Friday, 20 April 2012

Charming story of a very early colour print with a NZ connection

The Poa (New Zealand tui; Prosthemadera nova zelandiae) engraved and printed by Robert Laurie. A tale from Early Prints of New Zealand.

This print is a personal favourite and the story behind the picture is one of the most interesting related to any early New Zealand print. Captain James Cook reached England on 30th July 1775 at the conclusion of his second voyage of discovery. Among the items he brought back was a tui, stuffed (rather meagrely) and mounted. 

The Poa [Tui] 1776 print by Robert Laurie
The excitement generated by Cook's exploits was infectious, and one of those affected was young Robert Laurie a Scottish designer who was at the time working to perfect a method of printing in oil colours. Laurie seized the opportunity to select for his first print in the new process an item associated with Cook's voyage and his choice is forever associated with New Zealand. In March 1776 he wrote to the Society of Arts, and the correspondence which ensued seems both important and charming enough to be quoted fully. 

"To the Honourable Society for the Encouragement of Arts manufactures & Commerce — 
My Lords & Gentlemen 
your great Encouragement & Zealous Attention for Promoting the Liberal Sciences, imboldens me in my Juvenal State to Attempt something out of the Common way, the which I now lay before the Society for there Judicious Inspection — 
As the ingenious & Laborious Works of many Eminent Men, have been ushered into the World, with inelegant & Unexpensive Cutts in them, principally owing to the vast Expence attending the Performanse of them, induced me to Attempt this Method of Engraving, which I have found to Answer my most sanguine Expectation, not only for the Ease they may be Executed with but Also the Expedition, & Consequently less Expence, — In this Manner Animals Plants &c for Illustrating Natural History, may be finish'd very near Nature & in the Proper Colours much Resembling a Drawing, the Plates of which may be repair'd so as to Admit a large Impression. 
If this my first Attempt should meet with your Approbation; it will Encourage me under your Protection to proceed on a more Extensive Plan. The Bird here Represented is from one which Capt. Cook brought from between the Tropic's; caught in his last Voyage round the World — the Plate of which I beg leave to lay before your Honourable Society ..." 

Laurie, though just twenty, had already received several prizes from the Society, the earliest in 1770 — a silver palette for a figure drawing — and others in 1773, 1775, and 1776 for designs for calico printing. The Society, well disposed towards him, met on March 22nd 1776. The Minutes included the following note: 

"Took into Consideration the print of a Bird in Colours from Mr. Laurie Examined the print and plate and read the Letter sent therewith Mr Laurie attending was called in and informed the Committee That the print is done in MezzoTinto That the plate will carry 500 Impressions without repairing and that when necessary the plate may be easily repaired so as to produce any number That a Hundred Impressions may be made in Colour in one Day 
That an Engraving on Copper in this manner can be performed in half the Time of a Common Engraving and Consequently afforded at a smaller price and that the printing in Colours may be done by a Common printer having first received Direction from the Artist and as he wishes to divulge the Method for the Benefit of the public is desirous to shew it to any Members of the Society who please to attend
Resolved it appears to the Committee that Mr Lauries Method of making Coloured Mezzotinto Engravings is Ingenious and new and will prove very useful to promote the Knowledge of Natural History
Resolved to recommend to the Society to give a Bounty of Thirty Guineas to Mr Laurie he laying open the Method of doing it for the Benefit of the Public . . ."

Committees moved no more quickly in 1776 than they do today, and it was not until eight months later that Laurie was asked to appear again before the Committee of Polite Arts. The Minutes for 15th November record:

"Mr Laurie attending was called in and gave such Information concerning the Method of etching and Engraving in Mezzotinto in Order to their being printed in Colours as was Satisfactory to the Committee he also explained the method of printing this kind of Engraving in Colours —
Resolved that the Committee be Summoned to meet ... to see the manner in which Mezzotinto Prints in Colour are taken from the Plates . . ."

Promptly at twelve on the 21st November, the Committee met:

"At Mr Smiths Copper Plate Printer in Kings Head Court near Gough Square . . .
The Committee saw the method of taking in Colours from Mezzotinto Plates, as Invented by Mr Laurie, which was performed by Mr Smith who had never executed that kind of work before that morning.
First a Bird from the Plate produced to the Society.

Time required for taking the Impressions as follows
Laying on the Colours 5 3/4 hours
Cleaning the Plate 3 1/4 hours
Under Press 2 hours
Total time 11 hours


The Committee also saw the Impressions taken from a Smaller Plate of a Head entitled Innocence and two impressions of each of these Plates are reserved for the Society . . ."

The members then adjourned until the evening of November 29th when Mr Laurie's letter was read:

"Mr Laurie informs the Committee
That a Copper Plate with an etched or engraved outline, dotted next the Lights, and filled in with Metzo-Tinto Ground, is printed in colours after Nature or from a Picture, by the following Process:
— The Plate being warmed in the usual manner, the colours are applied by means of stump Camel hair Pencils to the different parts as the subject suggests, it is then wiped with a coarse gauze Canvass, any other being improper, it is after that wiped clean with the hand as in common practice and being again warmed is passed thro' the Press.
— The Colours are mixed with the burnt Linseed Oil and those generally used by Painters are proper.
Attested by me Robt Laurie /Etat: 20"

On December 20th 1776 the Committee met to consider the candidates for award, and on January 8th 1777 Robert Laurie attended another meeting of the Committee:

"Mr Laurie to whom a Bounty of Thirty Guineas had been voted for his having disclosed his Manner of printing Mezzotinto in Colours attended gave Satisfaction and received the Bounty."
The Committee also ordered that "one of the Impressions (in Colours) of the Bird be framed and Glazed and the others carefully preserved in the Societys Collection."

It is an interesting sidelight that when Laurie issued the print commercially, he described the award as a 'Premium' of thirty guineas, not a 'Bounty'. A premium was awarded after previous public announcement and was in a sense a prize in competition; a bounty was awarded for items or ideas submitted non-competitively. Using the same plate, Laurie re-issued the print in 1784 and it is believed, produced a third edition at some time between 1784 and 1795 - these later issues bearing new text. Laurie's printing in oil colours, as well as pre-dating George Baxter [George Baxter (1804 - 1867) is regarded as the inventor of colour printing. The Baxter process which was patented in 1835 involved an initial metal keyplate and up to 20 wood or metal blocks to apply each individual colour all printed on hand presses. Baxter mixed all his own oil inks and each colour or layer of oil ink was built up to create a miniature oil painting - art for the masses. Apart from the sale of 'Oil Pictures' his prints were used to illustrate books, his 'Cabinet of Paintings' was the first to be published in full colour.] by almost sixty years and was done from copper plates and not from wooden blocks. Printing in colour did not become established as a normal commercial process until even later in the nineteenth century when lithography was developed so Robert Laurie was almost a century ahead in his methods when he printed the "Poa" print.

New Zealand Map based on Cook's charts
Map of NZ based on Cook's Charts
The authors' copy of The Poa was found mounted in a volume of old prints under a house: the stained and dirty book was on its way to the rubbish tip when it was rescued. Enquiry revealed the scarcity of the print, and at the time Murray-Oliver's Captain Cook's Artists in the Pacific, 1769-1779 was published, it was believed only four copies existed.

Subsequent searching has increased the number to ten of which eight are in institutions, and only two in private hands. The present census is:

1. Mitchell Library of the Library of New South Wales, Sydney
An untitled print, inscribed on the back: "Given by Capt. Cook the Circumnavigator to Robt. Laurie — who invented the art of Printing in Oil Colours — of which this plate was the first specimen — and he received from the Society of Arts in the Adelphi a premium and a medal for the same"
This copy, formerly in the possession of Capt. A. W. F. Fuller, was presented to the Mitchell Library in 1963 by his widow. It had been exhibited in 1937 by the Royal Society of Arts, and is believed to be the hand-coloured copy used by Laurie as a guide to colouring the mezzotint plate.
2. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce, London An untitled print, framed, one of the two printed before the members of the Committee of Polite Arts on 21st November 1776. (The second copy cannot now be traced.) The mount is titled: Mezzotint by Robert Lawrie (aged 20) Awarded a Bounty by the Society in 1776. The Bird is copied from one which Captain Cook brought back from his last voyage.
This copy is a mezzotint in colour.
3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington; The British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, London
The Poa./Robt. Laurie. Del. et feet./From the Bird which was brought from New Zeeland by Capt. Cook, in his late Voyage round the World. And which Obtained of the Society of Arts, a premium of 30 Guineas.—/Sold at No. 1 Johnsons Court, Fleet Street, & No. 37, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. These copies are in black and white only, and may have been run to test black inking.
4. The Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin; The Gisborne Art Gallery and Museum; The Rex Nan Kivell Collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra; Private Collection, Wellington
Mezzotints in colour, from the same plate as the British Museum copy, and bearing the same text.
5. The Dixson Library of the Library of New South Wales, Sydney; The Authors' Collection The Poa./Robt. Laurie. Del. et feet./From the Bird which was brought from New Zeeland by Capt. Cook in his late Voyage round the World. And which Obtained of the Society of Arts, a premium of 30 Guineas.—/London, Publish'd by J. Sharpe No. 20 Portugal Street Lincolns Inn June 4; 1784. Mezzotints in colour
All ten prints seem to be taken from the same printing plate, on the evidence of tiny marks which occur on each. Platemark size is 35.5 x 25cm.

There may have been another issue, no copies of which have been traced. It is listed in: Laurie & Whittle; Catalogue of new and interesting prints . . . 1795.
The Poa bird, drawn from nature, brought back by the late Captain James Cook from the Sandwich Islands, printed in colours, 7/6.

The authors are particularly indebted to the Royal Society of Arts for their permission to quote so extensively from the Minutes of Committees.

The Poa print was reissued by Avon Fine Prints in the 1960s in an edition of 750 prints, these were in a slighter larger size than the original print and all have Avon Fine Prints printed beneath the image.

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