English Wood-Engraving 1900-1950

English Wood-Engraving 1900-1950

by Thomas Balston


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"A wonderful look at the many styles of wood engraving from the time period 1900–1950. The illustrations are sublime, and there is a lot of variation both in theme, execution and style. I really enjoyed looking at the engravings, and the text was interesting and very readable." — Jefferson-Madison Regional Library System
At the turn of the twentieth century the art of wood-engraving enjoyed a flourishing revival among English artists. These works were so fundamentally different from their predecessors, in both design and technique, that they formed a new branch of the art. This volume showcases five decades' worth of magnificent wood engravings in a series of finely wrought black-and-white and color images, selected from a wide array of sources that includes lesser-known works from temporary exhibitions and limited editions.
An informative history of the art precedes the illustrations, tracing the development of wood-engraving from the art form's earliest days through its decline and resurgence of popularity. A chronological presentation of striking, intricately detailed images follows, featuring the works of such noted artists as Eric Gill, Iain Macnab, Eric Ravilious, John Nash, and Clare Leighton, in addition to scores of others. Ranging from vignettes of animals and rural life to street scenes, portraits, and episodes from literature, this survey offers a magnificent overview of the vibrant era in the art of wood-engraving.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486798783
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 12/16/2015
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

A scion of the Whatman papermaking family, Thomas Balston (1883–1967) was a director of the Duckworth & Company publishers and a noted scholar of English book production and illustration.

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English Wood-Engraving 1900-1950

By Thomas Balston

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-80807-9





THE WORD 'WOODCUT' is commonly used to denote two different things, the woodcut proper and the wood-engraving. They agree, however, in being printed from the surface of the block (a print from a wood block before any work has been done on it would be a black rectangle the size of the block), unlike copper-engravings, which are printed, after the surface has been wiped clean, by pressing the paper into the incised lines into which the ink has been forced.

The woodcut preceded the wood-engraving by many centuries. It was first employed in western Europe to print patterns on textiles. The designs were made on the block by slanting cuts with a knife, so that two cuts more or less parallel could make a V-shaped trench which printed as a white line, like a chalk-line drawn on a blackboard, while the rest of the surface of the block printed black. But when the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century gave rise to a demand for woodcuts to be printed with letterpress, the wooden presses of the period were found too weak to print the large areas of black efficiently. The woodcutters therefore adopted a new technique. Instead of making their designs of white lines on black, they cut away the wood on both sides of lines already drawn upon the block, and removed all bare areas of the surface with a gouge. These lines then printed black, and the rest of the block white. All illustrations were soon made in black line only, and worked on the side-grain or plank of some soft wood so as to lessen the labour of the cutting and gouging. Printer-publishers then found it cheaper to employ an artist only to draw on the block and then get a craftsman to do all the cutting and gouging. Thus woodcutting was degraded to a purely reproductive craft.

So, for a hundred years, innumerable black-line woodcuts appeared in books and single sheets, but about the middle of the sixteenth century they were superseded in all the more important books by copper-engravings. Copper-engravings, however, entail much greater expense because the plates, not being printed from the surface, cannot be printed in the same operation as type. Hence towards the end of the seventeenth century attempts were made to imitate copper-engravings on wood blocks and, as the crisp and often very fine lines on the copperplates could not be satisfactorily imitated on a soft plank, the experiment was tried of working with a graver on the end grain of a hard wood such as box. Thus wood-engraving was born, but another century elapsed before, in Bewick's hands, it developed into an original art.

The first English book known to have been decorated with wood-engravings is Howell's Medulla Historiae Anglicanae (1712), in which, as the Bookseller's Preface states, the plates were engraved on wood because 'copper would be more beautiful but more expensive', and the wood-engravers soon became so skilful in imitating copper that it is still disputed whether some prints of the period, e.g. those in Croxall's Fables (1722), were from wood or metal. In 1775, when the Society of Arts offered a prize for 'the best engraving on wood or type capable of being worked off- with letterpress', it was won by a young engraver from Newcastle-on-Tyne, Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), with five wood-engravings based on prints in Croxall's book.

Stimulated by this success, Bewick continued to engrave on wood, but abandoned the attempt to imitate the black lines of copper-engravings. Though not, as has been frequently asserted, the inventor of wood-engraving, he was the first to recognize that, as the incisions made by the graver on the wood block printed white, the right use of the medium was to base his designs as much as possible on white lines and areas, and so he became the first to use his graver as a drawing instrument and to employ the medium as an original art. He seldom drew pen or pencil lines on the block, but generally worked from water-colour sketches, whose tones and textures he freely interpreted with small pits and jags from his graver. Because his main interest was in the exact rendering on a very small scale of all the details of birds and animals and country scenes, he did not employ the long and narrow white lines which are a conspicuous feature of many modern engravings. His own claim was that he was the first 'to attempt colour on wood', and by colour he meant tone, the rendering of light.

Bewick, however, was a sensitive rather than an inventive artist: 'he could draw,' said Ruskin, 'a pig but not an Aphrodite': and it was his preoccupation with the exact rendering of natural objects which quickly led to the eclipse of wood-engraving as an independent art. The publishers were not slow to grasp that craftsmen as highly trained as Bewick's apprentices to copy natural objects would be equally skilful in reproducing the drawings of other artists. Very soon the craftsmen found that this was the only remunerative work they could obtain, and wood-engraving, for nearly eighty years, became a merely reproductive craft, just as woodcutting had done three centuries earlier. Three men, it is true, employed Bewick's technique on a few very original and imaginative designs of their own, but Blake's and Calvert's and Samuel Palmer's prints aroused little public interest at the time and created no demand for original work.

This eclipse of original wood-engraving would be entirely deplorable if it had not given rise to the famous engravings of the 'sixties in which, with amazing ingenuity, the craftsmen set themselves to make facsimiles of the drawings of Millais, Leighton, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Keene, Tenniel, Houghton, Pin well, and a host of others, the greatest school of popular illustrators that has existed in England. Though much of the sensitiveness of their lines was lost in translation in spite of the virtuosity of the craftsmen, their illustrations to books and magazines and weekly papers retained- the enthusiastic interest of a large public for more than twenty years, and only lost their vogue in the middle 'eighties when the publishers transferred their allegiance to the photographic line-block, a much quicker and cheaper process for reproducing drawings.

For many years not only wood-engraving but copper-engraving and etching had been esteemed only as means of reproducing drawings and paintings, and it was an etcher, Sir Seymour Haden, who, in a paper read before the Society of Arts in 1883, made the first effective protest in favour of original work. Six years later two young artists, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, inspired by the principles, though not the practice, of William Morris, made a similar protest in favour of original woodcutting and wood-engraving. Between 1889 and 1897 they published, at very irregular intervals, five numbers of a new magazine, The Dial, which contained wood-engravings designed and cut by themselves, Sturge Moore, Reginald Savage, and Lucien Pissarro, and two books with many woodcuts by themselves alone, Daphnis and Chloe (1893) and Hero and Leander (1894). Further work by all five can be found in many volumes of the Vale Press (1896–1904) and the Eragny Press (1894–1914). In 1898, as the Vale Press Group, they staged what they claimed to be 'the first exhibition of original wood-engraving' in this country, but the exhibits, however beautiful in themselves, were not in any true sense original engravings. They were still essentially copies of drawings although, as the same hand generally drew on the block and engraved it, the drawings were better suited to this method of reproduction than those of the 'sixties. In some works, it is true, Ricketts and Pissarro employed white line in their backgrounds, and in some Pissarro employed black line which made no attempt to imitate the calligraphic effect of pen or pencil, but even these were mainly reproductive.

There were, however, two men in the 'nineties who, quietly and with no propaganda, were really designing in and not on the wood. About 1892 William Nicholson, inspired by Joseph Crawhall's imitations of old chapbooks, began to engrave those simple designs with heavy black masses which, when enlivened by a lithographic buff tone and some touches of local colour, became famous, first in his Twelve Portraits (which included the Queen Victoria) and later in London Types and other volumes published between 1898 and 1902. It is a fair comment that these designs might more easily have been cut with a knife on soft wood, but those of his pupil in the craft, Gordon Craig, are thoroughbred engravings. Craig's finest work belongs to the next decades, but from 1895 to 1900 he produced more than 150 engravings, mostly slight but remarkable for the originality of his designs and for the varied technique employed in their execution.



IN 1900, when our period opens, and for the next twenty years, there was little public interest in wood-engraving. Nicholson and the Vale Press Group, with the exception of Pissarro, had already done their most distinguished work, and Pissarro's Eragny Press books, in which his new engravings continued to appear till 1914, did not at that time arouse the interest which was due to them, especially for the splendour and harmony of his colour prints. Craig, too, continued to engrave, and started to cut with the knife, but even now his masterpieces, the theatrical woodcuts which he made in Florence between 1900 and 1914, including the Hamlet and Merchant of Venice series, are almost unknown in England.

It was, however, early in this period that the seeds were sown of a revival of the wood block which was, at the end of the First War, to make original wood-engraving more widely appreciated than ever before. The early history of the 'modern' movement is as obscure and complicated as that of most developments in the arts, but its main thread derives from some date in 1904 when Noel Rooke became so much dissatisfied with the reproductions of his drawings by photographic process that after much discussion with Edward Johnston he turned to wood-engraving. Soon, however, he perceived that the wood block, too, was only a very distorting medium for reproducing pen and pencil drawings, and that a wood-engraving could only have the quality of an original work of art if it was designed by the artist, graver in hand, with incisions dictated by the medium itself and not by the quite alien pen or pencil. Thereupon he sought the advice of Pissarro, who helped him in various ways but could not sympathize with his enthusiasm for a graver-designed technique. Eric Gill, however, who had been Rooke's fellow student under Johnston, warmly welcomed the idea. During the next ten years Gill engraved some letters, designed by himself or Johnston, and a number of small devices, Christmas cards and bookplates, and Rooke, too, made a number of engravings. In 1905 he had been appointed Teacher of Book Illustration at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and in 1912, in spite of much opposition, he was permitted to instruct his students in wood-engraving. Among the first were Vivien Gribble, Rachel Marshall (Mrs David Garnett), and Robert Gibbings. Rooke later became Head of the School of Book Production at the Central School, and for thirty years continued to teach wood-engraving as a medium for the decoration of books.

Meanwhile, independently of Rooke, Gwendolen Raverat, then a student at the Slade School, had been inspired by admiration for Bewick to start wood-engraving. At that time no one at the Slade had the slightest interest in the craft, but she had the luck to obtain some instruction from her cousin, Eleanor Monsell (Mrs Bernard Darwin), who had begun to cut and engrave wood blocks as early as 1898 but soon desisted owing to the pressure of other work. By 1914 Mrs Raverat had nearly sixty blocks to her credit. Some of them, especially a few designed or inspired by her husband, have been said to show the influence of Gill, but at that period she was unacquainted with Gill's work.

Side by side with this revival of original wood-engraving there was some revival of original woodcutting. In these years before the First War, Rooke himself made some side-grain cuts, and was probably the first to experiment with the side-grain of boxwood instead of the softer woods generally employed. But his attempts to instruct his pupils in woodcutting had little result, as the pupils all showed a marked preference for engraving although many of the early designs of Gibbings and others were stark juxtapositions of black and white masses which could have been more directly executed by the knife. But there was one independent artist, Edward Wadsworth, who realized that the woodcut was the right medium for his bold and much simplified renderings of natural objects. An early work of his, Newcastle-on-Tyne, was printed in Wyndham Lewis' magazine, Blast (June 1914), and during the next five years he produced many prints of marked originality. His series of camouflaged ships were among the first modernist works to attract wide notice and, though cut with the knife, had a marked influence on the designs of many contemporary engravers.

By 1915 only a few prints in magazines, handbills and so on had given the public a glimpse of this new kind of art, but in that year there were published two slim volumes which were the first to be illustrated by modern wood-engravings: The Devil's Devices (Hampshire House Workshops) illustrated by Gill, and Spring Morning (Poetry Bookshop) by Mrs Raverat. In the following year the St Dominic's Press began to issue its many little pamphlets decorated by Gill and his pupils. None of these, coming as they did from obscure publishers, attracted much attention at the time, but the cult of the wood block was spreading among the younger artists and, when the war ended, it was found that many of them were acquiring the craft. In 1919 a little magazine, Change, edited by John Hilton and Joseph Thorp, of which only two numbers appeared, gave some prominence to the work of nine engravers, among whom were Gill, Gibbings and Vivien Gribble, and, in its January number, The Studio published an appreciation of Gibbings' work, its first article on a modern wood-engraver.

The next year, 1920, was marked by a more important advance, the foundation of the Society of Wood-Engravers to further the interests of those who, whether working in black or in colours, with knife or with graver, used the European method of printing with oil-based inks. There were ten original members, of whom seven — Rooke, Gibbings, Gill, Mrs Raverat, John Nash, Philip Hagreen, and E. M. O'R. Dickey — were definitely of the modern movement. The other three were Pissarro who, as we have seen, was in incomplete sympathy with Rooke's aims, Gordon Craig whose work is too individual to be considered as part of any movement, and Sydney Lee who, from about 1905, had been making a few engravings of distinction in the modern manner but was more intent on cuts, black or coloured, in the Japanese tradition. In November the Society held its first Annual Exhibition at the Chenil Gallery in King's Road, Chelsea, with a catalogue introduced by Dr Campbell Dodgson of the British Museum. Of the ninety works exhibited seventy-nine were by the members: among the non-members exhibiting were Ethelbert White, E. F. Daglish, Rupert Lee, Desmond Chute, and Margaret Pilkington.

Of the engravers not previously mentioned Chute and Hagreen had learnt their craft from Gill, Margaret Pilkington from Rooke, and Rupert Lee from Gibbings. White was self-taught, and John Nash and Dickey had started under the aegis of Paul Nash who, fired perhaps by the example of his then neighbour, Rupert Lee, had begun to experiment with the medium in 1918, though he did not exhibit with the Society till its second exhibition in 1921.


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Table of Contents


3 Thomas Balston. ENGLISH WOOD-ENGRAVING 1900-1950,
(1) The Years Before,
(2) The New Movement 1900-1920,
(3) Experiments 1921-1924,
(4) The Years of Success 1925-1939,
(5) The War and Later,
(6) Coloured Wood-engravings,
(7) Select Bibliography,

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