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.
Printed objects from the V&A's collections
The objects displayed below reflect the different printing techniques used in Europe between 1450–1520.
Madonna and Child in a Courtyard, about 1474
The Madonna and Child in a Courtyard
Engraving on paper, lettered with the artist's monogram and device
Museum no. E.674-1940
From the bequest of Miss Alice G E Carthew
Martin Schongauer, son of a goldsmith, was one of the first European artists to explore the full expressive potential of engraving. Even working on a very small scale, he could create a vivid image. Contemporaries soon recognised the importance of Schongauer's technique and within his lifetime began to collect his prints.
Fragment of printed linen, 1350–1400. Museum no. 1745-1888
Fragment of printed linen
Pink linen printed with black pigment, probably by woodblock
Museum no. 1745-1888
Printed textiles predated prints on paper, but few survive today. This one shows women trapping birds in a vine. As with other examples, it is mostly the background that is printed in colour, not the design of figures, birds and foliage.
Book of Hours, about 1501. Museum no. RC.H.13
Book of Hours
Print and metal-cut on parchment
Museum no. RC.H.13
A book of hours had a cycle of prayers for use throughout the day. In the mid-1480s the wealthier Paris publishers began to produce versions crammed with printed ornament and images. They were a colossal publishing success. Philippe Pigouchet printed this one for Simon Vostre, a bookseller in the Rue Neuve Notre Dame.
Virgin and Child, 1450–75. Museum no. 321A-1894
Virgin and Child
Woodcut, coloured by hand and stuck onto wood
Museum no. 321A-1894
Hundred of examples of this print were doubtless produced but this is the only known survivor. Being stuck to a wooden surface, perhaps a door, saved it from destruction. Prints like this enabled more people to have religious images in their own homes.
Nine of Hares playing card, about 1500. Museum no. E.14-1923
Nine of Hares playing card
Master P W of Cologne (active about 1499–1503)
Engraving on paper, lettered 9 and VIIII
Museum no. E.14-1923
One of the earliest uses of printing was the mass production of playing cards. Previously they had been drawn or hand-painted. This card is one of a pack of 72 printed playing cards consisting of five suits: hares, parrots, roses, columbines and carnations.
Blockbook Bible for the Poor, about 1465
Blockbook Bible for the Poor (Biblia Pauperum )
Woodcut on paper
Germany or the Netherlands
Museum no. E.686 to 725-1918
Bought under the terms of the Murray Bequest
Each page in a blockbook was printed from a single woodblock, a method that was used for works in high demand. Although this book is called a 'bible for the poor', the complex format - with scenes from Christ's life paralleled by ones from the Old Testament, along with an explanatory text - suggests an educated, well-off readership.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499. Museum no. 87.F.27
Text by Francesco Colonna (1433?–1527)
Printed by Aldus Manutius
Ink on paper; woodcut illustrations after designs by an unknown artist (perhaps Benedetto Bordon)
Museum no. 87.F.27
Widely regarded, then as now, as the most beautiful printed book of its time, this uses a combination of words and pictures to recount Poliphilo's search for his love, Polia. In Italian but aimed at readers familiar with Ovid, Apuleius and other classical texts, the story gives atmospheric descriptions of ruins, monuments, sculptures and antiquities.