A History of Wood Engraving – Chapter 3


Chapter 3

“The Engraver at Work”

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These pages are a comprehensive history of wood-engraving, with some scanned images.

Source – The Illustrated London News.

From a series of articles published between April 20th 1844 and July 6th 1844












Faust, having got quit of Gutemburg, continued the business of printing with the assistance of Scheffer, though the latter does not appear to have been admitted as a partner, having an interest in the stock and materials during the life-time of Faust.

In an edition of “Cicero de Officiis,” printed by them so late as 1465, the year before Faust’s death, it is stated in the colophon, or imprint at the end of the book, that “John Faust, citizen of Mentz, executed the work, not with pen and ink, but by means of a beautiful art, by the hand of Peter, his servant.” Whatever might have been intended by this imprint, it seems clear that Faust did not then consider Scheffer as his partner in the business, although his name had previously appeared in several works in conjunction with his own, and without any intimation that he was his servant.

The first printed book that appeared with a date was a Psalter, in large folio, printed in 1457, by Faust and Scheffer, in large type, so that it might be read at some distance by monks and priests when chaunting in the choir.

If this work could be considered as the earliest specimen of typography, as it assuredly is the first with a certain date, it might indeed be almost said that the art had no infancy, but that it appeared at once in the fulness of vigour and beauty. All the known copies are on vellum; the body of text is of a beautiful jet black, while the large initial letters are printed in red and blue.

The largest of these is the letter B at the commencement of the first Psalm; and though it be the earliest specimen of a letter printed in two colours, was probably engraved on two separate blocks of wood, from the designs, and under the superintendence of Scheffer, who, from his previous profession as a writer would necessarily be acquainted with the art of drawing large initial letters for the ornamenting of manuscript.

A second edition of this Psalter appeared in 1459, and a third was printed in 1490 by Scheffer, who succeeded to the business on Faust’s death. Scheffer himself died about the beginning of 1503, and was succeeded by his son John.

With the exception of large initial letters, and two shields of their arms, which appear printed in red at the end of some of their books, no specimens of wood-engraving are to be found in any of the books printed by Faust and Scheffer. The earliest typographic work containing wood-cuts, of figures, illustrative of the text, is a small folio volume of fables, in German verse, printed at Bamberg, by Albert Pfister, in 1461. Pfister also printed, in 1462, a History of Joseph, Daniel, Judith, and Esther, and, probably about the same period, an Allegorical work on Death, and an edition of the “Poor Preachers’ Bible,” all illustrated with wood-cuts.

The following fac-simile of one of the cuts – Joseph making himself known to his Brethren – in the last-mentioned work, will affords some idea of the style and execution of the whole.


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Until the discovery of those works printed by Pfister at Bamburg in 1461 and 1462, it was generally supposed that the art of printing was confined exclusively to Mentz till that city was taken by the troops of the Archbishop Adolphus of Nassau, in October, 1462, when several of Faust and Scheffer’s workmen, availing themselves of the opportunity of quitting their service, carried a knowledge of the art to other places.

Faust and Scheffer, probably on account of this desertion of their workmen, appear to have discontinued their business for about two years; and when they resumed it, in 1465, two Germans, Conrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, who has most likely been in their service, had already established a press at the Monastery of Subbiaco, near Rome.

The following is the order in which the art of printing became established at other places, with the names of the printers, and the titles of the first books which they printed.

1467Cologne. Ulric Zell. “S. Augustini de Vita Christiana et de Singularitate Clericerum, libri,” 4to
1468Augsburg, Gunther Zainer. “Mediationes Vitæ Christie,” folio
1469Venice. Joannes de Spira. “ciceronis Espitolæ Familiares,” folio.
1470Paeis. Gering Crantz, and Friburger. “Epistolæ Gasparini,” folio.
1471Strasburg. John Mentelin. “Gratiani Decretum,” folio.
1471Naples. Sixtus Reissinger. “Bartholi Lectura,” folio.
1473Utrecht. Ketelaer and Leempt. “Historia Scholastica,” folio.
1474Westminster. William Caxton. “The Game of Chess,” folio. The first book printed in English was the “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye” printed for Caxton, at Cologne, about 1471.
1475Barcelona. Nicholas Spindeler. “Valasti de Taranta, de Epidemia,” folio.
1476Rostock. Fratres Vitæ Communis. “Lactantii Opera,” folio
1481Leipsick. Marcus Brand. “Glosa Super Apocalipsim,” 4to
1483Stockholm. J. Snell. “Dialogus Creaturum,” 4to
1489Lisbon. Sam. Zorba and Raban Eliezer. “Comment. in Pentateuch,” folio.
1493Copenhagen. Gothofridus de Chemen. “Regulae de Fig. Construct. Grammat,” folio.

There seems reason to believe that the progress of typography was viewed with jealousy by the old block-printers and wood-engravers, and that they were not at first willing to co-operate with the professors of the new art. At Augsburg, in 1471, where the business of wood-engraving and card-making appears to have been established for some time, the wood-engravers opposed Gunther Zainer’s admission to the freedom of the city, which was necessary before he could begin business; and endeavoured to prohibit him from printing wood-engravings in his books.

Through the interest, however, of Melchior Stamham, abbot of St. Ulric’s, the magistrates decided that Zainer, and John Schussler, another printer, whom the wood-engravers had also objected to, should be allowed to follow the business of printing without molestation, but that they should not print large initial letters from wood-blocks, nor insert wood-cuts in their books, as this would be an infringement of the privileges of the wood-engravers.

Subsequently Zainer came to an agreement with the wood-engravers, who assented to his printing as man initial letters and wood-cuts as he pleased, provided that they had the engraving of them.

From the first establishment of typography till 1467, no wood-cuts, of a pictorial character, are to be found in any books except those printed at Bamberg, by Albert Pfister, who appears to have had a press there for only few years, and to have had no successor till 1481.

Next to the books printed by Pfister, the earliest book illustrated with wood-cuts is the “ Meditationes Joannis de Torre-cremata,” printed at Rome by Ulric Hahn, in 1467. In 1472, appeared the first edition of “Valturius,” illustrated with numerous wood-cuts, printed at Verona, by “John of Verona, the son of Nicholas the Surgeon.” Among the many curious cuts in this book are the figures of a bomb shell, a hand-gun, and a boat with paddle-wheels, in the manner of a steam-boat – all of which have been supposed to have been invented long afterwards: but many things that are supposed to be new appear to be old when looking over old books, illustrated with drawings or wood-engravings.

From this time, till the year 1500, the practice of illustrating books with wood cuts gradually increased; and ornamental initial letters were more generally introduced.

In an edition of the “ Fasciculus Temporum,” printed at Utrecht, by John Beldener, in 1480, an ornamental border, of foliage and flowers, engraved on wood, and surrounding the whole page, may be observed; and in an edition of the “Horæ in laudem Beatissimæ Virginis Mariæ,” printed at Paris, by Anthony Verrard, 1488, every page is surrounded by an ornamental border, in imitation of the beautiful illuminated borders to be found in manuscript works of devotion of the same period, The practice of thus illustrating printed editions of “Horæ,” with ornamental borders, soon became prevalent in other countries, though the Parisian printers appear always to have been superior to all others in their tasteful “getting up” of books of this kind.

Of the “Horæ” printed at Paris between 1500 and 1550, the editions published by Simon Vostre and Thielman Kerver are the most deservedly celebrated for their wood-engravings. In 1482 the first maps engraved on wood appeared in a folio edition of Ptolemy, printed at Ulm, by Leonard Holl; and at the top of one of them is the name of the engraver, John Schnitzer, of Armsheim.

From the difficulty of cutting small letters in wood, the method of entirely cutting out a piece of the block and inserting the names of the places in type was subsequently invented.

The earliest specimens of this method are to be seen in the maps to an edition of “Ptolemy,” printed at Venice, by Jacobus Pentius, in 1511. The earliest English book containing wood-cuts is the second edition of Caxton’s “Game of Chess,” without date, but supposed to have been printed in 1476.

All the wood-cuts which appear in books printed before 1486, consist of little more than outline, with the shadows and folds of the draperies indicated by a series of short parallel lines, but without the introduction of any lines crossing each other, forming what is technically called “cross-hatching;” and they are generally inferior, both in design and execution, to the cuts of the old block-books, such as the “Revelations and History of St. John,” the “History of the Virgin,” and the “Poor Preachers’ Bible.”

The earliest specimen of cross-hatching occurs in the frontispiece to “Breydenback’s Travels,” printed at Mentz, by Erhard Renwich, in 1486. This beautiful cut, looking both at the design and the means employed to express it, is the most excellent and effective of the productions of the art of wood-engraving which had previously appeared. Several other cuts in the same volume, though less elaborately executed, also display in the drawing and composition the skill of a practiced artist.

In 1493 appeared at Nuremburg the first edition of the work generally called the Nuremburg Chronicle, containing about 2000 illustrations, many of which are mere repetitions of the same subject printed from the same block. Though it is stated at the end of the work that the cuts were executed under the superintendence of two men of science, and of skill in the art of painting – William Pleydenwurff, and Michael Wolgemuth, who was the master of Albert Durer – they do no credit to either their knowledge or their taste.

They have very much the appearance of “manufactured” cuts which had furnished by contract at so much per hundred, as if quantity and not quality had been the chief object of the publisher. It may be truly said of most of them that they illustrate nothing but the want of taste in all the parties who were engaged in their production. Such rubbish was never before, nor since, presented to the world in any one work.

From this period cross-hatchings, as a means of representing shade and of indicating local colour, may generally be observed in old German wood-engravings; in Italy, however, the old manner of engraving, without cross-hatchings, and chiefly in outline, continued to prevail for upwards of thirty years later. The best specimens of Italian wood-engraving are to be found in a work entitled “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” printed at Venice by Aldus in 1499.

Many of the cuts in this volume have a classical character, proving that the artist had paid considerable attention to the antique, and was not merely a transmitter of Gothic conventionalities. The designs have been ascribed both to Andrea Montegna and to Raffaele, though upon no other ground than conjecture: Raffaele indeed was only 1? when the work was printed.

For many years after the establishment of typography, the practice of block-printing was still continued by the old wood-engravers; and specimens of single sheets, such as sheet almanacks, wall-calendars as they were called by the Germans, executed in this manner, between 1480 and1500, and even later, are preserved in several libraries on the continent.

In the first edition of the “Speculum Salvationis,” a work which some ‘learned’ men, have supposed to have been printed by Laurence Coster, about 1440, the cuts at the top of the page, in light sepia-coloured ink, have been printed by means of friction with a kind of burnisher, while the text below has been printed from metal types, by means of a press, in black full-bodies ink.

In a later edition of this work, with the same cuts, some pages of the text are printed from engraved wood-blocks, while others are printed from type. The only key to this mystery seems to be, that the cuts had been the property of a block-printer, who having had the text of the first edition set up and printed from types, tried before he had finished his task, and so was obliged to apply again to a letter-press printer to enable him to complete the work.

This edition of the “Speculum Salvationis” has generally been referred to by Coster’s advocates as containing a proof of his having invented the art of printing from metal types, with which he completed the remainder. Both the assumption and the conclusion are specious; but both, notwithstanding, are wrong.

The theory is directly in opposition to the fact as displayed by the books themselves. If any argument can “make that fiction which was once a fact,” there is a chance for Laurence Coster: but his advocates have still “their work to do.”

There are no means of ascertaining when the first edition of the Speculum appeared, though it is not likely that it was printed earlier than 1472. In 1483, John Veldener printed at Culemburg, a quarto edition of the Speculum, with the same cuts that had appeared in the earlier folio editions, but the blocks had been sawn in two in order that they might suit the smaller page.