I do not remember how I was first introduced to the Jean Berté method of printing. Presumably a representative of the printers using it called in 1930 or ’31 with specimens and we decided to make an experiment.
The Jean Berté process may have evolved as a result of numerous efforts to emulate the French hand-stencil process of watercolour printing. The process is primarily a letterpress printing method employing resilient-surfaced rubber plates, rubber rollers and watercolour inks of high intensity.
The principal characteristics of the process was this use of water-based, as opposed to oil-based, inks; a distinction with which we are now familiar in artists colours (oil or acrylic) or in decorators’ paints (oil-based or water-based/emulsion).
Jean Berté printing can be done on any type of letterpress machine (we used a Victoria Platten or Super-speed Heidelberg) and the only change necessary on the machine was the substitution of resilient rubber rollers which are essential to watercolour printing. The inks are much more brilliant than oil inks and as they do not contain varnish or dryers many combinations of colour effects can be obtained by overlapping: soft matt colours in a variety of rich, pure shades. Thus it is possible to obtain three colours with two workings, seven with three workings, fourteen colours with four workings and so on.
The rubber plates – usually four – are cut by hand. A tracing is made on thick cellophane from the artist’s original design and this is impressed on the rubber plate – usually by rubbing red ink into the grooves on the cellophane. Each portion of the rubber block which is not required in the respective colour is marked with red ink and subsequently cut out by a scalpel.
As can be imagined, this required great skill and care in view of the 14 different colours obtained by over-printing. It was not a simple process in other respects. The strength or intensity of colour used on the machine could produce a variety of different effects quite unintended in the original drawing. If I remember correctly, the colours were printed in order: blue, red, yellow and grey. As the title of books was printed in black it enabled me to introduce a fifth printing and an important part of the design was provided by the extra emphasis which black gave as part of it. The depth of yellow and grey were very important because they controlled all the deeper colours in the design.
For this reason, I always went to the printers, Messrs. Herbert Reiach Ltd, to supervise the job on the machine so that if the result was unsatisfactory, it was my fault and not theirs. The works were situated at 43 Belvedere Road, London S.E I, in a rather derelict area between Waterloo Station and the Thames; the spot where the jackets for The British Heritage Series were printed was approximately where the Royal Festival Hall now stands.
The Artist In 1936