A photograph of George Baxter courtesy of a member of the family
George Baxter was born on the 31st July 1804 in Lewes, Sussex where his father was a printer, publisher and bookseller. Baxter was a skilled artist from an early age and by the time he was just 22 years old he had produced Lithographs (prints made from drawing on to large blocks of stone) and wood engravings, both used in his father’s publications.
In 1827 he married Mary Harrild, daughter of Robert Harrild, a London based manufacturer of printing machinery. Robert was to assist his new son-in-law many times in his life, both financially and with gifts and loans of equipment. Around this time Baxter moved to London and started his own printing business and by the early 1830’s was a highly regarded wood engraver as he, and only a handful of others at the time, had both the skills to firstly draw and design as well as then engrave the finished product.
As early as 1828 Baxter produced his first colour print - Butterflies, very few copies exist and were most probably ‘experiments’ and never actually published. Initially it appears Baxter didn’t spend much time on his new project as it wasn’t until 1834 that his first colour print was published, a rather basic frontispiece to a book, The Feathered Tribes of the British Isles by Robert Mudie.
Most coloured illustrations of the day were done by hand, a process which was either poor quality or expensive if professional artists were employed. Colour printing itself was not new, it had been practiced by others around the world for many years. However all their attempts were with limited colours, was very slow and also expensive so only ever attempted for small print runs but now Baxter had produced a thousand exact copies in colour for Mudie’s new book. He really had ‘invented’ commercial colour printing.
He practised his art and by the time he received his patent in 1836 he had made major improvements. Simplistically the patented process meant an initial printing from a steel key plate, which gave the outline and all the intricate detail and shading that in itself made a fully finished print in monochrome. Then he would apply up to 20 different blocks made from either wood, copper or zinc - one for each colour. Each block had to align perfectly.
Baxter was a perfectionist and personally spent many hours, at least in the early days, engraving all his own steel plates and cutting all the colour blocks. He would only use the best quality materials and mixed all his own oil inks. The paper would be wetted, the key plate applied and the ink left to dry. The paper then had to be dampened again, so that it expanded to exactly the same size as when the key plate was used and the first colour was printed, then again left to dry. This process was repeated until all the colour blocks were added. As these presses were all operated by hand this must have been a painstaking process. It is amazing to think that it is reputed over a 500,000 copies of some prints were issued in this manner.
In the early years most of his work was for book illustrations. Including Mudie's natural history books, poetry and a number of works for the missionary societies. It was during this period that he realised there was a market for his prints, sold separately from books, as works of art for the masses. His work caught the attention of Prince Albert and in 1837 he was invited to personally attend and draw the coronation of Queen Victoria. He even attended the christening of the Prince of Wales, which was drawn by Baxter 'on the spot'. Although the watercolour was exhibited at the Royal Academy, a print was never produced.
His prints illustrated many of the other important events of the day, the Crimean War, the Australian Gold Rush, Queen Victoria’s first visit to Ireland, the Funeral of the Duke of Wellington and also many of the leading personalities including Napoleon III, Sir Robert Peel and Jenny Lind as well as many portraits of members of the Royal Family. As well as being sold as prints ‘to adorn the walls of the masses’ his works were used to illustrate everything from inexpensive children’s books to some of the most elaborate subscription only editions of the era. His prints graced the front of music sheets, boxes of handkerchiefs, playing cards, and many thousands were used on needle boxes. He received an honourable mention for printing at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and later received Gold Medals from the Emperor of Austria in 1852, at the New York Exhibition 1853, The Paris Exhibition 1855 and from the King of Sweden in 1857.
Between 1834 and 1860 he issued approximately 400 different prints. His aim for perfection made him slow and often late with delivery, the print of the coronation of Queen Victoria mentioned above wasn’t published until 4 years after the actual event! His drive for perfection together with a possible lack of business acumen meant he always appeared to be in some form of financial difficulty.
By 1860 it is widely written that he became insolvent and put his plant and stock of prints up for auction by Southgate and Barrett. Latest research seems to infer that by this date, having recently moved to his new home and pleasure gardens in Sydenham about 8 miles south of London, he wanted to simply retire. Unfortunately the auction was not a success and he then travelled around the country holding sales to dispose of his stock of prints. In 1864 he 'republished' some of them at 'vastly reduced prices' this was followed by another auction by Mr Bean, in July of the same year, both were not a success.
Through his son he managed to sell his plates and blocks for £400 to Vincent Brooks, who, under Baxter and his son's supervision, reproduced a number of prints on the presses that Baxter lent him, as such they are still considered Baxter Prints.
Baxter was declared Bankrupt in January 1865, not due to his financial short comings as has been written for the last 150 years but after being called upon to repay a debt that he had guaranteed for a friend or acquaintance. In November 1866 Baxter was involved in an accident whilst alighting an omnibus near Mansion House in the City and died in January of the following year from his injuries.
In August 1868, on behalf of Vincent Brooks, George Baxter Jr negotiated the sale of the plates and blocks to Abraham Le Blond of Le Blond & Co for £300. Le Blond was the first of six companies that took a licence from Baxter to use his process in the 1850’s. Their company printed from a number of plates, these are known as Le Blond Baxters. By the 1870's the Baxter process fell into disuse and was superseded by Lithography and the use of steam presses.
Only 28 years after Baxter’s death the first Baxter Society was formed and various Baxter Societies have researched and collected these works of art ever since. The latest, The New Baxter Society, has been in existence since 1983. This is most probably the reason why so much is known about his life, methods and prints as compared to other printers of the day, although current research is still bringing new information to light.
There are a number of collections in prominent museums around the world, notably in Canada, USA and Australia as well as the UK.
Even after over 160 years Baxter Prints are still relatively easy to find but, like watercolours, they fade quickly in direct sunlight. When you find a copy that has perhaps been in an album all its life so that its colours are perfectly maintained you can really appreciate the beauty of Baxter’s work.