Thursday, May 5, 2011

Original matrixes

Linda, who has a blog at Artifacts Collectors recently sent me some questions for an interview, which she has now posted on her blog. I thought her questions were interesting and hopefully my answers were as well. There were a couple of follow-up questions from readers that were posted, one of which raised an issue of some interest to me.

The question was: "Do you collect or sell the original matrix too? Were they kept at all after the print is published? Can new prints be made from them?" I did send Linda my reply to this, which is on her blog, but I thought I'd expand a bit on my answers here in my blog.

Original matrixes —wood blocks, metal plates and lithographic stones— do turn up from time to time and they are fun to acquire if you can. Interestingly, unless the image on the matrix is a famous one, they tend not to sell for a huge amount even though they are fairly rare. I think the main reasons are that they are a bit hard to display and, probably more importantly, they don’t look that great at immediate sight.

There are a number of reasons they usually don’t look that great. First is that they were practical objects, not decorative objects (though they were used to create decorative objects), and if they are indeed original matrixes, they will often show some sign of wear or age deterioration. Also, on plates and blocks especially, the design is not that easy to see. The designs were made to hold and transfer ink, not to display to the naked eye.

And finally, you have to remember that the image on the matrix was drawn backwards, so that the impression made from it would be right-way-round. This can make them look strange, especially for prints with text in them. This is one thing to remember, for we see with some regularity “plates” or “blocks” which are intended to look like original matrixes but are just decorative reproductions. The majority of these, however, are “right reading,” so they are usually easy to spot.

One of the reason that original matrixes are relatively rare is that -again because they were simply practical objects for a specific use, not ends in themselves- there was usually not a good reason to keep them around once the printmaker was done with printing them. If the printmaker was going to do another printing, then they would be saved, but if not, they took up too much room just to hang onto, and in some cases the material could easily be reused.

For copper plates, the metal itself was quite valuable, so once a plate had out-lived its printing life, it would usually be melted down to be used again. Lithographic stones, on the other hand, could easily be wiped clean and reused and as most originally came from Europe and the cost of purchase and shipping was substantial, this is what happened to most original lithographic stones.

The one type of original lithographic stone you do tend to find from time to time are what I call “storage stones.” It was standard practice in the nineteenth century for images to be transferred from one stone to another. If you were running off a large number of images, it was easier to have the artist draw the image onto one stone and then transfer that image to other stones so that you could have several stones being printed with the same image simultaneously.

Publishers soon realized that they could save “stock” images for use in the future. Many images that were used on advertisements, certificates, bank notes, stationary, etc. would be used over and over again by a lithographer, so these images were stored on stones which were just a collection of these images, waiting to be used. As these were stones that lithographers kept around, a fair number of these turn up from time to time. They do look a bit odd, as they usually contain a strange variety of images scattered across the surface of the stone, but they are interesting and fun to acquire if you can.


  1. More of a question than a comment, these "storage stones" images are not reversed.....How does that work?...Are the images transfered somehow back onto another stone?...Stone to stone through the press?
    I have two of these stone and have wondered about this for quite a while.
    Thanks....Raymond in Kentucky

  2. That is a very good question and one, unfortunately, which I can only guess the answer to. Clearly, if a print was made of the image and that image transferred to another stone, that second stone would have the image "right reading" and so it would make a backwards image. Some of the images could easily be printed backwards (like the faces or scenes), but the other ones have text and so that would not work.

    My guess is that they were transferred directly stone to stone. Note that all these storage stones are quite small, so it might have been simply a process of inking that part you wanted to transfer, then putting the storage stone face down on the new printing stone to transfer the image backwards onto the new stone. That is, however, just a guess and I would love to hear from anyone who knows specifically how this was done.

  3. i have some medium round stones which have metal tops.each top has a different picture on it and we think it might be an old fashioned leather printer. please can you help.

  4. I attend a lot of flea markets and garage sales. How do I know when I come across something worthy like your representations?

  5. That is much too "big" a question for us to be able to answer. There are so many factors which make prints/maps valuable. In this blog I have written a number of times on this subject, so reading those is a good place to start.

    One of the easiest things, though, is to be able to recognize the most common form of reproduction: a dot matrix print. This is one where if you look at it under magnification you will see little dots. All of these prints were made photomechanically, which means they are reproductions and will have only "decorative" value.

    There are many other types of reproductions, of course, and not all "original" prints are valuable, but this will eliminate many of the prints you see from the category of "valuable."

  6. These pictures are so cool, but I must say they are a bit hard to see .

  7. The metal itself was absolutely valuable, so already a bowl had out-lived its press life, it would usually be broiled down to be acclimated again. Lithographic stones, on the added hand, could calmly be wiped apple-pie and reused and as a lot of originally came from Europe and the amount of acquirement and shipment was substantial, this is what happened to a lot of aboriginal lithographic stones.

  8. Hello, I'm new to these topics, and I have always the same question, I collect old cigarette tins, and they're usually plenty of different colours, even the white. How did they print the tin in those years ? 1900 and on, did they use stones or plates? I've read they needed a different design for each colour, but I have never seen a set of several stones or plates with the same picture.
    Isidro Campos

  9. I have a few of these stones. I would like to get an appraisal on them. Can u head me in the direction I need to be? Thank you.