Hand-Coloring in Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One of the lessons we learn through the study of rare book provenance is that no two copies of an old book are truly identical.  Every volume lives its own life, and receives its own marks, scars, and brands as it moves from owner to owner through time and space.  Some marks of provenance are accidental, or at least incidental to the core content of a work, while others are the result of printers, booksellers, and owners making a concerted effort to add value to their books, to distinguish one particular copy from another.

If a book featured printed image plates, most often created from woodcut blocks, one common way to enhance the appeal and uniqueness of the work was to add color to the images.  In the early days of printing, this process would need to be done by hand, applying color to an already printed black and white woodcut plate.  The results could be quite stunning:

Uncolored woodcut of Albrecht Dürer’s famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497–98. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A hand-colored

A colored copy of the same print, thought to have been colored by Dürer himself.  Image from Harvard’s Houghton Library Tumblr.

The example above is a special case — most early colored plates were not done by the artists themselves, but rather were colored according to a printer’s orders, at the time of a book’s publication, or later at a bookseller’s discretion.  In both cases the aim was to add to the value of a work, to increase its appeal.  Book owners also sometimes colored items in their collections, much for the same reasons.

Books became cheaper and more widely available after the invention of the printing press, and in the process they lost some of their uniqueness and their charm.  In the print era many copies of a work could be churned out quickly with little variation between them, but hand-colored plates gave printers and booksellers a way to recapture some of the vibrancy and individuality of illuminated manuscripts from ages past.

Note

Hand-colored illustrations from our copy of Origine des Ornemens des Armoiries (XX CR151.M38 1680 c.2), a 17th century French work on heraldry.

It’s easy to find images of well executed book colorization online, and we have a few more here at MSU Special Collections (although nothing rivaling that Dürer print).  Most rare book libraries, however, don’t seem as keen to show off their less impressive examples.  Looking at the early hand-coloring usually featured on blogs or in library exhibits, one might come away with the impression that all colored plates are great works of art, or at least that they demonstrate a certain level of expertise or proficiency.  As in any endeavor, however, there are failures — examples of mismanagement, unfinished work, or all-around shoddy craftsmanship.

Take our 1530 copy of Georg Rüxner’s Anfang, Ursprung und Herkomen des Thurniers inn Teutscher Nation (XX folio CR4533.R8 1532), also called simply Thurnier Buch, or the Tournament Book.  The work presents a historical sketch of medieval tournaments in Germany from the 10th century to the tournament at Worms in 1487, providing information on the origin of the tournament and descriptions of the participants.  The book features a number of woodcut plates, including 41 images of various tournament activities and an additional 246 cuts of heraldic imagery.

Most of the plates are at least partially colored, although some of them, seemingly chosen at random, are not.  The book includes a number of duplicate images (appearing on different pages), and in each of these cases, only one of the pairs is colored.  This, at least, has a kind of logic to it — and for the most part, the color on these early plates isn’t awful, but it’s clear that the colorist was working with a somewhat limited palette:

HCW12

Click to enlarge.

HCW13

Click to enlarge.

The hand-coloring of these plates actually displays some level of competency, when compared to others in the same book.  Note that green and red crop up in odd places, though.  Was this an artistic choice, or the result of a limited color selection?  Some woodcuts from this volume take this preference for reds and greens to an absurd level, and demonstrate a general unwillingness to stay inside the lines, as well:

Note

There’s another issue plaguing some of the woodcut plates in our Thurnier Buch — a surprising number of images are only partially colored, and again it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the colorist’s choices.  Often only one or two figures in the image will be colored, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the colorist ran out of time, got bored, or simply forgot to go back and finish the job.

n

In this particular woodcut, figures are colored seemingly at random.  The trumpets and the robes of the trumpeters received color, as did the gowns of two women in the foreground.  Three hairstyles are colored (brown), and a stick (or sword) in the background got a touch of red.  Most notably, perhaps, is that only the scene out of one window is colored.

Note

There is only one instance of color in this image, a touch of yellow applied to one man’s robe.  Why did the colorist stop here?

In many ways, our copy of the Thurnier Buch is like a 16th century coloring book — it’s as if a child was using this work to practice, clumsily applying what colors he had as the mood struck him.

When we dig a little deeper into the history of early hand-colored books, the clumsiness of this work become understandable.  Book collectors might be surprised to learn that printers and booksellers often employed children to complete the coloring process, meaning that essentially these early works were coloring books, of a sort — although they weren’t intended to be fun.  As this blog article from librarian and bibliophile L. D. Mitchell of explains,

[M]ost hand-colored plates were in fact not colored by the illustrators who drew or engraved the printed images, but rather were usually the work of an anonymous watercolorist who, more often than not, was a woman or child working in what was an early assembly-line process.

It’s unclear whether our Thurnier Buch was colored at the printer’s shop or in the collection of the book’s owner.  It’s certainly possible that the coloring is the work of a child, whether a young employee of the printer or the child of an early owner, but it’s also possible that it merely represents the unfinished work of an untrained adult book owner, someone who got bored partway through the coloring process.

It’s understandable that most libraries and book collectors aren’t keen to highlight these less-than-exceptional pieces, but I would argue that many of these botched coloring jobs are appealing because of their ineptitude.  They can be humorous, yes, but they can also teach us something, potentially giving us insight into the hand-coloring process, or connecting us to the past — serving to humanize those who contributed to this aspect of book history, and to remind us that pobody’s nerfect.

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