Two pages from “Dialogus Creatorum” from A History of the Art of Printing (1867) by Henry Noel Humphreys (1810-79). Photolithography and Chromolithography: Day & Son, directed by Humphreys, 34.6 x 24.2 cm. This item was catalogue no. 18 in Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania (1987) This image courtesy of the Library of Rhode Island School of Design [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith

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he invention of photography had a profound impact on the study of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books. In his introduction to A History of the Art of Printing, Henry Noel Humphreys explained that the new technique of photolithography reduced the cost of producing his volume so that an entire page could be "reproduced at one quarter the expense that a few lines would cost if executed by hand." Although there are some inaccuracies in Humphreys's text, his facsimiles remain useful because they are true to the originals. More than 100 plates arranged in chronological order illustrate the transformation of book production caused by the invention of movable type. This invention had as great an impact on fifteenth-century book production as did photography in the nineteenth century. Humphreys's illustrations clarify the interrelationships between the kinds of ornament and type used in the earliest printed books and the decoration and forms of hand-written books. Humphreys further recommended his history of printing as the first such work in a "condensed and popular form . . . intelligible to the general reader."

Humphreys's appeal to the general reader is contradicted by the fact that this volume was printed in a limited edition. The copy of the book owned by the RISD Library is number 249 of 300 numbered copies. A tipped-in notice informs us that a small second issue would be produced, and then the lithographic stones would be destroyed. One wonders if the publisher, Bernard Quaritch, had something to do with this decision. Quaritch was a rare-book dealer accustomed to the higher prices that first and limited editions would bring, and he also could supply customers with some of the very rare hooks Humphreys illustrated. Quaritch eventually published facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts in his possession, and presumably these were for sale, since William Morris bought one of them (catalogue 20). Just as the manufacturers of illuminators' colors joined forces with artists who wrote manuals of illumination (cats. 54-57), so did booksellers encourage the study of the history of manuscripts and printing.

Shown here are two pages from the first illustrated book printed in Holland from movable type. The Dialogus Creatorum, better known as the Dialogus Creaturarum Moralisatus, was a Latin collection of fables from the Middle Ages variously attributed in its manuscript form to Nicolaus Pergamenus or Maynus de Mayneriis. Humphreys conveyed the charm of this volume by illustrating the page with a woodcut of a dog and a horse sawing a board. The angular Gothic type and illuminated initial Q also indicate the extent to which early printed books were based on the script and paintings of hand-made books.

As in his other histories, Humphreys's survey of the art of printing was international in scope. He did devote more text and illustrations to the Englishman William Caxton than to any other printer, but the bibliography included in the first issue was a comprehensive one. The bibliography was suppressed in the second issue, due to the sudden closing of the printing works of Day & Son, and because it contained some inaccuracies which displeased Humphreys.


Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.

Humphreys, Henry Noel. A History of the Art of Printing from its Invention to its Development in the Middle of the Sixteenth Century Preceded by a short Account of the Origin of the Alphabet and the Successive Methods of Recording Events and Multiplying Manuscript Books before the Invention of Printing. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1867. Letterpress: Wyman &' Sons. [Bookplate: “From the Library of Chester L. Dodge Class of 1902/ Designer, Calligrapher, Typographer, Painter, Teacher.”]

Last modified 18 December 2013