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George Leighton Prints the "Illustrated London News" Christmas Supplement, the First Newspaper Printed in Color

The first newspaper printed in color.

The first newspaper printed in color.

On December 22, 1855 the Illustrated London News issued its "Christmas Supplement." Pages [729]-736 consisted of an an 8-page insert printed on somewhat thicker paper than the regular issues of the newspaper, containing a full-color cover and 3 additional full-page color images printed from woodblocks by George Cargill Leighton (1826-1895) who had apprenticed with George Baxter. Each color print was credited "George C. Leighton Red Lion Square." Two of the images were "after Sir John Gilbert," one "after 'Phiz'," and one "after G. Thomas."  The remainder of the "Christmas Supplement" (Vol. XXVII, No. 776, pp. [737]-752), was printed in black and white.

George Cargill Leighton and his brothers, Steven Leighton (1834-1920) and Charles Blair Leighton (1823-1855) established Leighton Brothers in 1849. Their firm specialized in wood engravings printed in color. Experiments in printing wood engravings in colors began about 1850. The two great innovators in this field were Edmund Evans (The printer behind Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane) and George Leighton, who, after forming Leighton Brothers Company produced some of the largest color engravings of the Victorian era. Around 1858, George C. Leighton became the main printer and publisher for the Illustrated London News and remained in that position until 1883. 

"John Gilbert. . .was the most prolific graphic artist of his day. He drew for Punch and for the London Journal, but  the greatest portion of his work was done for the Illustrated London News, for which he is reputed to have made 30,000 drawings, at one period providing two-thirds of all their illustrations. The deadlines inherent to weekly journalism required Gilbert to produce his pictures with great speed, and it is said that he could make a full-page drawing directly on the wood block while a messenger waited. When particular speed was necessary he could even unscrew the individual squares of wood which constituted a large block and send the finished parts to the engraver piecemeal without seeing the whole design until it was printed" (Friedman, Color Printing in England 1486-1870 [1978] No. 78).

Leighton's production of these first color images proved that color printing could be done in high volume to meet the high circulation of the Illustrated London News, and at comparatively low cost. "The designs were engraved as woodcuts in the ordinary way, and the impressions from them coloured by etched tone blocks; both blocks and colouring are extremely crude, but the idea caught on with the public and Leighton could not produce the plates fast enough to satisfy the demand" (Burch, Colour Printing and Colour Printers [1910] 147). 

"This was the launch of coloured journalism, a revolution still continuing and one which will not be complete until daily newspapers are in full colour throughout. In addition to the title page Leighton produced for the supplement a convivial Christmas scene entitled 'Returning from Church' and two other full -page colour prints" (Gascoigne, Milestones in colour printing 1457-1859 [1997] 52, plate 20).

In August 1858 Leighton became the printer and publisher of the Illustrated London News. He continued color printing from wood blocks, or wood blocks combined with metal cuts, until the 1880s, when the process was replaced by chromolithography. 

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