THE STUDENT’S BOOK OF WOOD-ENGRAVING
by Iain Macnab
HISTORY OF WOOD-ENGRAVING
As a means of self-expression, wood-engraving again had many advantages. Its resources were almost unexploited. Very few men had been artist-engravers, and consequently the contemporary artist found himself free to develop a personal style unhampered by too much tradition. Thomas Bewick, who was born in 1753, was one of the first men (and by far the most famous) to realize that, as the line made by the engraving tool on the surface ofthe block showed in the print as a white line, then obviously the true use of the medium was to employ the white line as much as possible in building up the design. With Bewick’s death in 1828 this new “white line” tradition which he had formed fell into disuse. Before and after him , most of the engravers were purely craftsmen and not creative artist-engravers. They had been employed to engrave the designs of other men on wood blocks, faithfully reproducing each line as it had been drawn by the artist, and were consequently compelled to follow the black line method.
The black line engraving, however, really belonged to the old woodcut tradition. There was very little difference in technique between the engraving in black line and the woodcut, and only by its greater delicacy could the former be distinguished. Even then it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two, as in many woodcuts one finds extreme subtlety of handling. It is not known when the process was invented, but the oldest dated cuts belong to the early fifteenth century. These were mostly simple outlines, rather crudely cut and frequently coloured by hand, and were cut by a knife along a plank of wood. Towards the end of that century cross-hatching was being reproduced, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century Dürer and his contemporaries had improved the process greatly. The cutters had attained an extraordinary degree of skill, and were able to get great richness of tone and intricacy of cutting into their work. It is doubtful whether Dürer cut his own blocks, but judging by the way in which his drawings are adapted to the needs of the process it is probable that he had done a certain amount of cutting, even although most of his work may have been given to professional cutters.
When it was discovered that a graver could be used when the blocks were made of hard wood cut across the grain, there was no limit to the fineness of cutting which could then be employed.
In England, prior to Bewick’s time, there seems to have been little interest in fine cutting. The cuts seem to have been of the roughest description and were, as Horace Walpole calls them, “slovenly stamps”. Bewick, however, was an enthusiastic draughtsman as well as a craftsman, and was fortunate in being allowed to engrave from his own drawings while serving his apprenticeship.
It should be noted by all the art students who light-heartedly” try” wood-engraving and then complain bitterly when the tool slips, or who hack and ill-treat these lovely blocks of boxwood, that Bewick served for seven years as an apprentice, during which time he had to do every kind of engraving, from ornamental silver work and sword blades to designs on wood; but his employer, who later took him into partnership, found that he excelled in wood-engraving and was not only willing but able to make drawings for illustrations to children’s books and other work demanded by printers, and he let him concentrate on that more and more. Consequently he was not tied down to reproduce with mechanical accuracy the designs of other artists, repeating them line for line, but could develop his craft and produce a style of his own, founded on the line made by the engraving tool. So much has been written about Bewick and his famous” white line” engravings of birds, animals, and illustrations for fables and all kinds of books that no aspiring engraver has any excuse for being ignorant of his work; nor ought he to miss studying it and its influence on the wood-engraving of to-day.
After Bewick the skill and dexterity of the engravers steadily progressed, until in the ‘fifties and the ‘sixties one had the amazingly delicate and beautiful craft of the brothers Dalziel and Linton. However, in succeeding years the mechanical perfection and perverted cleverness of later engravers, who cheerfully imitated wash drawings with supreme disregard for the aesthetic qualities of the medium, were fortunately brought to an end by photographic reproductive processes. To be quite fair to the engravers, this misuse of wood-engraving was largely the fault of the artists, who put the engravers on their mettle by mixing black and white wash, pencil, Chinese white, and ink, sometimes all in one drawing, and in the case of Dante Gabriel Rossetti even adding a little red chalk in places. They and their publishers would then expect facsimiles of their drawings from the engraver. These drawings were either drawn or photographed on the block and the sole aim of the engraver was to reproduce them as accurately as possible. Accurate imitation and speed of execution became the chief qualifications necessary. For some of the double-page illustrations for the weekly press several engravers would work on the blocks, which were then fitted together to make one picture. It is not surprising that wood-engraving came to be regarded as a purely commercial means of reproduction.
With the spread of the reaction against Impressionism and the modern tendency towards greater precision and simplification of form, artists were attracted by the severity of the line made by the graver, and they adopted the process with enthusiasm. With” truth to the medium” as their creed, instead of the old one of ” truth to nature” by which was usually meant the slavish copying of natural appearances, they searched for a style and technique which firstly would allow them to say what they wanted to say, and secondly would be based on the most economical, and consequently the most fitting, use of the engraving tool. It was only natural that these artists should treat the medium as an entirely new means of expression despite the fact that Gordon Craig , Charles Ricketts, and a few others had continued to use it as a means of artistic self-expression when, with the introduction of the process block, wood-engraving was looked upon as an out-of-date method of working.
Bewick’s prints had always been known and admired by collectors and artists, and it was inevitable that his white line and his methods should be studied and should serve as a precedent for this modern revival. Hence, instead of continuing to work in the black line manner with its technique of the woodcut, the modern artist-engravers are making designs in terms of the white line, carried out by means of the actual marks made by the various engraving tools, and are producing prints which are obviously wood-engravings and which cannot be produced by any other method.