Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 801 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
WOOD ENGRAVING, the art of engraving (q.v.) on wood, by lines so cut that the design stands in relief. This method of engraving was historically the earliest, done for the purpose of taking impressions upon paper or other material. It is natural that wood engraving should have occurred first to the primitive mind, because the manner in which woodcuts are printed is the most obvious of all the kinds of printing. If a block of wood is inked with a greasy ink and then pressed on a piece of paper, the ink from the block will be transferred at once to the paper, on which we shall have a black patch exactly the size and shape of the inked surface. Now, suppose that the simple Chinese who first discovered this was ingenious enough to go a step further, it would evidently occur to him that if one of the elaborate signs, each of which in his own language stood for a word, were drawn upon the block of wood, in reverse, and then the whole of the white wood sufficiently cut away to leave the sign in relief, an image of it might be taken on the paper much more quickly than the sign could be copied with a camel-hair brush and Indian ink. No sooner had this experiment been tried and found to answer than block-printing was discovered, and from the printing of signs to the printing of rude images of things, exactly in the same manner, the step was so easy that it must have been made insensibly. Wood engraving, then, is really nothing but that primitive block-cutting which prepared for the printer the letters in relief now replaced by movable types, and the only difference between a delicate modern woodcut and the rude letters in the first printed books is a difference of artistic skill and knowledge. In Chinese and Japanese woodcuts we can still recognize traditions of treatment which come from the designing of their written characters. The main elements of a Chinese or a Japanese woodcut, uninfluenced by European example, are dashing or delicate outlines and markings of various thickness, exactly such as a clever writer with the brush would make with his Indian ink or vermilion. Often we get a perfectly black blot, exquisitely shaped and full of careful purpose, and these broad vigorous blacks are quite in harmony with the kind of printing for which wood engraving is intended. It has not hitherto been satisfactorily ascertained whether wood engraving came to Europe from the East or was re-discovered by some European artificer. The precise date of the first European woodcut is also a matter of doubt, but here we have certain data which at least set limits to the possibility of er!or. European wood engraving dates certainly from the first quarter of the 15th century. It used to be believed that a cut of St Christopher (now in the Rylands library, Manchester), rudely executed and dated 1423, was the Adam of all our wood-cuts, but since 1844 investigations have somewhat shaken this theory. There is a cut in the Brussels library, of the " Virgin and Child " surrounded by four saints, which is dated 1418, but the composition is so elegant and the drawing so refined and beautiful, that one has a difficulty in accepting the date, though it is received by many as authentic, while it is repudiated by others in the belief that the letters have been tampered with. The " Virgin and Child " of the Paris library is without date, but is supposed, apparently with reason, to be earlier than either of the two mentioned; and Delaborde proved that two cuts were printed in 1406. The "Virgin and Child " at Paris may be taken as a good representative specimen of very early European wood engraving. It is simple art, but not bad art. The forms are drawn in bold thick lines, and the black blot is used with much effect in the hollows and recesses of the design. Beyond this there is no shading. Rude as the work is, the artist has expressed exquisite maternal tenderness in the chief details of the design. The Virgin is crowned, and stands against a niche-like decoration with pinnacles as often seen in illuminated manuscripts. In the woodcut this architectural decoration is boldly but effectively drawn. Here, then, we have real art already, art in which appeared both vigour of style and tenderness of feeling. The earliest wood engraving consisted of outlines and white spaces with smaller black spaces, cut with a knife, not with a graver, and shading lines are rare or absent. Before passing to shaded woodcuts we may mention a kind of wood engraving practised in the middle of the 15th century by a French engraver (often called Bernard Milnet, though his name is a matter of doubt) and by other engravers nearer the beginning of that century. This method is called the crible, a word for which there is no convenient translation in English, unless we call it drilled. It means riddled with small holes, as a target may be riddled with small shot. The effect of light and dark is produced in this kind of engraving by sinking a great number of round holes of different diameters in the substance of the wood, which, of course, all come white in the printing; it is, in effect, a sort of stippling in white. When a more advanced kind of wood engraving had become prevalent the crible was no longer used for general purposes, but it was retained for the grounds of decorative wood engraving, being used occasionally in borders for pages, in printers' marks and other designs, which were survivals in black and white of the ancient art of illuminating. Curiously enough, this kind of wood engraving, though long disused for purposes of art, was in recent times revived with excellent effect for scientific purposes, 'mainly as a method of illustration for astronomical books. The black given by the untouched wooden block represents the night sky, and the holes, smaller or larger, represent in white the stars and planets of lesser or greater magnitude. The process was perfectly adapted to this purpose, being cheap, rapid and simple. It has also been used in a spasmodic and experimental manner by one or two modern engravers. The earlier workmen turned their attention to woodcut in simple black lines, including outline and shading. In early work the outline is firm and very distinct, being thicker in line than the shading, and in the shading the lines are simple, without cross-hatchings, as the workmen found it easier and more natural to take out a white line-like space between two parallel or nearly parallel black lines than to cut out the twenty or thirty small white lozenges into which the same space would have been divided by cross-hatchings. The early work would also sometimes retain the simple black patch which we find in Japanese woodcuts, for example, in the " Christmas Dancers," of Wohlgemuth, all the shoes are black patches, though there is no discrimination of local colour in anything else. A precise parallel to this treatment is to be found in a Japanese woodcut of the " Wild Boar and Hare," given by Aime Humbert in his book on Japan, in which the boar has a cap which is a perfectly black patch though all other local colour is omitted. The similarity of method between Wohlgemuth and the Japanese artist is close: they both take pleasure in drawing thin black lines at a little distance from the patch and following its shape like a border. In course of time, as wood engravers became more expert, they were not so careful to spare themselves trouble and pains, and then cross-hatchings were introduced, but at first more as a variety to relieve the eye than as a common method of shading. In the 16th century a simple kind of wood engraving reached such a high degree of perfection that the best work of that time has never been surpassed in its own way. Wood engraving in the 16th century was much more conventional than it became in more recent times, and this very conventionalism enabled it to express what it had to express with greater decision and power. The wood engraver in those days was free from many difficult conditions which hampered his modern successor. He did not care in the least about aerial perspective, and nobody expected him to care about it; he did not trouble his mind about local colour, but generally omitted it, sometimes, however, giving it here and there, but only when it suited his fancy. As for light-and-shade, he shaded only when he wanted to give relief, but never worked out anything like a studied and balanced effect of light-and-shade, nor did he feel any responsibility about the matter. What he really cared for, and generally attained, was a firm, clear, simple kind of drawing, conventional in its indifference to the mystery of nature and to the poetic sentiment which comes to us from that mystery, but by no means indifferent to fact of a decided and tangible kind. The wood engraving of the 16th century was a singularly positive art, as positive as carving; indeed, most of the famous woodcuts of that time might be translated into carved panels without much loss of character. Their complete independence of pictorial conditions might be illustrated by many examples. In Darer's " Salutation " the dark blue of the sky above the Alpine mountains is translated bydark shading, but so far is this piece of local colour from being carried out in the rest of the composition that the important foreground figures, with their draperies, are shaded as if they were white statues. Again, the sky itself is false in its shading, for it is without gradation, but the shading upon it has a purpose, which is to prevent the upper part of the composition from looking too empty, and the conventionalism of wood engraving was so accepted in those days that the artist could have recourse to this expedient in defiance alike of pictorial harmony and of natural truth. In Holbein's admirable series of small well-filled compositions, the " Dance of Death," the firm and matter-of-fact drawing is accompanied by a sort of light-and-shade adopted simply for convenience, with as little reference to natural truth as might be expected in a stained-glass window. There is a most interesting series of little woodcuts drawn and engraved in the 16th century by J. Amman as illustrations of the different handicrafts and trades, and entitled " The Baker," " The Miller," " The Butcher," and soon. Nothing is more striking in this valuable series than the remarkable closeness with which the artist observed everything in the nature of a hard fact, such as the shape of a hatchet or a spade; but he sees no mystery anywhere—he can draw leaves but not foliage, feathers but not plumage, locks but not hair, a hill but not a landscape. In the " Witches' Kitchen," a woodcut by Hans Baldung (Gran) of Strassburg, dated 1510, the steam rising from the pot is so hard that it has the appearance of two trunks of trees denuded of their bark, and makes a pendant in the composition to a real tree on the opposite side which does not look more substantial. Nor was this a personal deficiency in Gran. It was Difrer's own way of engraving clouds and vapour, and all the engravers of that time followed it. Their conceptions were much more those of a carver than those of a painter. Durer actually did carve in high relief, and Griin's " Witches' Kitchen " might be carved in the same manner without loss. When the engravers were rather draughtsmen than carvers, their drawing was of a decorative character. For example, in the magnificent portrait of Christian III. of Denmark by Jacob Binck, one of the very finest examples of old wood engraving, the face and beard are drawn with few lines and very powerfully, but the costume is treated strictly as decoration, the lines of the patterns being all given, with as little shading as possible, and what shading there is is simple, without cross-hatching. The perfection of simple wood engraving having been attained so early as the 16th century by the use of the graver, the art became extremely productive. During the 17th and 18th centuries it still remained a comparatively severe and conventional form of art, because the workmen shaded as much as possible either with straight lines or simple curves, so that there was never much appearance of freedom. Modern wood engraving is quite a distinct art, being based on different principles, but between the two stands the work of an original genius, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Although apprenticed to an engraver in 1767, he was never taught to draw, and got into ways and habits of his own which add to the originality of his work, though his defective training is always evident. His work is the more genuine from his frequent habit of engraving his own designs, which left him perfect freedom of interpretation; but the genuineness of it is not only of the kind which comes from independence of spirit, it is due also to his fidelity to the technical nature of the process, a fidelity very rare in the art. The reader will remember that in wood engraving every cutting prints white, and every space left untouched prints black. Simple black lines are obtained by cutting out white lines or spaces between them, and crossed black lines have to be obtained by laboriously cutting out all the white lozenges between them. In Bewick's cuts white lines, which had appeared before him in the Fables of 1772, are abundant and are often crossed, but black lines are never crossed; he is also quite willing to utilize the black space, as the Japanese wood-engravers and Darer's master Wohlgemuth used to do. The side of the frying-pan in the vignette of " The Cat and the Mouse " is treated precisely on their principles, so precisely indeed that we have the line at the edge for a border. In the vignette of " The Fisher-man," at the end of the twentieth chapter of the Memoir, the space of dark shade under the bushes is left quite black, whilst the leaves and twigs, and the rod and line too, are all drawn in pure white lines. Bewick, indeed, was more careful in his adherence to the technical conditions of the art than any of the primitive woodcutters except those who worked in crible and who used white lines as well as their dots. Such a thing as a fishing-net is an excellent test of this disposition. In the interesting series by J. Amman already mentioned there is a cut of a man fishing in a river, from a small punt, with a net. The net comes dark against the light surface of the river, and Amman took the trouble to cut a white lozenge for every mesh. Bewick, in one of his vignettes, represents a fisherman mending his nets by the side of a stream. A long net is hung to dry on four up-right sticks, but to avoid the trouble of cutting out the lozenges, Bewick artfully contrives his arrangement of light and shade so that the net shall be in light against a space of black shade under some bushes. This permits him to cut every string of the net by a simple white line, according to his practice of using the white line whenever he could. He used it with great ability in the scales of his fish, but this was simply from a regard to technical convenience, for when he engraved on metal he marked the scales of his fish by black lines. These may seem very trifling considerations to persons unacquainted with the fine arts, who may think that it can matter little whether a fishing-net is drawn in black lines or in white, but the fact is that the entire destiny of wood engraving depended on preserving or rejecting the white line. Had it been generally accepted as it was by Bewick, original artists might have followed his example in engraving their own inventions, because then wood engraving would have been a natural and comparatively rapid art; but when the black line was preferred the art became a handicraft, because original artists have not time to cut out thousands of little white spaces. The reader may at once realize for himself the tediousness of the process by comparing the ease with which one writes a page of manuscript with the labour which would be involved in cutting away, with perfect accuracy, every space, however minute, which the pen had not blackened with ink. Wood engraving in the first three quarters of the 19th century had no special character of its own, nothing like Bewick's work, which had a character derived from the nature of the process; but on the other hand, the modern art is set to imitate every kind of engraving and every kind of drawing. Thus we have woodcuts that imitate line engraving, others that copy etching and even mezzotint, whilst others try to imitate the crumbling touch of charcoal or of chalk, or the wash of water-colour, the greyness of pencil, or even the wash and the pen-line together. The art has been put to all sorts of purposes; and though it is not and cannot be free, it is made to pretend to a freedom which the old masters would have rejected as an affectation. Rapid sketches are made on the block with the pen, and the modern wood-engraver set himself patiently to cut out all the spaces of white, in which case the engraver is in reality less free than his predecessor in the 16th century, though the result has a false appearance of liberty. The woodcut is like a polyglot who has learned to speak many other languages at the risk of forgetting his own. And, wonderful as may be its powers of imitation, it can only approximate to the arts which it imitates; it can never rival each of them on its own ground. It can convey the idea of etching or water-colour, but not their quality; it can imitate the manner of a line engraver on steel, but it cannot give the delicacy of his lines. In its most modern development it has practically succeeded in imitating the grey tonalities of the photograph. Whatever be the art which the wood engraver imitates, a practised eye sees at the first glance that the result is nothing but a woodcut. Therefore, although we may admire the suppleness of an art which can assume so many transformations, it. is certain that these transformations give little satisfaction to severe judges. At the same time, as the ultimate object was not only reproduction, but reduplication by the printing-press, the drawbacks mentioned are far outweighed by the practical advantages. In manual skill and in variety of resource modern wood engravers far excel their predecessors. A Belgian wood engraver, Stephane Pannemaker, exhibited at the Salon of 1876 a woodcut entitled " La Baigneuse," which astonished the art-world by the amazing perfection of its method, all the delicate modelling of a nude figure being rendered by simple modulations of unbroken line. Both English and French publications have abounded in striking proofs of skill. The modern art, as exhibited in these publications, may be broadly divided into two sections, one depending upon line, in which case the black line of a pen or pencil sketch is carefully preserved, and the other depending upon tone, when the tones of a sketch with the brush are translated by the wood engraver into shades obtained in his own way by the burin. The first of these methods requires extreme care, skill and patience, but makes little demand upon the intelligence of the artist; the second leaves him more free to interpret, but he cannot do this rightly without understanding both tone and texture. The woodcuts in Dore's Don Quixote are done by each method alternately, many of the designs having been sketched with a pen upon the block, whilst others are shaded with a brush in Indian ink and white, the latter being engraved by interpreting the shades of the brush. In the pen drawings the lines are Dore's, in the brush drawings the lines are the engraver's. In the night scenes Pisan usuallyadopted Bewick's system of white lines, the block being left untouched in its blackness wherever the effect permitted. English wood engraving showed to great advantage in such newspapers as the Illustrated London News and the Graphic of that day, and also in vignettes for book illustration. A certain standard of vignette engraving was reached by Edmund Evans in Birket Foster's edition of Cowper's Task, not likely to be surpassed in its own way, either for delicacy of tone or for careful preservation of the drawing. An important extension of wood engraving was due to the invention of compound blocks by Charles Wells about the year 186o. Formerly a woodcut was limited in size to the dimensions of a block of boxwood cut across the grain, except in the primitive condition of the art, when commoner woods were used in the direction of the grain; but by this invention many small blocks were fitted together so as to form a single large one, sometimes of great size. They could be separated or joined together again at will, and it was this facility which rendered possible the rapid production of large cuts for the newspapers, many cutters working on the same subject at once, each taking his own section. The process employed for wood engraving may be briefly described as follows. The surface of the block is lightly whitened with Chinese white so as to produce a light yellowish-grey tint, and on this the artist draws, either with a pen if the work is intended to be in line, or with a hard-pointed pencil and a brush if it is intended to be in shade. If it is to be a line woodcut the cutter simply digs out the whites with a sharp graver or scalpel (he has these tools of various shapes and sizes), and that is all he has to do; but if the drawing on the wood is shaded with a brush, then the cutter has to work upon the tones in such a manner that they will come relatively true in the printing. This is by no means easy, and the result is often a disappointment, besides which the artist's drawing is destroyed in the process. It therefore became customary to have the block photographed before the engraver touches it, when the drawing is specially worth preserving. This was done for Leighton's illustrations to Romola. By a later development the drawing, made upon paper, was by photography printed on the block, and the drawing remained untouched as a witness for or against the engraver. In recent years the position of wood engraving in Great Britain has wholly changed. Up to 188o and for a little while longer it was the chief means of book and newspaper illustration, and a frequent method of fine-art reproduction; but by the beginning of the zoth century it had been all but driven out of the field by " process " work of various kinds. It still flourishes in its commoner style for commercial and mechanical work; it is still occasionally maintained in its finest form by a sympathetic publisher here and there, who deplores and would arrest its decay. But the photograph and its facsimile reproduction have captivated the public, who want " illustration " and who do not want " art." The great body of the wood engravers have therefore found their occupation entirely gone, while the minority have found themselves forced to devote their skill to " re-touching " the process-block—sometimes carrying their work so far that the print from the finished block is a close imitation of a wood engraving. This system has been carried farthest in America; it is rarely seen elsewhere. It is not only to considerations of economy that is due the supersession of engraving by " process." The apparent superiority of truthfulness claimed by the photograph over the artist's drawing is a factor in the case—the public forgetting that a photographic print shows us what a thing or a scene looks like to the undiscriminating lens, rather than what it looks like to the two eyes of the spectator, who unconsciously selects that part of the scene which he specially wishes to see. The rank and file of the engravers—even those who can " engrave " after a picture as well as " cut " a "special artist's " sketch—succumbed not only to the public, but to the artists themselves, who frequently insisted upon the process-block for the translation of their work. They preferred the greater truth of outline (though not necessarily of tone) which is yielded by " process," to all the inherent charm of the beautiful (and expensive) art of xylography. In Great Britain a few engravers of high rank and ability still followed the art which was raised to so high a pitch by W. J. Linton (d. 1898). Such were Mr Charles Roberts, Mr Biscombe Gardner, Mr Comfort, Mr Ulrich and a few more—the first two the better engravers for being also practising artists. But there is every reason to fear that if wood engraving as a craft, for ordinary purposes, ceases to exist, wood engraving as a fine art must disappear as well—as there would be nothing to support the young craftsman during the years of apprenticeship and practice required to make an " artist " of him, and nothing to compensate him if he fail to attain at once the highest accomplishment. Another circumstance which has contributed to the overthrow of wood engraving in England is the rapture begotten of the extra-ordinary executive perfection to which the art had been brought in America. These engravings, published in magazines and books having wide circulation in England, awakened not an intelligent but a foolish appreciation among the public. Just as the over-refinement of engraving on steel of Finden and his school killed his art by stripping it of all interest, so the unsurpassable perfection of the American wood engraver, by the law of paradox, effectually stifled xylography in England, as it has since done to an almost equal degree in America. The reason is simple. With the object of " disindividualizing " himself, as he called it, the engraver sought to suppress his own recognizable manner of craftsmanship When translating the work of the artist for the public; and the more he succeeded in effacing himself, and the more he refined and elaborated his technique and imitated textures, and the more he developed extreme minuteness and excessive dexterity (so as to secure faithfulness and smoothness), the more closely did the result approximate to a photograph and nothing more. The result, in fact, became the reductio ad absurdum of the passion for the minute and the perfection of mere technique. The result was amazing in its completeness, but curiously grey and monotonous; and matter-of-fact publishers and public alike preferred the photograph, which in their eyes did not differ so very much (except in being a little greyer and more monotonous) reproduced by the half-tone block, while the cost of the latter was but a fraction of that of the former. The extreme elaboration, satisfying a craving of an acrobatic kind, defeated, its own end. The public were pleased for a time, and the result has been disastrous for the art. In England, in spite of the International Society of Wood En-gravers, of which little is now heard, there are no signs of a general revival, and it seems as if the art must be born again, so long as the public interest in photographs continues. Charles Ricketts and Miss Housman have gone back to a Dureresque, or Florentine, manner cf the Early Renaissance woodcut, while others are striving to begin engraving where Bewick began it. If the true art is ever restored, the revival will rather be based on a revolt against the greyness of the process-block, and the offensively shiny surface of the chalk-coated paper on which it is printed, than on anyaestheticdelight in intelligent wood engraving, its expressive line, its delicate, pearly tones, and its rich, fat blacks. In America, where the power of resuscitation is great, the miraculous technical perfection brought about by Timothy Cole and Frederick Juengling, as leaders of the school, has promptly given way to a greater feeling for art and a lesser worship of mechanical achievement, and, within strict limits, wood engraving is saved. Curiously enough, Cole (an Englishman by birth) was equally a leader in recognizing the danger which his own brilliant proficiency had helped to bring about. The " decadent " de luxe who had overwhelmed his art in the refinements which threatened to destroy it, and who had been seconded by the splendid printing-presses of America (which might without exaggeration be called instruments of precision), gave up what may be termed hyper-engraving, and, surrendering his wonderful power of imitating surfaces and textures, changed his manner. He became broader in handling; his example was followed by others, and wood engraving in a very few hands still prospers in the United States. In France, where the art has reached the highest perfection and the most consummate and logical development, it flourishes up to a certain point on the true artistic instinct of the engraver, on the taste of an intelligent and appreciative public, and on official recognition and encouragement. Nevertheless, it was found necessary to establish a " Society of Wood Engravers " (with a magazine of its own) to protect it against the inroad of the process-block. The art doubtless produces more engravers of skill than it can provide work for; but that is evidence rather of vitality than of decay. Lepere, Baude, Jonnard and Florian have been among the leaders who, in different styles of wood engraving, have sustained the extraordinarily high level which has been attained in France, and which is fairly well maintained by virtue of the encouragement on which it has thriven heretofore. Florian, who died in 1900, was a man who successfully sought to obtain effects of tone rather than line, leaving masses of unengraved surface to enhance the delicate beauty of his pearly greys. But in rebelling against the mechanical style formerly so much in vogue in Germany, of indicating roundness of form by curved lines carried as far as possible at right angles to the convexity, and in substituting more or less longitudinal lines of shading, he sacrificed a good deal of the logic of form-rendering, and started a method that as not been entirely successful.
End of Article: WOOD ENGRAVING

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.