Friday, 5 December 2014

Oleographs in Brain-Watkins House

Oleograph, Brain Watkins House
An oleograph was the precursor to the modern mass production of colour reproductions, and was the most popular method of colour reproduction until the end of the nineteenth century, when more efficient methods of colour multiple reprints were devised. It was invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in 1798.

The technique was in use in England the 1830s, but was not used commercially until thirty years later. A chromolithograph was prepared by hand and colour applied; it was then printed on to cloth, to imitate an oil painting. A stone for each colour required was prepared, and  one colour over another was applied, sometimes using up to thirty stones for a single print. (1)

Oleograph, Brain Watkins House
There are two examples of Oleographs in the parlour at Brain-Watkins House, one on either side of the fireplace. Each depicts a man and a woman dressed in garments of circa 1874, and are possibly the oldest pictures in the House collection. They were valued in 1979 at $250.00.

When first invented, oleographs sold for under $10.00 American, and were advertised as ‘the democracy art for Middle class families.” Louis Prang of Boston became a very successful publisher of oleographs after the American Civil war. He produced still life, landscapes and classical subjects, and he also copied famous paintings, which were well received. He also commissioned artists to do work for him, and the product of their labour was sold from door to door. The most valuable oleographs were those specially commissioned and if in their original frames, are still reasonably valuable.

Oleographs can be identified by the publishers label pasted on the back of the picture. The labels on the ones owned by the Tauranga Historical Society have been covered by layers of paper pasted over them to protect the picture, and should be revealed when the works are able to be restored and reframed in their original frames. Today, oleographs have been forgotten, but they are  interesting prints and give us a glimpse into the culture of the late nineteenth century.

(1) Encyclopaedia Britannica

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