Pressing matters

The vast majority of printed matter is produced using the lithographic process. Fay Sweet charts the history of this critical discovery.

Oil and water don’t mix. Add to the pot the promise of saving money, and this curious trio of ingredients forms the recipe for the most ubiquitous printing process known to man – lithography. Two centuries after its conception, lithography accounts for around 90 per cent of all printed matter and continues to hold its own, even in the face of competition from the very latest and super-sophisticated digital presses.

The alchemist responsible for this extraordinary invention was Munich-based, Prague-born engraver Alois Senefelder. He was looking for ways to cut the cost of printing and, in 1798, after years of experimentation, he launched his discovery on a world that had previously been filled with the clatter and creak of the letter-press. At the heart of Senefelder’s invention was the natural antipathy of grease to water.

His raw materials were a smooth absorbent stone, a greasy crayon, ink and water. The result was the invention of the third of the generic categories of printmaking – a type called planographic, where both the image and non-image lie on the same plane. The printing surface is treated so that the ink is repelled from the non-image, but adheres to the image area in preparation for transferal to the paper. To achieve this Senefelder tried a number of substrates, but finally hit on the ideal one which was a compact limestone from Kenheim. (By strange coincidence, no one has since found a better stone for this process.) On the smooth surface he drew his images using a greasy crayon. The whole of the surface of the slab was then damped – water was absorbed into the stone and repelled by the greasy lines. When the surface was rolled with ink, it failed to adhere to the damp areas but was attracted to the greasy marks and so this became the printed image. At its birth, Senefelder described his process as “chemical printing”. It also became known as polyautography, before being widely known as lithography.

The news of this invention spread slowly, until Senefelder published his findings around 1818. They were swiftly translated into French, English and Italian. Around this time, the first lithographic presses were established in the US, followed by others in India and Australia. Within 30 years they had arrived in Indonesia.

The earliest wave of interest in the technique came from artists; at last they could readily make their own prints without employing an engraver and using familiar materials. It was also possible to work on an image as you would work on paper, not reversed out. As the process was refined, they were able to create images with really fine lines. British artists were among the first to explore the possibilities and, in 1803, the first collection of artists’ lithographs was published, featuring work by painters such as Henry Fuseli, Benjamin West and Thomas Stothard. Indeed, some of West’s work was included in a London auction earlier this month. Under the hammer at Bonhams was the first part of one of the finest privately-owned collections of lithography: the Winkler Collection.

In the commercial world, lithography offered the benefits of economy in all sorts of printing – map and music printing benefited enormously from the financial savings – but the real market it cornered was the rapid production of handwritten documents, such as circulars.

Of course, during lithography’s 200-year history, there have been major innovations to keep it competitive – the mechanisation of the press, metal plates and the development of offset printing. All contributed to lithography’s longevity, but not so long ago it seemed the days of Senefelder’s invention could be numbered with the impending takeover of digital printing.

“The introduction of digital printing has enormous appeal because it cuts out the time required for repro,” says Andy Ray of press manufacturer Heidelberg. It is now possible to take a disk from a customer and have the work running on the presses within 25 minutes. “But litho still remains an extremely good and useful printing process. The movement we’re seeing at the moment is towards combining the best of the two technologies – offering the speed of digital from screen to press and then the speed of litho while on the press. The future is very definitely in the combination of the two – in fact, at the Ipex printing show in September we will be launching our latest combined press which offers incredible speeds from

10 000 to 15 000 sheets per hour and excellent image quality of 2540dpi.”

For designers digital printing has its allure. “The great advantages of digital printing are that it’s economical for short-run work and offers the opportunity for customisation and personalisation,” says Peter Silk of Silk Pearce. “However, most of what we print is litho. In fact, for most of my working life, litho has been the only option. There’s the occasional venture into letterpress for special jobs like invitations, but really litho is the choice.” For speed and quality standard litho printing is certainly hard to beat, but Silk has recently made a happy discovery in dry litho. “Using regular litho, you never quite get the richness of colour on uncoated paper that you do on coated stock, but with dry litho the ink quality and colour is superb, we’ll definitely try that again.”

As for speeding up the process from screen to paper, Silk offers a word of warning about quality. “There is a great temptation to try to move straight from Mac to press, but I still believe that we’re not quite ready for full automation – there is still the repro house skill needed for jobs like scanning – speed doesn’t necessarily equate with quality,” he says.

Further information

For anyone interested in finding out more about the history of lithography and printing in general there are two centres of excellence to visit.

The St Bride’s Printing Library, Bride Lane, London EC4, houses books on the history of printing. It is open from Monday to Friday 9.30-5.30, admission free.

Jarrold’s Printing Museum in Norwich within the embrace of the old city walls has amassed a vast collection of presses, linotype machines and tons of metal founts, some so rare they have not been named. The museum is open on Wednesdays and by appointment. Entry costs 1. Tel: 01603 660211.

And finally, part two of the Winkler Collection of lithographs will be auctioned by Bonhams of Knightsbridge in October. Catalogues will be available closer to the sale date. Tel: 0171-393 3900.

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