A History of Wood Engraving – Chapter 4 Part 2

These pages are a comprehensive history of wood-engraving.

Source – The Illustrated London News.

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












Of the other artists, of the time of Albert Durer, who made drawings on wood, the following may be enumerated as the best in this respect:- Lucas Cranach, born at Cranach, in the territory of Bamberg, chiefly patronised by the princes of the Electoral House of Saxony, and who generally inserted a shield of their arms in his cuts, perhaps to signify either that he enjoyed their patronage, or that the cuts were executed at their instance. 

Hans Burgmair, born at Augsburg. Hans Schaufflein, born at Nuremburg. Hans Baldung Grün, a pupil of Durer. Lucas Van Leyden: there are but a few wood-engravings of this artist’s designing. Urse Graff, of Basle, who, in a cut, with the date 1523, calls himself a goldsmith and die-sinker: several of the ornamented title-borders in books printed by Frobenius contain the mark of Urse Graff. 

From the time that Albert Durer first began to draw on wood until his decease, more wood-cuts appear to have been engraved in Germany than in any equal period of time, either before or since; and the best have, in respect to design, been rarely surpassed, or even equaled, in any country, or at any time. 

More than one artist of great reputation in modern times has, in his historic compositions, freely availed himself of the assistance to be derived from old German wood-engravings of the time of Albert Durer.

In the first thirty years of the sixteenth century, wood-engraving does not appear to have met with much encouragement in Italy; and the comparatively few wood-cuts which are to be found in books printed in Italy at that period are generally feebly designed and slightly executed, forming a striking contrast when compared with the more boldly drawn and more elaborately executed German wood-engravings of the same period.

It has frequently been asserted by many writers on art, that the method of engraving in chiaro-scuro on wood was first introduced by Ugo da Carpi, an Italian artist, who executed several subjects in this manner, chiefly after designs by Raffaele, about 1518.

There is, however, good reason to believe that this method had been previously employed by German artists; for there is a chiaro-scuro wood engraving with the mark of Lucas Cranach, dated 1509. Three others are also known – two by Hans Baldung Grun, and one by Hans Burgmair – which are respectively dated 1509, 1510, and 1512. 

The manner of producing an imitation of a chiaro-scuro drawing, by means of wood-engraving, consists in engraving the subject on two or more blocks, and in printing from them, by successive impressions, the various gradations of light and shade, in the same colour, but in different degrees of strength.

Some of Ugo da Carpi’s chiaro-scuros are printed in a kind of mulberry colour, while others are of a sage-green. The colour usually employed by subsequent wood-engravers is a kind of sepia. 

In the titles of several German books, printed between 1513 and 1570, a tint of sepia has been printed over the ornamental wood-cut border. Chiaro-scuro engraving appears to have been much more highly appreciated, and more successfully cultivated in Italy than in Germany; for the Italian chiaro-scuros are not only much more numerous than the German, but are infinitely superior to them both in design and effect. The best Italian chiaro-scuros are chiefly from designs by Raffaele and Parmegiano.

From the origin of printing rill about the time of Albert Durer’s decease, most of the books which appeared were folios and quartos, chiefly for the use of the learned and studious; and even those of a lighter character which were printed for the solace and amusement of knights and squires, and lords and ladies – for at that period there was no reading public – appeared in the same solid form.

Reading, even for amusement, was then indeed a task for many a gallant knight and noble dame; for however interested they might be in the story, they yet found great difficulty in spelling out the words in which it was told; a difficulty which originated in the want of a good spelling-book, and from their not having been thoroughly initiated in the mysteries of a, b, ab, and which was increased by the contracted words, which are so frequent in early printed books.

In several historical works – whose reputation is much greater than their merit – we are told of sundry kings and queens, and other great personages of former times, who were so devoted to literature, that they always had some useful or interesting book read to them when they were at meals.

In such instances, however, of a love of literature, it is generally to be suspected that the party so extolled was really indifferent to reading, and could best endure to hear a good book read at a time when other pleasing occupations of the senses did not permit the subject to become fatiguing; the substantial viands being too engrossing to allow of any great appetite for the spare “feast of reason.”

When a taste for reading became more generally diffused, books of a smaller form, and on a greater variety of subjects, were more generally published; and, as a natural consequence, the cuts with which they were illustrated were of a smaller size and more delicate execution than those which had previously appeared in the older folios and quartos.

From about 1530, a decided improvement in point of execution may be generally observed in the wood-cuts contained in books printed in Italy, and more especially in those printed at Venice.

At that period there were more printers in Venice than in any city of Europe, and they appear to have been among the first who printed books of comparatively small form for general circulation.

Many books, which the jealousy of governments, or the hostility of particular classes, did not allow of being printed in other countries, readily found publishers in republican Venice.

Basle and Lyons were also celebrated about this time as marts for books, and the printers of the latter city appear to have been the rivals of those of Venice in the publication of small and neatly printed books.

Hans Holbein – who, in addition to his fame as a painter, is entitled to the credit of having been one of the best designers on wood of his time – was the son of a painter, of the same name, and appears to have been born at Augsburg, about 1498.

About the beginning of the sixteenth century his father removed to Basle, and there his son was brought up by him to his own profession.

Young Hans gave tokens of his great future excellence as a painter at an early age; and Hegner, his biographer, mentions a portrait in oil, of considerable merit, which he painted when he was only fifteen.

Like many other eminent German painters of his time he made designs for wood-engravers and goldsmiths, and he occasionally travelled, in Switzerland and Suabia, in search of employment as an artist. Though the works which he executed while he resided at Basle bear testimony both of his industry and talents, it would appear that he was either very poorly remunerated or that he was improvident, for he is generally represented as the character of a “jolly fellow,” who loved his glass and was rather partial to low company, it is likely that he was both unthrifty and badly paid – two grand obstacles to an artist’s attaining to “easy circumstances,” however great his talents.

He was intimate with Erasmus, who then resided at Basle, and painted two or three portraits of him. The following is a copy of a wood-engraving of one of those portraits which appeared in an edition of Sebastian Munster’s “Cosmography,” printed at Basle in 1550.

In 1525 Holbein appears to have entertained the design of visiting England, probably influenced by the praise bestowed on one of his portraits of Erasmus, which appears to have been sent by the latter to Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas, in a letter to Erasmus, dated 18th of December, 1525, alludes to Holbein’s wish to visit England, and says that though he may not find it so fruitful as he may expect, yet that he Sir Thomas, will do what he can that he may not find it entirely barren.

Holbein set out for England about the beginning of September, 1526: and, as he intended to pass through Antwerp on his way, Erasmus gave him a letter of introduction to his friend Peter Ægidius, a person of considerable influence in that city.

This letter is written in the style of a cool cautious patron, who does not wish to be debited with any favours that might e shown to the party introduced.

Holbein is indeed praised as an excellent artist, who is proceeding to England to gain a few “angels;” but it is also indirectly intimated that he is a person of little consequence; that should he wish to see Quintin Matsys, Ægidius can send his servant with him to show him the house, should he not have leisure to go with him himself.

Holbein, on his arrival in England, appears to have been well received by Sir Thomas More, and it is generally supposed that he continued to reside in his house till 1528, when he was appointed painter to Henry VIII. 

From entries in the household accounts of Henry, it would appear that Holbein’s salary, or fee, as court-painter, was thirty pounds per annum, which would be equal to a hundred and fifty pounds in the present day. It is probable that he was paid a certain sum in addition for each picture that he painted for the king, and was also permitted to paint for other persons on his own account, when not fully employed on the commissions of his royal master.

Though he visited Basle, where he had left his wife and two children, on three occasions – namely, in 1529, 1533, and 1538 – yet, for the rest of his life, England was the place of his settled abode.

It has been supposed that towards the end of his life he was comparatively neglected. He died of the plague in 1554m in the second year if the reign of Queen Mary, whose portrait he had painted the year before. On Holbein’s merits as a painter it is unnecessary here to enlarge.

His style was truly original; he imitated no master and he was the representative of no school. His portraits, beyond those of any other artist of his time, are distinguished by life-like character and natural expression – two qualities, which, in an individual likeness, are of much more positive value than a “graceful turn of the head,” and an “elevating touch of the ideal.” Holbein appears to have painted men and women as they were, not as he might fancy that they ought to be; and hence nothing that suggests the idea of an affected or theatrical character is to be perceived in his portraits. In his day there were no female opera-dancers form whose fascinating, though falsetto, expression he might snatch a grace, to be transferred to the heads of the female nobility.

Though Holbein made many excellent designs on wood, yet his fame in this respect chiefly rests on the cuts contained in a small book usually called the “Dance of Death,” the first edition of which, containing forty-one cuts, appeared at Lyons in 1538. 

It was many times reprinted there, and in all the editions subsequent to the third, which appeared in 1545, additional cuts are introduced. The eighth edition, published in 1562, contains fifty-eight cuts, being seventeen more than were in the first; but of those additional cuts seven at least have no relation to the original subject, although it is likely that they were all drawn by Holbein.

A piracy of the work, with fac-similes of the cuts, was published at Venice in 1545; and another piracy was published at Cologne in 1555, and several times reprinted. The cuts in the Venice and Cologne editions are greatly inferior to the originals. Several editions were subsequently published at different places, with the subjects engraved on copper; and about 1648 thirty of the subjects were etched by Hollar, who appears to have copied the inferior cuts of the Cologne edition, and not to have improved on his models. 

The cuts of the “Dance of Death,” were also copied on wood, with occasional alterations and modifications, John Bewick, for a little work published under the title of “Emblems of Mortality,” in 1788; and fac-similes are also given in Mr. Douce’s “Dance of Death,” published in 1833. In this work Mr. Douce has laboured in vain to prove that Holbein was not the designer of the original cuts of the “Dance of Death.” 

His trifling arguments have neither weakened Holbein’s title nor added to his own fame. The testimony of contemporary writers that Holbein was the designer of the cuts of the Lyons “Dance of Death,” is direct and positive, and is confirmed by the internal evidence of the cuts themselves, when compared with other undisputed works of Holbein, and yet his well-founded title is to be set aside on mere speculation, supported, indeed, by an apocryphal letter, supposed to have been written in the reign of William III. By one T. Nieuhoff Picard – a name which, from the letter itself, may be justly suspected of being an alias for the Man in the Moon.

The idea of Holbein’s “Dance of Death” was probably suggested by a series of illustrations of the same subject painted on the wall of a court-house attached to the Dominican convent at Basle.

Such subjects, representing Death in the act of seizing men and women of all ranks and ages, were in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to be found painted, as a “memento mori,” on the walls of churches in several places in Europe. 

There was a “Dance of Death” painted in the cloisters of Old St. Paul’s, London, which was daid to have been executed in the reign of Henry VI., at the cost of Jenkin Carpenter, one of the executors of Richard Whittington, so celebrated in nursery literature, in connection with the cat. There was also a “Dance of Death” at Lubeck, Minden, Leipsic, Dijon, Paris and several other places.