King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration


Chiaroscuro woodcut of a lion seated against a rock, under a treeChiaroscuro woodcut of a lion seated against a rock under a treeA chiaroscuro woodcut was created by assembling several interlocking blocks, each one inked with a different colour. The term, which means ‘light-dark’ in Italian, refers to the contrast between the inked areas of the blocks and those which were gouged out with the graver and thus left uninked and unprinted, to show white on the paper.

It was a technique employed chiefly in the 16th century by printers in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, after which time its popularity waned, until revived in the 18th century by John Baptist Jackson. Jackson (ca 1700 – ca 1773) was an English printmaker who came across chiaroscuro, then an obscure and obsolete technique, while working in Paris. He later travelled to Venice, where he built himself a cylinder press capable  of exerting uniform pressure on four large interlocking blocks and started to print chiaroscuro reproductions of Old Master paintings.

These ambitious productions were not financially successful and in 1745 Jackson returned to England, where he set himself up in business in Battersea with the intention of using chiaroscuro as a means of manufacturing wallpaper.

In 1754 Jackson published a small booklet, on display here, containing samples of his work and promoting his wallpaper designs to ‘people of taste’ who might wish to purchase them. Drawing attention to the ‘great perfection of colouring’ achieved by chiaroscuro and contrasting it with the ‘gaudy and unmeaning’ wallpapers of the day, he offers prospective patrons the opportunity of hanging their walls with reproductions of the Apollo Belvedere, the landscape paintings of Salvatore Rosa or the topographical panoramas of Canaletto, all executed with ‘elegance, taste and cheapness’ to create ‘a genteel and lasting furniture’.

He explains that his wallpapers are printed with oil-based inks, rather than the water-based inks then in general use, and thus will not fade, and also points to the durability - and thus cheapness and consistency - of the wood block, as opposed to the fragile mezzotint plate whose use for colour printing had been developed earlier in the 18th century by Jacob Le Blon.

Despite this energetic promotional campaign, Jackson’s wallpaper business was not a success and he ended his days in an asylum, having spent some years teaching apprentices to the textile trade in Edinburgh.

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