In 1835 London-based English artist, wood engraver and printer George Baxter received patent No. 6916, "Improvements for Producing Coloured Steel Plate, Copper Plate, and Other Impressions." Baxter described a commercial printing process that printed images in color with a level of detail, precision, and brilliance of color superior to any other commercial process of the time, and equal or better than most hand-coloring.
Unlike most patents from the time, instead of patent drawings Baxter illustrated his patent with actual examples of color printing that he had accomplished. His patent included an example of a print entitled "Cleopatra" that required 16 or 17 different impressions on the hand press before completion. The original printed patent in my possession, which reproduced Baxter's original color artwork in black & white like all early patents, could not accurately show the progression of colors involved, but the patent did explain the concepts, which were simple in their planning but technically immensely difficult to execute with high quality. According to georgebaxter.com Baxter's process involved "an initial printing from a steel key plate, which gave the outline all the intricate detail and shading that in itself made a fully fiinished print in monchrome. Then he would apply up to 20 different blocks made from either wood, copper or zinc - one for each colour. Each block had to align perfectly." Even though Baxter's process was elaborate, with immense challenges in obtaining accurate registration of all the different impressions, and seems, from the standpoint of modern labor-saving technology, hardly practical from a commercial standpoint, it was the first commercially viable method of color printing.
Baxter produced prints well through the 1850s, issuing approximately 400 different prints. Some, including those of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, according to georgebaxter.com might have sold relatively large numbers for the time. C.T. Courtney Lewis, George Baxter (Colour Printer) (1908) p. 158 claims that "upwards of 500,000 copies" of the Prince Albert print were sold. When I consulted the Wikipedia article on George Baxter in January 2021 it included this statement, citing Mitzman, Max E. George Baxter and the Baxter prints. North Pomfret, Vermont: David & Charles Inc. 1978:
"It is estimated that Baxter himself printed over twenty million prints during his career."
Such an enormous output of complicated, extremely precise, multi-impression printing without the use of printing machines assumes an average sale of 50,000 copies per print, and seems highly unlikely at the time, both from the standpoint of actual sales and printing technology. According to Wakeman, Victorian Colour Printing (1981) Baxter's "key plates, being intaglio, must have been printed on rolling presses, of which Baxter had two. The blocks or electros were printed on hand platen presses; he had 3 Stanhopes, 2 Coggers, and 2 Albions. This would allow work to proceed on the 12 to 20 tint blocks for each key block. Register was obtained by several points on the press, described in the patent." Wakeman probably obtained these details from the 1860 auction catalogue of Baxter's effects. With respect to these details, we might speculate that Baxter may have owned more presses when he needed to print the millions of impressions to create the circa 500,000 copies of the Prince Albert print, etc.
From georgebaxter.com we also learn about the complexity and care involved in Baxter's process that would tend to contradict claims of such enormous output from Baxter's presses:
"Baxter was a perfectionist and personally spent many hours, at least in the early days, engraving all his own steel plates and cutting all the colour blocks. He would only use the best quality materials and mixed all his own oil inks. The paper would be wetted, the key plate applied and the ink left to dry. The paper then had to be dampened again, so that it expanded to exactly the same size as when the key plate was used and the first colour was printed, then again left to dry. This process was repeated until all the colour blocks were added. As these presses were all operated by hand this must have been a painstaking process...."
Perhaps also because of the extreme complexity of the technique, even though Baxter's patent description was imprecise, Baxter's patent seems not to have been infringed upon. Eventually, after his patent was renewed in 1849, Baxter licensed the process to other printers, such as Joseph Martin Kronheim, and Abraham and Robert Le Blond, who being less perfectionistic, modified the process, and produced commercial color prints more efficiently and presumably in larger editions. George C. Leighton, after working as Baxter's apprentice, successfully adapted and modified the process commercially but never formally licensed the patent.
"Baxter’s process for producing colour prints combined relief and intaglio printing methods. A ‘key’ plate was prepared, usually made of steel and using any combination of engraving, stipple, etching and aquatint. Baxter also appears to have used mezzotint and lithography to create his key plate on occasion. The key plate provided the main lines of the image and much of the tone, light and shade. It was usually printed in a neutral tone, such as light grey or terracotta. Often Baxter used more than one colour to ink the key plate – for example, to gradate the image from blue in the sky, to buff in the middle distance and to a darker colour in the foreground; i.e. inking the plate à la poupée. Usually Baxter used aquatint for landscapes and stipple to work faces and figures.
"Following printing of the key plate, relief blocks were prepared, usually from wood but also from zinc or copper, using impressions of the key plate to create the blocks. Usually one block was prepared for each colour, although sometimes two or more colours or tints were included on the same block, requiring hand inking of each individual area. Each colour was applied and allowed to dry before adding the next colour. It is thought that Baxter usually started printing with a blue tint and then progressed through the other colours in a predetermined order – all blocks were numbered sequentially and labelled with the colour to be used. Sometimes up to 24 separate colours were used, although ten could be considered an average number. Baxter achieved his precise registration by fixing the print over a number of spikes, over which the blocks would also fit.
"Baxter is thought to have used hand-colouring for finishing touches on occasion – for example, '… extra touches of red on the mouths, high white lights upon jewels . . .' It is also believed Baxter occasionally applied glaze via an additional printing step all over the image, composed of his usual varnish with a ‘hard drier’ added to make it insoluble in water. More often, however, it is thought that Baxter glazed areas of the print selectively by hand using a glaze composed of gum arabic, egg white and Castile soap" (Wikipedia article on George Baxter, accessed 05-17-2012).
Probably the first formally published "Baxter Prints" were two small cameo prints of birds illustrating the title pages of Robert Mudie's The Feathered Tribes of the British Islands (London, 1834). The are captioned in small type, "Engraved on Wood and Printed in Colours, by G. Baxter." The following year Baxter color printed title page vignettes and also the frontispieces of Mudie's 4-volume set, The Heavens, the Earth, the Sea, and the Air. My copy of the first edition of Mudie's The Sea, presumably issued after the Baxter's patent was granted, has a color frontispiece entitled "Evening on the Sea,"captioned "Baxter's Patent Oil Colour Printing." Because that title page and frontispiece was reproduced on sheet three of the plates associated with Baxter's patent, that printing would have been accomplished before the patent was issued.
Most of Baxter's images were issued as separate prints. One of the best collections of his images was the deluxe gift book entitled The Pictorial Album; or, Cabinet of Paintings for the Year 1837. Containing Eleven Designs, Executed in Oil Colours, By G. Baxter, From the Original Pictures, with Illustrations in Verse and Prose. London: Chapman & Hall, 1837. This work, completed at the end of 1836 has been called Baxter's greatest collection of his work. According to Geoffrey Wakeman, Victorian Colour Printing (1981) 9, this book was planned as a Christmas gift book for publication by Chapman & Hall in 1836, but "it missed the market and was not published until 1837, with the result that it was a financial failure. In the preface Baxter reviewed the history of relief colour printing and mentions the work of [Jean Baptiste] Jackson and [William] Savage."
Whether Baxter's The Pictorial Album was a financial success or a failure, it was much appreciated as a tremendous improvement over hand-coloring in various reviews reproduced with this entry, and for the first few years Baxter had little competition in publishing color prints of very high quality.
Burch, Colour Printing and Colour Printers (1910) 124-134.
♦ For collectors and students of Baxter prints there is the New Baxter Society in England.