had become the dominant one.


In Fig.7 the flat has been laid directly onto the zinc plate and they are being exposed to very bright light. This could take an hour or two. At this stage the negatives are upside down, therefore they are left-right reversed, and so is the image being made on the plate. As we saw before, this is necessary for the final printed image to come out the right way round.


In our historical albumen-coated example, Fig.8 should actually show the plate being inked so the engraver can see the images. Instead Mr Dalgin shows a plate with light-hardened enamel image areas being dipped in dye—same principle, but a later development. Before this stage, there is hardly any visible difference between the light-hardened image areas and the still-soluble non-image areas of the albumen coating.


In either case, the images only show clearly after the non-image areas of the light-sensitive coating have been washed off with water (Fig.9). By analogy with a photographic print on paper, Dalgin calls this “developing” the plate.


Fig.10 shows the plate being etched in an acid-bath. Before this its back surface has been painted with a protective layer of tar-like “asphaltum”, so as not to be dissolved away. Only the non-image areas on the front of the plate—unprotected by the hardened albumen—must be eaten away. The first etching is shallow and called “the first bite.”


There were usually three more “bites.” Fig.11 shows the plate being powdered between bites. The powder was the legendary Dragon’s Blood, a powdered dried resin gathered from various trees and palm fruit. At every stage of etching after the first bite, it was brushed four times over the plate, so as to protect all four sides of the raised metal areas from undercutting by the acid.

scr DALGIN 11 w D Blood

Dragon’s Blood photo by Andy Dingle (from Wikipedia)

What’s more, every time the powder was brushed on, the plate had to be heated over gas jets (Fig.12) to melt the resin, and solidify it into a protective layer on the metal. Before each of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bites a cycle of four brushings/heatings/coolings was carried out—twelve in all. This could be half day’s work in itself, for a skilled craftsperson. If not done properly, the image areas on the metal would not be fit for purpose.


Fig.13 shows routing, in which unwanted metal is cut away, and larger etched (non-image) areas may be deepened. This was done with the aid of high-speed machines.


Below left is a completed zinc plate—or part of one—from 1879. The repeated circular marks made by the router can be clearly seen. On the right, I’ve flipped it and made a negative, which gives you an idea at least of what the printed image looked like. (21)

Zinc plate 1879 x2

I say “zinc plate—or part of one” because, like Dalgin’s example above, this image was probably taken from a “flat” with several negatives on it. Thus the zinc plate also had several pictures on it, and was physically cut into pieces to separate them. The once-common term “cuts” for individual illustrations, as in Comic Cuts (1890 to 1953) originated in the days of hand engraving, when the illustration was literally cut into the copper or wood. In the photoengraving world, the term “cuts” persisted well into the 20th century, possibly because of this cutting up of plates. In letterpress, each cut was mounted on a wood block to achieve the same level as type in the forme.

Comic Cuts

Here’s something a bit more up-to-date, below—the black plate of a page from a Popeye comic book—no.13, according to its owner (22)—probably from 1950. Also flipped, on the right, looking more like the printed version.

Popeye13printingplate_cheezyWhiz 2008

Like the original newspaper strips from which they evolved, comic books were printed by letterpress—at least for their first few decades. Final fun image, below: I don’t need to flip this one. The seller of this 1982 Avengers cover plate (again the black plate) had it mounted with a copy of the comic book cover. The legacy of the photoengraving revolution of the 1880s lived on for over a century.

Avengers 225

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And revolution it was. Apart from the catastrophic employment statistics for wood engravers, this was also a big change for illustrators:

Brush or pen & ink line drawings were now reproduced without the intervening hands of the engravers.

Artists no longer had anyone to blame if their drawing didn’t come out well in print. On the other hand, wood engravers had also been known to improve deficient drawings. Illustrators and cartoonists were now on their own. In the longer run this led to a Golden Age of illustration, but at first there were many anxieties to be overcome.

In 1894, Henry Blackburn began his book The Art of Illustration with these words: The object of this book is to explain the modern systems of Book and Newspaper Illustration, and especially the methods of drawing for what is commonly called “process,” on which so many artists are now engaged.

He went on: The illustrator of to-day is called upon suddenly to take the place of the wood engraver in interpreting tone into line, and requires practical information which this book is intended to supply. (23)

Already by 1894 (and indeed much earlier) the photoengraving processes including line work and halftone were collectively being referred to as “process,” a name that would stick for a long time—long enough to attach to “colour process” when it arrived some time later. At this time, everything in “process” was still in black and white.

The catch-all term “process” really did take on a life of its own. Below is the 1898 cover of the influential publication later known as The Penrose Annual, which had started in 1895 and would run until 1982. Its official original title was The Process Year Book. (24)

1898 Penrose cover 72dpi

Another implication of this revolution was that a previously published line art illustration—a copper or wood engraving, or zinc relief photo-engraved print—could now easily be copied by photographing it, and making a printing plate from the photo. Publishers/bootleggers were not slow to pick up on this, especially as international copyright laws were non-existent. As early as 1880, Mark Twain published his book A Tramp Abroad, containing over 300 illustrations prepared by the new “process.” These included—as reviewers noted at the time—several copies of previously published engravings. (25)

One of many artists contributing new pictures to A Tramp Abroad was a decidedly average illustrator called Ben Day. I will discuss this important book in another post.

But we should not meet Ben Day, unremarkable artist, just yet. It’s time to meet Ben Day, inventor of the famous dot… though I should make it clear that they are indeed one and the same person.

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Part (ii): The Ben Day Method


1. Earlier Inventions by Benjamin Day

Benjamin Henry Day Junior of West Hoboken, New Jersey, was nearly 40 in January of 1878 when he filed for a U.S. patent for his new shading medium. It was granted in April 1879. (26) It can be safely assumed that he was working on the new invention at least as early as 1877.

Though Day’s artwork had been published in major magazines like Frank Leslie’s and (according to Wikipedia) Harper’s Weekly and Vanity Fair, he probably knew he was not in the top rank of American illustrators. Luckily for him—and the printing world—he also had the inventing bug.

His first patent, as far as I can ascertain, was granted in 1864. U.S. Patent no. 42,530 was for “Improvement in Relief-Printing Plates.” This followed on from an 1860 patent (not Day’s) in which a chalk or hard clay surface was used to print from. Day’s improved method probably led nowhere much. Chalk- and clay-based printing never seriously challenged lithography. Author Mark Twain (him again) invested heavily in a method called Kaolotype, but famously lost his money.

Ben Day’s next invention may not have troubled the bestseller lists either, though it could have been ahead of its time. “Improvement in Sectional Images” (patent granted December 1870) was described by him as “a new and grotesque… scientific and artistic toy…” He proposed making a series of fragmented heads with different features, which could be mixed up when fitted together, to produce “from a very few complete sets of features, a vast number of different images” for amusement or artistic study. A bit like Mr Potato-Head or those flip-cards where you fold a ballerina’s top half into place above the legs of the Incredible Hulk.

Sectional pics

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2. U.S. Patent no. 214,493

His next patent was dated April 22nd 1879, and modestly entitled Improvement in Printing Films. With this document we see the arrival of the Ben Day shading method.

So this is when Ben Day patented his famous dots… ?

Well… almost. This patent, in its two-and-a-half pages of text and two pages of diagrams, doesn’t actually mention the word “dot” once. It was all about the line at this point—or nearly all. Over half-way through the text, Day does eventually mention the possibility of “stipple,” and we know of course that stippling means drawing dots. But the word stipple(s) / stippling appears only four times to line(s) / lining’s thirty, and the illustrations all show lines being used.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, it was 1900 before Day patented a dot pattern as such—though he was manufacturing stipple patterns as early as 1881. More on that in a later post

Text 1 Top

“This invention,” wrote Day in his opening remarks to Patent no. 214,493, “relates to certain new and useful pellicles [skins or membranes] which I denominate ‘flexible printing-films’ designed for use for artistic and decorative purposes; also for printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings, printing and copying surfaces, &c., as will be hereinafter more fully described.”

He goes on to describe how he makes one of his printing-films, in this case 6 x 8 inches in size (some later ones were much larger). He gets a series of lines engraved on a wood or metal block, then makes an impression from this by electrotype or pressure “in any suitable substance but preferably tin foil.”

This foil “matrix” is heated on a flat glass or metal surface to between 100 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit (27). He pours on a warm solution of fine glue or gelatine and glycerine, and continues to heat it until most of the water has evaporated and the mixture sets solid. He backs it with fine white silk which is cemented on by pressure, then peels the film off the matrix. It is then sewn onto a wooden frame.

The film in its frame would later become known as a “screen,” probably due to its resemblance to a screen door. There may have been some analogy with the “halftone screen,” though that was made of glass and is quite a different animal. Dalgin (1) shows a Ben Day screen being taken off the shelf later in his book:

Dalgin 20

Day notes that his film is nearly transparent; has a surface with raised lines corresponding to the engraved lines of the original block, except flexible, yielding and elastic; and has a surface which readily takes printing inks or other colours from rollers or pads.

He likes silk for the backing, but says that “collodion or [any] other transparent flexible substance” would do. The commercially available version, later on, is known to have used a celluloid backing.

You will have noticed that all his patents so far have been for “improvements.” Why does Day call this patent “Improvement in Printing-Films”? He explains: “I am aware of the processes described in English patents Nos. 2,844 of 1867 and 109 and 2,538 of 1871; but these do not show a thin, tough, and transparent printing-film like mine, nor the process of producing the impression by the abrasive action of a stylus upon the back of the film.”  These English patents are not as easy to find as the relevant U.S. ones, so for now that is all I can tell you.

In explaining how his films are used, Day refers to his diagrams, reproduced below. Starting with Figures 1 to 3, he simply shows the film in its frame. I have paraphrased his own words slightly in captioning the pictures:

Fig 1 2 3 w text

The narrative skips to Figs. 11 and 12, showing the inking of the film in close-up:

Fig 11 12 final w text

Now he describes transferring lines in ink onto a picture (Figs. 4 to 7, below). It is, he tells us, a picture “drawn in the usual way by hand upon stone or other suitable material.” This might indicate that Day saw lithographers as the main users of his method—more on this later.

Fig 4 5 6 7 final w text

Figure 13 shows how the stylus is used to press the inked film down onto the stone or paper.

Fig 13 final w text

We are used to thinking of Ben Day patterns—the famous dots at least—as the epitome of mechanical shading, with complete, we might say mathematical, regularity. Certainly this was one of the features which Roy Lichtenstein was to exploit in the 1960s (and Roy did use lines as well as dots himself). Day was clearly aware of this as an advantage, but as seen below he was also keen to stress that his printed lines could be imbued with variety and character by the hand of the artist or craftsperson.

Fig 8 9 10 final w text

We look at the Ben Day method across a gulf of time, and we are wearing Lichtenstein-tinted spectacles. But we can attempt to put ourselves back in Ben’s own shoesby looking at the direct evidence of his Letters Patent, and indirect evidence from his times—and ask…

^^Table of Contents

3. What did Ben Day Design his Printing-Films For ?

Some U.S. patents state if they are for a new design or a new method. Ben Day’s Patent no. 214,493 covers both. It is much more clear on the design (and manufacture) of the printing-films and the method of (im)printing lines with one than it is on what the method might be used for. I suspect that the imprecise language used in this patent would today be rewritten by a practiced attorney, so as to define far more specifically the purposes to which the method was foreseen to be put.

Starting with the name; it is clear that they are called “printing-films” because they are used to (im)print a pattern in ink onto a lithographic stone or a piece of paper, etc.—not because they are to be used in the printing industry. The name “printing-film” is intrinsically ambiguous and potentially confusing. (Before long, they were officially known as “shading mediums”—and by artists and printers, as “screens.”)

His introductory words on the subject are also typically ambiguous: “…printing-films… designed for use for artistic and decorative purposes; also for printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings, printing and copying surfaces, &c.”

Here when he says “printing” as in “printing and the preparation and finishing of drawings” does he mean (im)printing his patterns onto drawings, i.e. directly from his printing-film, or does he mean he mean “for commercial printing of drawings by lithography etc.”?

If the latter, why does he go on to say: “..and the preparation and finishing of printing… surfaces”? Here he must be referring to the surfaces of printing blocks/plates, so he would be repeating himself, effectively saying “my films can be used in commercial printing and in commercial printing.”

Either way, he makes usage in the actual printing business sound secondary to “artistic and decorative purposes.”

He later states: “…prints may be made, not only upon flat surfaces and various materials, such as paper, wood, metal, stone, ivory and glass, but also upon curved or irregular surfaces of every description of the same or other materials.”

In his final summing-up Day does not mention lithography or printing plates at all. He defines his process as “The method of lining, shading, stippling, hatching, graining, printing or tinting pictures or other objects in one or more colors…”

Admittedly, printing plates/blocks are “other objects,” but to me this conjures up a vision of a carved ivory walrus, decorated with a regular grid of fine lines, in a room with the prettiest window panes in town.

However throughout the document there are indications that he does see utility for his films in these areas:

  • lithographic printing
  • photoengraving of metal printing plates
  • wood engraving
  • drawing on paper

Lithography at first seems the most favoured of these. As noted above, Day’s diagrams show a drawing “on stone or other suitable material.” Day never states what will happen to the stone after his lines have been imprinted on it, though. Will it be used to print a black & white image? Could it contribute coloured lines to the printing of a chromolithograph? Perhaps he thinks this can simply be “taken as read.”

Just after the part about ivory and glass, and before his summing up, he has this to say:

“Another of the useful results of this invention, to be also described in one of my other applications for patent [my italics—see below], is the quick and rapid production of printing and copying surfaces for lithographic printing and the production of etched blocks for printing, and of copying-surfaces for the making of printing blocks by photographic agency.”

This is a very revealing paragraph. Firstly, it is the only clear indication in the whole document that Day foresees his films being used during the photoengraving process. By “etched blocks” and “printing blocks” he could mean metal plates, which were widely referred to as blocks in the early days.

Secondly, despite that “Another …” which again seems to relegate this to a secondary usage, it demonstrates that Day saw the lithographer as a significant user of his films.

This is also borne out by a look at his next patent which I think must be the one he is referring to here, though he did not apply for it until July 1881. It was granted on November 29th that year. This was for an Adjustable Frame for Printing Films. (I will discuss this in more detail next time. The Adjustable Frame was as important to the success of Day’s shading medium as the printing-films themselves.)

As seen in the diagram below, the Adjustable Frame holds the shading sheet A and its own wooden frame B over the “lithographic stone A’, or other block upon which the drawing or design is to be fixed.” Again Day’s diagram clearly shows a stone blockwhich I have tinted purple for claritywhile his text allows the possibility that it could be a metal one. In his summing up he repeatedly refers to a “stone or block.”

Holding Frame 1881 purple cropped

I find it interesting that he doesn’t directly mention photoengraving on metal plates at all in this 1881 patent, and only very briefly in the 1879 one.

Returning to the 1879 document, Day does refer to wood engraving directly and more than once: “To produce such lines accurately by hand-drawing in the usual manner by any species of drawing instrument, or by means of graving tools in wood-engraving or other engraving, is a work of difficulty, involving much labor and the exercise of peculiar skill…”

Day is particularly proud of his cross-hatching. As he says: “To execute good cross hatching, either in drawing or engraving by hand… is one of the most difficult, laborious and expensive operations known to the artist.” I noted earlier that cross-hatching was a particularly difficult thing to achieve on wood, involving cutting out the white spaces between the black lines.

He says that his films could be “…cast with a different face or different character of lines, grain or stipple… thus effecting a vast saving in time and labor in the production of difficult artistic work.” He is offering “…greater rapidity, doing in one hour’s time… an amount of work that would require a month’s labour if executed in the usual manner.”

Tea details X 4

Details of a wood engraving from 1874

There is an obvious emphasis on Day’s method speeding up the production process. The lengthy time needed to engrave wooden blocks did of course contribute major delays and costs to the publishing business. But there is also such a lack of clarity in Day’s text that I find myself asking: “Production of what, exactly?”

Day must have known that imprinting his lines on their blocks would not have helped wood engravers very much, if at all.

They would still have had to carve away the wood around the lines, and they already had mechanical devices to help them engrave fine parallel lines. Given that wood engravers are very unlikely to use his printing-films, it’s strange that Day should mention wood engraving at all, let alone give it apparent emphasis… but I will return to this below.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the first big success of the Ben Day method was in the field of chromolithography. Here the speed and efficiency of his method was indeed a crucial factor. In my next post I will show evidence that by 1885 it was in almost universal use by colour lithographers. Day clearly anticipated this, at least to some extent.

It seems he was not so sure whether photoengravers would take up his method, though he probably had inklings. This is hardly surprising—whereas chromolithography was well-established, photoengraving was a very new technique. Day was certainly well-placed to take advantage of the possibilities when they opened up. Use of Ben Day shading mediums did become massively prevalent in the photoengraving of black & white line art and coloured illustrations.

This is reflected in the British ad below, from the 1898 Penrose Annual, in which Day’s UK agent puts “zinc” ahead of “stone.” (In the U.S. it looks as if “stone” was still privileged, as seen in the ad I showed at the top of this section.)

1898 Penrose ad BEN DAY only

In my next post I will look in detail at where and how the Ben Day method fitted into both the photoengraving process itself and the printing industry in a wider sense. This included, from 1991, an explosion of colour printing in newspapers, which was only possible because of two advances—new types of printing press and the Ben Day method.

The histories tend to remember the presses, and forget about the dots. I hope to make amends. Also, particularly for those who have been waiting patiently—this is of course where the comic strips come in.

Comics 3x3

Finally, back to the drawing board. You will have noticed that both the old advertisements I’ve shown mentioned “cardboard.” This refers to illustration board—drawing paper mounted onto a stiff backing—which professional illustrators routinely used for their finished work.

There are many references in the 1879 patent to “artistic purposes”, drawings, and artists at work. Day himself was an illustrator—did he think that his printing-films would be popular with artists, imprinting his patterns onto their drawings on board? Did he use them this way himself?

If we knew that, we might also find the answer to that nagging question, why did Day repeatedly refer to wood engraving in his patent text?

I quoted Henry Blackburn above, from 1894, re: photoengraving: “The illustrator of to-day is called upon suddenly to take the place of the wood engraver in interpreting tone into line…”

Is this where the emerging importance of photoengraving, Day’s detailed discussions of wood engraving and the slowness of its techniques, and his own work as an illustrator, come together?

Did Ben Day—responding to the same concern as Blackburn, but over fifteen years earlier—think that artists would now want to draw pictures that looked as much like wood engravings as possible?

Interesting questions. Perhaps a look at one of his own drawings from that time might help to answer them—for example, one of his illustrations from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880.

In my view this picture answers those questions without any further words from me—though in a future post I will have more to say about this important book, and Ben Day’s contributions to it.

Twain Tramp Abroad strange

An illustration by Ben Day, 1880

^^Table of Contents

Coming Attractions

In future posts I will take a detailed look at more of Ben Day’s own black & white drawings.

I will also look at the Ben Day method in those two areas where it became hugely successful, but which Day’s own Letters Patent barely mention:

  • photoengraving on metal plates
  • printing in colour.

This will lead to a look at Ben Day in the comics, including: how did the Ben Day men get from this:


to this:

Nemo 1907 72 dpi

…in a few easy steps?

(Clue: there were quite a few steps, and it wasn’t easy.)

Plus: Some or all of:

  • Who was Benjamin Henry Day Junior?
  • How was his process used in the printing industry?
  • How successful was it?
  • How can the Ben Day dot be defined?
  • Did comics still contain any Ben Day dots by the late 1950s / early 60s?
  • Did Roy Lichtenstein really paint Ben Day dots?

Be seeing you.

Nemo 1907_detail 02_72 dpi

^^Table of Contents

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Fiona McIntosh, Amy Pryor, Andy Bleck, Roger Sabin and Shevek Freeman.

Text Copyright © Guy Lawley 2015. If shared please credit me. No copyright claimed in images.


(1) Advertising Production (New York, McGraw Hill, 1946) by Ben Dalgin, Director of Art and Reproduction at the New York Times.
Back to text—Intro
Back to text—Photoengraving

(2) From Girls’ Romances No.105 (Sparta Illinois/New York, Arleigh Publishing Corporation/DC National Comics, Dec 1964). Artwork attributed to Tony Abruzzo.
Back to text

(3) A list of sources for this essay (other than the perennially useful Wikipedia, Google, Google Books and Google Ngram) must start with a blog post by Phil Normand—TARZAN: the Sunday Comics, 1931-1933, part 2: Tarzan and the Ben Day Men, or The Mechanics of Color in the Sunday Comics at Mr Normand helpfully listed his sources, leading me to:

The Eighth Graphic Arts Production Yearbook (New York, Colton Press, Inc., 1948) ed. Leo H. Joachim

Printing Progress: A Mid-Century Report (Cincinnati Ohio, International Association of Printing House Craftsmen Inc., 1959) ed. Clifford L. Helbert

I also used:

Modern Photoengraving (Chicago/Cincinnati, Modern Photoengraving Publishers, 1948) Ed. Louis Flader & J.S. Mertle

Achievement in Photo-Engraving and Letter-Press Printing (Chicago, American Photo-Engravers Association, 1927) Ed. Louis Flader

Printing Art Vol.67 No.4 (Chicago, Dartnell Publications, 1938) Ed. John L. Scott
Back to text—Introduction
Back to text—Photoengraving

(4) Possibly the sole exception was the New York paper The Daily Graphic, 1873 to 1889. This did have numerous illustrations. Ahead of its time and not a long term success, I will return to this interesting hybrid later (note 15).
Back to text

(5) The earliest efforts at photography had included making images on metal (Niépce, 1822). The Daguerreotype had been around since 1839. Fox Talbot did crucial early work on printing from negatives onto paper, patenting his process in 1841. Photos in books were printed as Talbotypes, Autotypes, Woodburytypes and most successfully from 1868, Collotypes. None of these methods used a halftone screen. All the prints needed to be printed separately from the book’s letterpress text pages and added in during binding, or glued in—costly methods.

For a detailed account, see Photography in the printing press: the photomechanical revolution by Helena E. Wright in Presenting Pictures, 2004; ed. Bernard Finn (London, The Science Museum, co-produced with the Deutsches Museum and the Smithsonian) and currently online at:
Back to text

(6) History of the halftone: The coming of the halftone method (described in Part 2)—allowing grey tones of wash drawings and photographs to be mass-printed for the first time—went hand-in hand with the rise of photo-engraving, if about a decade delayed, at least in terms of widespread, commercial use.

Attempts had been made earlier, but from the 1860s onwards, new glass “halftone screens” succeeded in breaking up the continuous grey tones of photos or wash artwork into dots of graduated size—within the cameras which photo-engraving houses already used. This dotted image could be developed on a letterpress printing plate by photo-engraving, and by printing the dot pattern, a reasonable illusion of the original picture with its grey tones could be reproduced.


This is Senator Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s dad, from an old newspaper

The first halftone printed from a photograph in a newspaper was in 1880: “A Scene in Shantytown” by Stephen Horgan in the New York Daily Graphic (see also note 14). This used a lithographic technique though, rather than a true relief metal plate photoengraved halftone, and the floodgates did not open straight away.
Early printed halftone images were, in general, not impressive. Much hand-work had to done by engravers to achieve good results. Photo-engraving of line art had to be well established and the quality of printing presses, paper and ink all had to improve before mass printing of halftone images could really take off. In 1887 the Levy Brothers of Philadelphia started producing half-tone screens commercially for the first time. Through the 1890s halftones, especially from photographs, took an increasing share of the illustration space in magazines and newspapers.
Back to text—Arrival of Illustrated Press
Back to text—Photoengraving

(7) Fortunatus seen at
Back to text

(8) See The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London (Basingstoke/New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) by Gerry Beegan. Highly recommended and to be cited again.
Back to text—Wood Engraving
Back to text—Photoengraving

(9) The Encylopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian (London, New York, 2000 & 2001, the British Library/Routledge) by Maurice Rickards and Michael Twyman
Back to text

(10) Does anyone else look at this picture and think “Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright style”—or is it just me?
Back to text

(11) Ally Sloper debuted in Judy in 1867 and is often quoted as the first comic character to appear on a regular basis, predating the Yellow Kid (from 1894 or 1896, depending on your definition). Sloper also spawned toys, live stage versions, etc., and probably directly inspired W.C. Fields & Charlie Chaplin.
See: Roger Sabin, Ally Sloper, The First Comics Superstar? in A Comics Studies Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2009) ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Also online:
Back to text

(12) See The Essentials of Book Collecting by Robert F. Lucas
Back to text

(13) Later versions of lithography “offset” the printed image onto rubber “blankets” before the ink finally transferred to paper. “Offset litho” is still very widely used today (2015) but it’s come a long way from the blocks of limestone that gave it its name.
Back to text

(14) Letterpress type was of course reverse-imaged. This is probably the origin of the expression “mind your p’s and q’s” since printers had to pay particular attention to letters which resembled each other in the mirror. Why not “b’s and d’s”? Used much more commonly, printers probably soon learned to recognise b & d without thinking. P’s & q’s might have been applied to “pints and quarts” in pub tallies as well, but I’m not sure I buy that.
Back to text

(15) As I mentioned in note 4, New York’s Daily Graphic was a hybrid. It had 8 pages printed from one large sheet. One side of this (4 pages) was printed by lithography, with the illustrated material, and the other side by letterpress. I don’t know if this extra expense contributed to the ultimate failure of the Graphic, though it was beset by other financial woes—see The World’s First Illustrated Newspaper, by Stephen Horgan in Penroses’s Annual, Vol 35, p.23 (London; Percy Lund, Humphries & Co. Ltd, 1933).
Back to text

(16) Can anyone see how many colours were used in printing this card? I tried to count them, but my brain started to melt.
Back to text

(17) One result of this was that many, many wood engravers became unemployed, or sought jobs in the new photo-engraving or “zincography” trade where they could. A lot of manual work was still needed in producing and “touching up” photoengraved plates. (see Beegan, note 8)
Back to text

(18) Flader & Mertle also had this to say about photoengraving: “[It] may be rated as one of the greatest inventions of all times. It superseded handcraft methods in the making of printing plates and substituted photographic and mechanical speed, accuracy and fidelity for the uncertain effects of human hands.” As big-wigs in the business of U.S. photoengraving, they were of course somewhat biased—though they had a point. Beegan (8) discusses the ambiguous implications of that supposed “accuracy and fidelity,” specially with respect to the halftone photograph in print.
Back to text

(19) See also, for example, the opening sentence from Zincography: A Practical Guide to the Art as Practised in Connexion with Letterpress Printing (4th edition, London, E. Menken, 1890s—the 5th edition was 1896, the 4th is undated) by Josef Böck: Before entering upon the subject of the requirements suitable for a zincographic atelier, it may be pointed out that the workshop itself should possess the means of being well ventilated, since, during the etching process, acid vapours are developed which are highly detrimental to health…  Böck might have mentioned that ether and benzene fumes were not exactly pleasant either.
Back to text

(20) Figure 4: There is no figure 4 :O)
(There was in Dalgin’s book, of course. It showed an alternative type of camera, not around in Ben’s day.)
Back to text

(21) Original photo taken from
Back to text

(22) Popeye plate:

Back to text

(23) The Art of Illustration (London, W.H. Allen & Co Ltd., 1894) by Henry Blackburn. In fact this “sudden” change was well under way long before 1894, as we see later when looking at certain illustrations published in 1880.
Back to text

(24) Articles in this issue included “Process” from the Photographic Point of View, False Standards and Conventions in Process Work and The Three-Colour Process—a Step-Child. There were also many advertisements using the term, e.g.  for the magazine The Process-Pictogram (“The leading Process Publication of the World.”)
Back to text

(25) I don’t know if his publisher paid for these. I do know that Twain was very angry about Canadian publishers in particular bootlegging his books.
Back to text

(26) Patent documents were found using Google Patent Search. I also went to the web site of the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office,
Back to text

(27) If you work in centigrade… the boiling point of water, 100 degrees C,  is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezing point, 0 degrees C, is minus 32 degrees F. One starts to see why centigrade.
Back to text

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Paula has probably not been seen since its original 1946 printing

The Creative Team

Dennis Wheatley, British author of famed occult thrillers like The Devil Rides Out (1934) was also a writer of conventional crime and war thrillers. In 2013 a number of his books were reissued by Bloomsbury. Neil Gaiman got in on the promotional campaign for this. He told how he had enjoyed being titillated by these perennial bestsellers from the age of ten. Wheatley’s sex ‘n’ satanism shockers were not aimed at children, and most British schoolboys of the 1970s (myself included) were probably a bit older than that when we got into the books.

Gaiman wheatley

Paula   ̶  a crime story set in the world of British movie-making, which ran in the Daily Express from September to November 1946  ̶  was Dennis Wheatley’s only newspaper comic strip.

Wheatley was by this time a well established best-selling author. Paula was actually co-written (possibly “ghosted”) by T.E.B. “Tibby” Clarke, as noted in the Express‘s September 23rd text intro:

Paula intro text 23 Sep 46_72 dpi

T.E.B (Thomas) Clarke was a scriptwriter for Ealing Films, and a former policeman. He wrote Johnny Frenchman (1945) and Hue and Cry (1947). He would go on to write The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1952) and several novels.

His brother, Brigadier Dudley Clarke, reportedly “did as much to win the war for the Allies as any other individual.” Dudley Clarke was a pioneer in Britain’s military deception operations during World War Two. These involved deceiving the enemy with leaked false orders of battle, dummy tanks & planes and even whole “phantom armies”. Clarke had set up a successful unit in Cairo before returning to London in late 1941 to help create the London Controlling Section, LCS. One of the planning team at LCS was Dennis Wheatley.

Wheatley (born in 1897) had fought as a 2nd Lieutenant in the British Army’s Royal Field Artillery in World War I,  before being gassed with chlorine at Passchendaele in 1917 and invalided home. Despite having documented fascist leanings, Wheatley was patriotic when it came to the 1939 war, and keen to contribute. He had contacts in the security services, but was initially unable to find his way into any war work. His wife Joan worked as a driver for MI5, and through this connection Wheatley came to submit numerous advisory papers to the War Office in 1940-41. This led to his recruitment to the LCS. The web site has this page about his work there;

Wheatley and LCS were involved in the planning of several projects which have become almost legendary  ̶  Operation Mincemeat / The Man Who Never Was, for example, and the major Operation Fortitude, which convinced the Nazis that the D-Day landings were to be well north of their true destination, and was vital to D-Day’s success.


Wheatley left the LCS in 1944. How he met “Tibby” Clarke we may never know, but the connection with Dudley Clarke and the LCS  seems likely to have contributed. Phil Baker, in his very good biography of Wheatley, The Devil Is A Gentleman, confirms that he had an enduring friendship with Dudley Clarke. “Tibby” is not mentioned, and nor is the obscure Paula.

The third creative contributor to Paula was the uncredited artist, Eric Parker. I found out about the strip while looking up Parker’s work. He has been a favourite of mine for many years, since I started collecting Anthony Skene‘s Sexton Blake stories featuring Blake’s antagonist Zenith the Albino. (Zenith was famously one of the influences on Michael Moorcock‘s sword & sorcery character, Elric Of Melniboné.)

Eric Parker illustrated many of the Zenith stories, both cover art and interiors. These were text stories, appearing from 1919 to 1941 in the various magazines which carried Blake’s adventures  ̶  Union Jack, Detective Weekly and The Sexton Blake Library. Savoy Books republished Skene’s only stand-alone Zenith novel, and have a page on Zenith at, as does Jess Nevins,

My own Eric Parker cover gallery is here:


Eric Parker Sexton Blake illo from the 1968 Valiant Book of Sexton Blake

Parker is possibly best known for his coloured illustrations and comics strips, usually on historical subjects, for Boys’ World, Ranger and especially Look and Learn in the 1960s. The Illustration Art Gallery has a great Parker biography by Steve Holland here and some artwork for sale. A personal reminiscence by W.O.G. “Bill” Lofts appears here:


Though Sexton Blake comic strips ran in many venues over the decades, regrettably only a few weeks in the Knockout comic of 1949 were ever drawn by Parker. His other newspaper strips were also few; Steve Holland lists Pepys Diary (Evening News), An Age of Greatness (Daily Globe), Our Gang (Sunday Pictorial) and notably, Making A Film for the Daily Express. I know nothing about this last one except its title. It sounds like a factual account. Perhaps it gave Parker some background for drawing Paula; maybe vice versa.

A Few Technical Matters

Paula has never been reprinted as far as I know. The Denis site has only this photo of the first instalment:

Paula 01_enh

The version I have accessed, from an online newspaper archive, is taken (I think) from a microfilmed image. The whole page of the full-sized, pre-tabloid paper is represented, and each Paula daily strip is a small fraction of the image, which I have cropped out.

It looks like this (the first instalment):
Paula 01 72dpi

As usual, a slightly larger version can be seen by clicking on the image.

I tried cleaning up some panels, initially thinking I could simply fill in some black areas. This looked pretty awful, with such marked contrast between my blacks and the other snowy lines. So I tried correcting other parts of the drawings too, but found it very difficult work out what was Parker’s ink line and what was an artefact of the patchy reproduction. I could not correct all of the drawing, or the word balloons. After a lot of work I decided it wasn’t really worth the effort:

Paula 01 RT 72

This was another attempt. I really couldn’t decide what was going on with this guy’s left eye, gave up, and blacked it all in. This convinced me I was on a hiding to nothing.

Retouched 02

So, Paula will be presented in Super-Special Snazzy Snow-Vision until something better turns up. Firstly, some observations about individual moments from the strip, then the first two weeks of continuity.

A few thoughts arising from the strip

Tommy Trinder was a successful British comedian of the 1930s and 40s on the variety stage and radio who also appeared in a number of films, including Ealing Studios’  Champagne Charlie in 1944. His catchphrase was “You lucky people”.

TommyTrinder portrait

Given his fame, one might think his appearance in Paula would have been trailed in its introduction. Parker’s caricature is not at all bad, but Trinder’s name on his dressing room door in strip 5 ensures that readers know who he is. In strip 6 he is presumably playing up to his perceived public image when he flirts “humorously” with a young actress.

DETAIL_Paula 05_Trinder smaller           DETAIL_Paula 06_Trinder

The opening panel of strip 1 seems very clumsy to me. Starting in the middle of an argument with the word “Then” is an odd choice. It sent me looking around to see if I had missed the actual opening strip(s), but no, this really is how it starts. It is an attempt introduce Paula herself as continuity girl, but a better introduction of setting and characters should have been expected. I suspect this poor beginning reflects the lack of comic strip experience of both writers.

DETAIL_Paula 01_01

And there is no attempt to explain what the role of the continuity girl actually is. Perhaps all Express readers in 1946 already knew what a vital member of the film crew she is, checking that everything in camera view is just the same between takes  ̶  right down to a stray lock of hair or the length of a partly-smoked cigarette.

In strip 7, Paula’s concern for the “stand-in” suggest Thomas Clarke’s scripting hand:

DETAIL_Paula 07_stand-in

Finally, in the same strip, the lack of sugar in the Turkish Delight reminds us of Paula‘s post-war setting. Sugar rationing did not end in Britain until 1953.

DETAIL_Paula 07_no sugar

The first two weeks of Paula

Paula ran from September 23rd 1946 for nine weeks. It appeared every weekday and Saturday during that period, six strips per week. Most days it was the only comic strip in the Express, though it was occasionally accompanied by a dire “humour” strip called  ̶  no relation  ̶  The Parkers (“by Hodges”).

After nine weeks  ̶  the mystery concluded  ̶  Paula rather abruptly ended. The adventures of the plucky continuity girl were not to be continued. History does not record the whys and wherefores.

And I must ask: if anyone thinks they have rights in this intellectual property, and that I have made anything other than fair use of it on this not-for-profit, historical-informative blog  ̶  please get in touch.

As usual, clicking on the small image should take you to a larger, more readable version  ̶  as readable as Snazzy Snow-Vision is ever going to get, anyway.

Paula Week One: September 23rd to 28th, 1946:

PAULA week 01

Paula Week Two: September 30th to October 5th, 1946:

PAULA week 02

That’s it for now… you lucky people!

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