For two centuries, Turnhout has been a hub of the graphics industry where all sorts of printing work are produced, ranging from books to devotional literature, wallpaper and playing cards. In the margins of production, specialists have worked in prepress, reproduction and production of other graphic products. By hosting the ‘Turnhout Prints’ exhibition, the Playing Card museum offers a glimpse into 200 years of printing history.
It all started with politics. The story began in 1795 when Louvain-based printer Pieter Corbeels (1755-1799) fled to the Kempen to escape arrest by the French occupiers. Eventually, Corbeels paid for his beliefs with his life. His apprentice P.J. Brepols (1778-1845) took over the small printing company and started off as a tradesman.
However, Brepols soon realised he could make more money if he specialised. He decided to focus on the printing business and aimed to produce as much as possible in-house. This was in fact a remarkable choice, as neither specialists nor machinery were present in Turnhout, let alone raw materials. However, Brepols would prove himself to be a tireless entrepreneur and managed to turn his printing business into a true success.
The company had its ups and downs of course. Because of the Belgian secession in 1830, Brepols lost the bigger part of his clientele! There were internal issues as well, as rather many employees were leaving the company and establishing their own businesses. Turnhout gradually became a true city of printers with printing factories reaching as far as the city centre. After 1850 export went global and from about 1870 onwards the graphics industry has been the most significant source of employment.
Among the top products we find children's and folk prints, novels and reference books, religious printed matter, coloured and marbled paper, boxes and packaging, lined and checked paper, comic books and of course card games. Quality products from Turnhout have literally travelled the world!
Meanwhile, there has been stiff competition from elsewhere and certain products have disappeared from the range. Due to the internet, nobody buys dictionaries or encyclopaedias anymore... Famous companies like Mesmaekers, Splichal or Proost, have been relegated to the history books. And even the impressive printing house of Brepols has passed away.
The Playing Card museum makes this rich history come alive in the ‘Turnhout Prints’ exhibition. Various examples of printed matter and specific techniques will give the visitors a good idea of our city’s graphic history. Thanks to the Turnhout Bookbinders Guild, you can admire a live workshop in the expo hall, where manual bookbinding demonstrations are held on a regular basis.
‘Turnhout Prints’ is part of the fascinating exhibition route ‘From Lead to Pixel’, which is a project organised by five Belgian printing museums:
- Museum Plantin Moretus, Antwerp
- Industriemuseum, Ghent
- Centre de la Gravure et de l'image imprimée, La Louvière
- Maison de l'imprimerie, Thuin
- Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart, Turnhout
Each exhibition is part of a larger story of the core being of Belgian graphics. Small technological (r)evolutions have had societal consequences, many of which can still be felt today.