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Hand colouring of antique maps.

Click here to see maps with the most excellent original colour currently in stock

Many antique maps were hand-coloured, but some were intended not to be coloured. The richness of early colouring is difficult to duplicate in the present. Maps with original colouring, called contemporary colour, are quite desirable to find; unfortunataly modern colouring is, these days, more the rule than the exeption. The disciminating collector insists that a map should remain in its original state.

Colouring varies with old maps. When they were produced, some maps were fully coloured at the time, some were partly coloured, some were coloured in outline, and many not coloured at all.
Maps were originally coloured to enhance appearance and readability. Generally three or four colours (green, pink, orange and yellow) distinguished political subdivisions, black was used for names, red coloured cathedrals or other buildings and to distinguish large cities and, blue stands for water.

1. Original Colour / Contemporary. When maps were coloured at or close to the time of production is referred to as 'contemporary colour' as it is contemporary to the printing of the map. We use the term "Original colour" in our catalogue.

2. Modern Colour. Often older maps issued without colour have colour added in whole, or in part. Any colour added long after the map was issued is referred to as 'modern colour'. Modern colour can be skillfully applied or less so but it usually is in outline and may or may not be historically correct. If it is skillfully applied and historically correct it is often difficult to distinguish from contemporary colour.

Paulus Swaen sets high standards, and always tries to offer maps in contemporary colours. We have been active in the map trade for 36 years, and it takes a lot of experience to recognize original from modern colouring.
For each map we indicate if a map is in "original colour". If the colours are applied at a recent date we indicate "coloured". Our maps are sold with guarantee and a certificate of authenticity is supplied for each item. There is no time limit for our guarantee.

3. Pros and Cons. Most collectors agree that contemporary full colour is best and that bad modern colour is undesirable, but after that there is substantial lack of agreement. Many uncoloured maps are much more attractive with skillfully applied modern colour. A few collectors prefer maps only as originally issued. Coloured or not, most dealers agree that skillful modern colour enhances interest and thus the value of many maps. It is very much an individual matter.

Dare to go in Black.
All early maps are printed in black and white and many were kept that way for a long time. A black and white map in an early and strong impression is a rarity now-a-days.
There are some maps which were not intended to be coloured: the Italians thought that colouring obscured the detail and the quality of their engraved work.
The work by Sebastian Münster is very rarely found in contemporarily colours. In our 36 years of map dealing, we have handled only one example of his atlas in original colours, and it is now in the Newberry Library in Chicago (Roger Baskes Atlas Collection).
Sebastian Münster maps in b/w are rare these days !!

Some samples of map colouring.

15th century colouring. Harman Schedel world map from the Nuremberg Chronicle.
Nuremberg Chronicle

16th century full colouring, typically of Ortelius, De Jode. Note the sister of Ortelius, Anna, seems to be a well known map colourist. Also Ortelius coloured maps himself in his early days.

Early 17th Century English colour.Typical of maps by John Speed, Saxton, applied before 1640 .

Early 17th Century Dutch colouring, applied before 1640 (border colours are applied much bolder than in the second half of the 17th century. Typically by C.J.CVisscher and J.Hondius.)

Dutch colouring applied after 1640 ( Border lines are now much finer and more delicatly applied.)

A master colourist like Dirk Jansz Van Santen (1637/38-1708) worked for Kings and rich merchants.
His manner is signified by rich and exotic colour combinations, added elements such as flowers to clothing, marbling to masonry. Goedings : "Van Santen applied transparent and opaque colours at the same time in both mixed and pure tints. He often painted the whole surface of the map or illustration, transforming the graphic light and dark contrasts into colour.
He applied his characteristic shiny varnish, this had the effect of brightening the colour, frequently making use of the same colour progression."
"Atlases and books coloured by van Santen are found in the libraries of the most prominent collectors of the golden age of Dutch cartography ". Bibles and atlases, bound in deluxe bindings by Albert Magnus (1642-1689) and decorated by van Santen were considered gifts worthy of princes. Travelers and poets wrote about this work" (Goedings).
Read more about Dirk Jansz van Santen

Other famous Dutch colourists are David Reerigh, Frans Koerten, (1603-1668), illuminator, bookseller and collector, whose stock and private collection was sold at auction in Amsterdam in 1668 but also the engraver and publisher of prints.

Mrs. Anna Beek of the Hague. She enlarged prints, originally published by Hogenberg or Merian, and coloured them in pastel colours, adding extensive clouds and brilliant yellow borders. The height of the print is enlarged with c.8cm (3 inches). This way of enlarging prints is also known from the famous Van der Hem/Prinz Eugen Atlas and those in the former Royal print-collection kept in Jemniste in Czechoslovakia.
Read more about Anna Beek





Mid 18th century colouring. (Full body colour and uncoloured cartouches.)

German "Fürsten kolorit".
18th century German colouring has typically uncoloured cartouches, an exception is when the map has been coloured for a King or Noble man; than the cartouches are in delicate gouche colouring. This type of colouring is extremely rare and what we see now-a-days are maps of which the cartouches are recently enhanced.

Detecting old versus new colouring.
From the colour pigments applied on coloured maps, usually the green shows oxidation on the back. Renaissance colourists made the green colour using Sulfuric acid or Copper in the form of verdigris mixed with wax was used to make the green colour. The oxidation refers to the chemical changes that a substance undergoes when it is exposed to the elements. The color change that results from copper's oxidation tends to be a darkening to a deeper brown or rust colour.
In the first place the paper will darken, afterwards the colour itself. Oxidation leads to the corrosion and corruption of the paper. In most cases the oxidation on the verso is visible with the eye. When thick and very good paper quality was used, and the item was kept in a dry evoirement, the oxidation is not always visible on the verso (reverse).

The most commonly used lighting tool to detect oxidation on the verso, is a long-wave ultraviolet lamp in the 365 nanometer range. At this wavelength, many materials absorb invisible ultraviolet energy and transform this energy to visible coloured light, easily distinguished by the human eye.
The test can be done in a dark area or room by holding the UV lamp to the verso of the map. Typically, the area who has green applied will absorbed without emission, making these areas appear quite dark in contrast to the fluorescent areas.
Modern colourists use water colours, and no darkening of the green areas appear on the verso when when doing this test with the UV lamp.
Now-a-day's clever map colourists have successfully imitated this effect; however, with the difference that the outer border line is showing more gradient with original colouring. The immitation shows an allmost abrupt borderline around the applied colour green.

The UV-lamp is a very good guide to detect originally applied colouring. Note that when the map has been framed with UV-filtered glass, the UV-lamp does not bring a solution. Always ask for a certificate stating the origin of the colouring. As so many modern coloured maps are offered these days, the price for maps in fine original colours easily fetch double the price.
Most map dealers descriptions do mention if a map is in "original colour", versus "coloured" when the colours are recently applied.

Certain pigments also have signature fluorescences: -madder or alizarin red show pink in UV, for instance, a zinc white (which has been used since the nineteenth century appears yellow. Iron gall ink, a common brown writting and drawing ink used from medieval times through the 19th century, when faded from visibility, remains detectable under ultraviolet light.
Ultraviolet (UV) light causes old paper to fluoresces faintly whitish, yellowish or grayish, but modern paper glows bright bluish white. Mildew (foxing) appears yellowish and makes water stains easy to recognize. Old vellum appears yellowish white or ivory, but modern vellum appears bluish white.

During World War II, airplanes used maps written in UV fluorescent ink. During dangerous battle situations, the navigator could read the map without illuminating the cockpit.

Colour pigments used are :
- Azurite.
A greenish blue pigment named after the Persian word "lazhward" meaning "blue", it is chemically close to the green colourant malachite. Azurite was known from Ancient times and became extremely popular during the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, as Egyptian Blue declined. Used in oil painting, it performed best as a water-based pigment and was often employed in Tempera paint under an oil glaze. Superceded by Prussian blue in the early 18th century, and rendered obsolete after the synthesisation of Ultramarine and the development of Cobalt Blue.

Copper Resinate.
Known since the mid-Byzantine era (c.800 CE), this is a transparent jade-green glaze made by dissolving copper salts in Venice turpentine. It was used particularly by Post-Renaissance 16th-century Italian oil painters, to colour foliage. It was commonly combined with azurite paint, and layered over lead white or lead-tin yellow pigments.

- Lac.
A red colourant originally made in India, which gave rise to the term "Lake", meaning any transparent dye-based colour precipitated on an inert pigment base, used for glazing. During the High Renaissance in Italy, Lac was the third most expensive pigment (after gold and Ultramarine), but most artists thought it worth the expense.

- Lapis Lazuli (Ultramarine).
The source of the fabulous, absolutely permanent and non-toxic natural blue pigment Ultramarine, the precious stone Lapis Lazuli is found in Central Asia, notably Afghanistan. It was employed in Ancient times as a simple ground up mineral (Lapis Lazuli or Lazuline Blue) with weak colour power. Then Persian craftsmen discovered a means of extracting the colouring agent, creating at a stroke a hugely important art material. Ultramarine arrived in Venice on Arab boats, during the Renaissance, and was named the pigment from overseas ("ultra marine"). Such was its brilliance that it rapidly attained a price that only princes and large wealthy religious organizations could afford it. Although strongly associated with Renaissance art, it is still widely used by contemporary painters, especially since prices and supply have improved. Synthetic Ultramarine is chemically identical, although typically appears in a more reddish shade. However its far lower price will no doubt ensure that genuine Ultramarine remains in limited usage.
Ortelius maps some times have lavishly applied Ultramarine.

- Lead-Tin Yellow.
A highly stable bright opaque yellow was used from around 1250 until the mid-17th century, when its use ceased abruptly for no obvious reason. Experts believe that its formula might have been lost due to the death of its producer. Very popular with Renaissance painters, who used it in foliage along with earth pigments, Lead-Tin Yellow seems to have many of the attributes of modern Cadmium Yellow, but little was known about it until the 1940's. Since then it has enjoyed a modest recovery.

- Madder.
A natural plant colourant obtained from Madder plants in a process dating back to Antiquity. It was brought back to Europe during the time of the Crusades. It was one of the most stable natural pigments. Dyes derived from the root of the Madder plant were used in ancient Egypt for colouring textiles. Later natural madder pigments were used by 15th and 16th-century painters. After a synthetic version was invented in 1868 by the German chemists, Grabe and Lieberman, natural production virtually ceased.

- Ultramarine.
Natural Ultramarine, made from the precious stone Lapis Lazuli, was (and remains) one of the world's most expensive artists' pigments. A cool deep blue hue, it was first used in 6th century Afghanistan, and the pigment achieved its zenith during the Italian Renaissance as it harmonized perfectly with the vermilion and gold of illuminated manuscripts and Italian panel painting. However, being vulnerable to even minute traces of mineral acids and acid vapours, it was only used for frescoes when it was applied "secco" (when the pigment was mixed with a binding medium and applied over dry plaster) as in Giotto di Bondone's famous fresco cycle in the Cappella degli Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Ultramarine was finally synthesized independently by both the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Guimet and the German chemist Christian Gottlob Gmelin in the late 1820s/ early-1830s. The artificial colourant was non-toxic and as permanent as the natural variety but darker and less azure. It was formulated for both oil and watercolour paints.

- Verdigris.
A common synthetic green pigment used from Classical Antiquity until the 19th century, it was the most vibrant green available during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Its relative transparency led to it being frequently combined with lead white or lead-tin yellow, or used as a glaze. The name derives from the Old French word "vertegrez", meaning "green of Greece". Its use declined sharply from the 18th century onwards.

- Vermilion (Vermillion).
An orange-ish red pigment with fine hiding power and good permanence, but high toxicity. Natural Vermilion, known to the Romans as Minium, comes from the mineral ore Cinnabar (see above), and the name Vermilion is most commonly used to describe the synthetic version of the pigment, which now is usually obtained by reacting mercury with molten sulphur. In Antiquity, Vermilion/Cinnabar was highly prized, being ten times more expensive than red ochre. Later, it was an important colourant in illuminated manuscripts, although it remained prohibitively expensive until the 14th century when a synthetic version was first produced. Vermilion was the traditional red pigment in Chinese art, and is the colourant used in Chinese red lacquer. Today, Vermilion has been replaced in painting by the pigment cadmium red.

Finaly : Bad Taste
Some examples we would say are in "Bad Taste". The colours are not applied according the general colour scheme of the period, or this type of print is practically never coloured and destroys the engraving itself. We prefer to present our material as close to its original state as possible.
The myth is that prints were coloured by children, I think it is not true, but, who knows the truth!

Maps with the Most Excellent Original Colour currently offered !

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Author: Paulus Swaen ©2016