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Why is one of the RSA archive’s greatest treasures a book about parrots? The book in question is Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots published in 1832 by the 20-year-old Edward Lear – later famous for his nonsense poems, particularly The Owl and the Pussycat.

The book contains forty-two masterfully-executed and hand-painted prints, drawn from live parrots, and widely considered some of the greatest illustrations in natural history. They even attracted the attention of David Attenborough, who spent years collecting his own set. What connects them with the RSA, however, is that they were obtained using the then newly-invented art of lithography.

Lithography is the technique of drawing and printing from stone, eliminating the need to engrave a design onto copper plates. The artist draws directly on a flat stone using wax crayons, immerses it in gum arabic, and washes it with water. Instead of reproductions, the artist can obtain perfect copies of original pencil-drawn designs, directly pressing the stone to paper. It eventually became a popular method of printing for artists (it also, when applied in India, allowed for a printing revolution in local languages, beyond the English-speaking missionary and government media – the alphabets of different languages could be drawn directly, without the need for casting non-Latin type). 

Lithography was invented in 1796 by an unsuccessful actor and playwright in Germany named Alois Senefelder. He could not afford to print his plays using the traditional methods, and therefore tried using cheaper materials like stone. When carrying out one of his experiments, Senefelder’s mother entered his room, asking him to write down a laundry list. Finding no paper, Senefelder wrote his mother’s commands on one of the stones. Curiosity then pushed him to treat the stone with chemicals, and he found that he could print what he had written.

Senefelder was aware of the importance of his invention and tried to keep it a secret. Intending to patent it, he travelled to London in 1800, where he stayed with his agent Philip André. He was kept in perfect seclusion from society for more than seven months for fear of the secret being revealed - it was so well kept, that the invention remained unnoticed for 18 years. 

When Senefelder left London, André tried to take all the credit by publishing some examples of the art, while still keeping the details of the technique a secret. Eventually, however, Senefelder published a full explanation of the process, which finally allowed British printers and artists to take it up. His story soon reached the ears of the Society of Arts, who in 1819 awarded him its Gold Medal – Senefelder was grateful to be recognised as the true inventor. 

After this, the Society of Arts devoted its efforts to popularising and further developing the process. It awarded premiums for improvements, and later organised exhibitions. This was why Edward Lear’s parrots found their way to the Society – he was grateful for its work promoting the technology, without which his art would not have been possible, and personally presented sets of the prints at its meetings. Lear’s lithographic printer was one of the Society’s silver medal winners.

Our historian in residence, Anton Howes, is currently writing a complete history of the RSA. If you're interested in finding out more, please email him at Anton.Howes@rsa.org.uk.

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