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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Illustrations[edit | edit source]

We shall consider here the main types of illustration that the family historian will come across in English research, here divided into one-off items, prints, and photography.

One-Off Items[edit | edit source]

Prior to the development of techniques for making multiple copies by means of printing, any illustrations took the form of drawings and sketches, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, sculptures, carvings and medals, vases, plates, monuments and other three-dimensional objects. The family historian will need to photograph them, although drawings and sketches can be photocopied or scanned if they are small enough for the machine available. Any picture source offering a service to the public operates some kind of photo-reproduction service in monochrome (black-and-white) or colour.

If an ancestor was wealthy or one of the gentry or aristocracy then he may have had his picture painted to impress his friends and colleagues. Ask the older generation whether they ever heard of any paintings in the family. The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography will include portraits in co-operation with the most comprehensive source in Britain, the National Portrait Gallery. The latter has over 320,000 works and a new catalogue by Saywell and Simon.

Prints[edit | edit source]

Since England’s first printing press was set up by Caxton in1476 virtually all illustration was in the form of prints until 1900. A master of some kind was made and copies taken from it as required. Contrast was achieved on the master in one of three ways:

  • Relief Printing
    This is where the surface is cut away except for the image required. The projecting areas are then inked and pressed onto paper. The main kinds were:
  • Woodcuts from the 14th century
  • Wood engraving, a much finer process dating from the late 18th century. The majority of 19th century illustrations were by this method because it could be used together with printed type-matter. The Illustrated London News was made possible by wood engraving.
  • Intaglio Printing
    Here the image is cut into the surface, with the rest untouched. Then the cuts are filled with ink which transfers to the paper when the block, typically on a cylindrical roll, is pressed onto it. The most important processes were:
  • Line-engraving with copper or steel was introduced in the mid-16th century and most illustrations printed from 1570-1820 were done on copper, whilst steel engraving commenced in about 1820 and continued until about 1870.
  • Mezzotint used especially for copies of painted portraits from around 1650 to 1850.
  • Etching has been in use from the early 16th century and continues to be used for artistic purposes. This involves coating the metal with soft resin, then engraving the resin to expose the metal. It is then dipped in acid which only cuts the exposed metal.
  • Aquatint was a very laborious adaptation of etching used for reproduction of water colours in the first decades of the 19th century.

  • Flat-surface Printing
    This is where the surface is treated with something which allows ink to be held in some areas but not others. The only successful method is:

Lithography, the process whereby a drawing is made or transferred directly onto a yellow slaty limestone or a zinc plate using a water-repellent chalk or ink. The plate is then dampened and water is held in the other areas. Non-water-based ink is now held in the drawn areas for printing. Lithography is especially good for reproducing eye-witness sketches and was hence popular in reports of events such as wars from the early 19th century.

The above information on printing is condensed from Evans et al. who show examples of the types of prints. Any good public library should have similar references that provides a simple guide to dating prints.

Chart: Dating Prints

14th century on
Line engraving on copper
Wood engraving
Late 18th century
Line engraving on steel
Mainly early 19th century
From early 19th century
From 1840
Photomechanical techniques
From 1890s

Coloured Prints[edit | edit source]

Any coloured prints before about 1840, as well as much afterwards, would have been coloured by hand; certainly hundreds of print colourers appear on the mid-Victorian censuses in certain areas of London. Water colours were painted on freely by hand, although sometimes stencils were employed and occasionally the printing plate was dabbed with colour for each print.

Colour Printing[edit | edit source]

True colour printing using wood or metal blocks, one for each colour used on each illustration, developed about 1835 and had become common by 1850. The Illustrated London News used it for special plates and many books contained colour printing ranging from the delicate to the gaudy.

Photo-mechanical Printing Techniques[edit | edit source]

Almost all books were printed by letterpress until the end of the 19th century, and only wood engravings could be printed on the same page as text. Other types of illustrations had to be printed on separate sheets and binding was thus more expensive.

From the 1890s the researcher will find new photomechanical techniques which eventually allowed superior monochrome and colour illustrations throughout the text. The three major new processes were each based on earlier methods:

  • Line blocks for line illustrations and Half-tone for paintings and photographs are the equivalent of the wood engraving, as they are relief processes working with fine dots.
  • Photogravure is an elaborate form of intaglio printing based on fine lines.
  • Offset litho is a sophisticated lithographic process which avoids breaking the image up into either dots or lines.

The researcher will also come across posters and labels printed on cans which are done by silk screening which is just a mechanised form of stencilling, and particularly good for bold effects.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.