Forsyte Saga

John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga, Heinemann, 1950, illustration by Anthony Gross

Plastocowell was a lithographic printing process invented by the printing firm W. S. Cowell of Ipswich. It was a compromise between photolithography, where colour printing plates were produced photographically from full colour artwork, and autolithography, where the artist drew directly onto the printing plate using a grease pencil, manually creating separate plates for each colour of ink. Plastocowell was a transparent film textured on one side so it could be drawn on. The artist produced their own colour separations and drew them on the film, which was then used as a photographic positive under which the printing plate was exposed. The material was registered as a trademark in 1948 and used extensively until the early 1970s. A similar product called Dynabase was used in the United States.



Kathleen Hale, Orlando the Marmalade Cat

W. S. Cowell was founded in 1818 as a tea, coffee and spice merchant as well as a printer. By 1848 they were taking an interest in lithographic printing, adopting the "anastasic process" (drawing on transfer paper) which had been invented in Germany around 1840. They became specialists in colour printing by letterpress and offset lithography. By the Second World War they were keen to move into book printing.

In 1939 Noel Carrington, editor of Country Life, was introduced to Russian and French autholithographic children's books by artist Pearl Binder. He was also impressed by the work of British printmaker and illustrator Barnett Freedman. He persuaded Allen Lane of Penguin Books and Geoffrey Smith of W. S. Cowell to look into the feasibility of using the process to produce cheap children's books. This led to the creation of Puffin Picture Books, edited by Carrington, printed by Cowells and published by Penguin. These books were 32 pages long with black and white and colour illustrations on alternate pages, and were illustrated by artists like Edward Bawden, S. R. Badmin, Kathleen Hale, James Holland, Arnrid Johnston and Alexander and Margaret Potter.

Development of PlastocowellEdit

Christmas Story

Charles Keeping, The Christmas Story, BBC, 1969

After the war the firm developed Plastocowell, a transparent film textured on one side so that it could be drawn on. The artist would draw their colour separations onto the film rather than directly onto the plate. The film would then be used as a positive transparency through which deep-etch lithographic plates were photographically exposed. The material came with register marks and punched holes, allowing the artist to align the colour plates accurately using a register bar on their drawing board, and it was light and flexible enough for the artist to work at home or in their own studio and deliver the work by post.

Plastocowell was a cheaper and more reliable option than photolithograpy at that time. Some artists disliked photographic reproduction of their artwork as it converted the image into dot screens, turning sharp edges fuzzy. Autolithography was considered more faithful to the artist's intentions, but was cumbersome and needed to be done in specialised printing facilities. Another advantage of Plastocowell is that illustrations could be drawn the right way round - autholithographs needed to be drawn in mirror image.

Use by illustratorsEdit


William Mayne, The Old Zion, 1966, jacket design by Margery Gill

The Folio Society used the Plastocowell process in 1949 for an edition of Lawrence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, illustrated by Nigel Lambourne, who appears to have used lithographic crayon or grease pencil. Heinemann also took it up in 1950 with an edition of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, illustrated by Anthony Gross. Gross used Plastopaque photo retouching fluid, diluted to various degrees of opacity to create shades of colour. Other artists used Indian ink.

The technique was also taken up by Puffin Picture Books, where it was used by illustrators like Kathleen Hale. The earliest of her "Orlando the Marmalade Cat" books had been printed before the war by autolithography, but Orlando Keeps a Dog (1946) was done by Plastocowell. With 28 pages of story plus covers, the book required 128 plates and took four and a half months to create.

It was used extensively, particular for book jacket illustrations, but by the late 60s photographic colour separation by electronic drum scanners became more reliable and affordable, and Plastocowell lithography declined. In 1969 George Scott attempted to revive it, publishing three, possibly four, issues of a magazine called Chalk, each issue showcasing the work of a different art school. Luxury publishers like the Folio Society and artists like Margery Gill and Charles Keeping continued using it as an aesthetic choice rather than a technological necessity.