Book of Common Prayer (1555, Whitchurch edition)

London: Edward Whitchurch, 1552

The different areas of red, black and red/black printing on the title borders of these two otherwise identical editions (see also Book of Common Prayer, Grafton edition) are typical of colour printmaking by masking with a frisket sheet: they include symbols of the monarchy; identifiers of the printer (‘E’ and ‘W’ for Edward Whitchurch); faces of living beings; and red things, like apples. Surprisingly, unnecessary details are included in both colours. Why would a block-cutter have provided parts of irrelevant elements of the design in a second block? Also, the double-printed areas are identical down to the tiniest detail, including incidental damage; why would a block-cutter have incorporated miniscule flaws, like small cracks in the key block, in a second block?

The answer must be that these images were created in a wholly different way: superimposing impressions of the same woodblock in different colours. The outlines of red ink that do not correspond to the design of the woodcut, such as that around the face of the atlantid on the right, must indicate the shape of the hole cut into the frisket sheet used for printing in red.

The study of this approach to colour printing may provide a useful research tool to bibliographers and historians of literature, as tracking differences in the colour printing of the same woodcut, especially in books from the same edition, could help reconstruct a book’s chronology of production.