Printing 1450–1520

Uncut sheet of woodblock-printed playing cards, by Gilles Savoure, Lyon, France, 1490-1500. Museum no. E.988-1920

Part of an uncut sheet of woodblock printed playing cards, by Gilles Savoure, Lyon, France, 1490-1500. Museum no. E.988-1920

The invention of printing allowed books and images to become household objects. Both could be reproduced quickly and in large numbers, whereas before this revolutionary technology they could only be drawn, painted or written by hand.

The use of woodblocks to print text had been known in the East since the 8th century. In Europe the technique was first applied to textiles, but shortly after 1400 it was adopted also for images.

The final major breakthrough in printing came in the 1450s, when Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz produced a Bible using a new method based on moveable type, with individual metal letters and characters. Widespread printing was also made possible by the increasing availability of paper. Much cheaper than parchment it made printing economically viable.

This short film focuses on woodcut printing. Printmaker and artist Anne Desmet was commissioned by the V&A to make a copy of sheet of playing cards in the Museum's collections. The orginal sheet of cards was printed onto paper with a woodblock. The sheet was then hand-coloured using stencils.

This film was supported by William and Valerie Brake.

View transcript of video


Printed objects from the V&A's collections

The objects displayed below reflect the different printing techniques used in Europe between 1450–1520.

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