Robin Whittle's Show-and-Tell - "Nature Study" photo from 1913

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Robin Whittle  16 September 1999

Here are some scans of a remarkable colour gravure photograph from 1913.  It appears in the Penrose Annual 1913-14.  For many decades this annual has chronicled developments in the printing trade.  There's no nudity or anything naughty here.

Detail: ns-detail-291x300.jpg

A detail of the image.

I can find no trace today of the company which took this photo: Polychrome or Polychromide Co. of New York.  The copyright of this image is an open question.  I request that you use it for pleasurable purposes, and not for advertising.  The plate was printed by the Van Dyck Gravure Company of New York.

Click the links for the scans.  Some are rather large, so the file size is shown.  The file names generally contain the image size in pixels.  Eg. ns-main-358x500.jpg is 358 pixels wide and 500 pixels high.

 ns-main-443x600.jpg  (38k)   ns-main-770x1043.jpg (108k) The main part of the picture.

 ns-page-770x998.jpg   (81k)  The entire page.  This image has not been colour corrected, while the others have.

 ns-caption-1200x105.jpg   (8k)  The caption for the image.

 page-1.jpg   page-2.jpg  (Both about 150k) The two pages of accompanying text by Aron Hamburger, Managing Director of the Polychromide Company.

Gravure is rarely used in the late nineties, except for special purposes.  It involves photochemical etching of microscopic crevices in steel cylinders.  Ink is applied to the cylinder and scraped from the surface using a doctor blade.  The remaining ink is in the crevices, and some of this is transferred to the paper under great pressure.  Since the density of the crevices can vary smoothly, there is no need to break a continuous tone image into areas of black and white, as needs to be done for letter-press and the offset lithography which is used for virtually all book and magazine printing today.

This photograph was taken before the advent of colour film (which was in the early 1930s I think).  So the camera would have split the light into three colours and exposed three glass plates simultaneously.  From these, three gravure printing plates or cylinders were prepared.  Whether this was printed with rotary cylinders or flat plates I do not know.  There is an impression in the paper surrounding the image, but this may be decorative, since it seems too regular to be the product of three plates.

This image is in the 1913-14 "Penrose's Pictoral Annual"  (Vol 19), published by Percy, Lund and Humphries & Co Ltd  Yorkshire and London.  It was edited by William Gamble.  Later editions (the latest I have is Vol 57, 1964) are called "The Penrose Annual".   You can find these at where you can search multiple search engines of hundreds of second-hand book dealers.  According to: it was published from 1896 until 1990.

Luis Nadeau <> says that Penrose Annual started in 1895 an ran until 1982.  He apparently has all but three of them!  He has and on-line museum of printing and photography: and a 472 page Encyclopedia Of Printing, Photographic And Photomechanical Processes: .  He is currently working on a new book: Guide to the Identification of Prints and Photographs, Featuring a Chronological History of Reproduction Technologies.