WOOD-ENGRAVING IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY – PART III
It would appear that what is now generally called the “Dance of Death” was frequently called the “Dance Macabre,” in France towards the latter end of the fifteenth century, from the supposed name of the author, Macaber, who wrote the verses explaining the several subjects.
The first edition of the “Dance Macabre,” with wood-cuts and explanatory verses, was printed at Paris by Guy Marchant in 1485; and an edition was also printed at Lyons in 1499, nearly forty years before the publication, at the same place, of Holbein’s “Dance of Death.”
Though many of the subjects in the old “Dance Macabre” and in the “Dance of Death” are nearly alike, and represent the same characters, yet the manner in which they are treated us very different; while the former display much both of the rudeness and the feebleness of early art, the latter display in every figure the vigorous conception and practiced hand of a master.
All Holbein’s characters are admirably represented, whether old or young, lay or clerical, knight or ploughman, patron or client, merchant or pedlar; in every subject the story is plainly, simply, and yet most significantly told. Even the skeleton Death seems to be alive; now arresting a Pope in his pride of place, now spearing a stout warrior with his own lance; and anon, as a dame d’honneur, conducting an empress to the grave, or, as a kidnapper, dragging away a peasant’s child; and most clearly indicating by his action and expression that he dispatches his business, with people of all ranks and ages, with great ease and pleasure to himself.
Although those cuts are “glossed” or expounded with texts of Scripture and serious moral reflections, yet the spirit which pervades them is essentially comic – the droll fellow who creates the amusement, by balking the hopes of mortals, being DEATH. It is indeed questionable of any man in viewing those imaginary freaks of Death’s emblem ever thought seriously of his own end – of the hour when he himself should fall before the great King of Terrors,
The scytheman of the earth, Whose harvest rounds the year; and ne’er had dearth Since first the world was peopled.
The cuts of Holbein’s “Dance of Death” are executed in a manner worthy of the designs. They are truly master-pieces of wood-engraving; and though they have been frequently copied, all the so-called fac-similes that have hitherto appeared, are far inferior to the originals.
A few years ago one of the best wood-engravers of this or indeed any other country, being asked his opinion of those cuts, and if he though that he could re-engrave them in a manner equally excellent, replies, “They are the best wood-engravings that I have ever seen; and I certainly do not think that if I were to re-engrave them, my copies would be equal to the originals. Such things as they are, engraved in the best manner, from original designs, which have all the spirit of the master to guide the engraver, can never be equalled by any copies.”
There is no needless display of mere mechanical skill in those cuts; they are executed in a manner at once simple and efficient; and they are not so remarkable for the mere delicacy of the lines, as for lines properly applied to convey a meaning.
It has not been ascertained who was the engraver, though one Hans Lutzelburger, who was probably a native of Basle, appears to have the best pretensions to the honour.
He was unquestionably the engraver of an alphabet of initial letters designed by Holbein, containing subjects nearly the same as several of those in the “Dance of Death” published at Lyons, in 1538, and executed in a similar style; and one of the cuts in the latter work contains as a mark the letters H. L., which, whether intended or not, are certainly the initial letters of the name Hans Lutzelburger.
Letters of the alphabet above referred to are to be met with in books printed both at Basel and Strasburg, about 1530.
It would appear that impressions of the cuts contained in the first edition of the “Dance of Death,” had been printed off, in the manner of press proofs, on one side of the paper only, for some time before they appeared in a volume; and it has been considered that they were first printed in this manner at Basle, about 1538. A set of those impressions – one only, of the cut of the Astrologer, being wanting – is still preserved in a public library at Basle.
A similar set, of the same cuts, belonged to the late William Young, and was sold , at the sale of his engravings, in 1837, to the British Museum for £37 10s.
The original cuts have the appearance of having been printed with the greatest care. From the lightness of the impression in certain places, where the lines seem gradually to vanish, it is evident that the blocks had been lowered in those places, in order to diminish the pressure.
It has been supposed that the practice of lowering was of but recent introduction; it is, however, evident from many wood-cuts, even of an earlier date than those of the “Dance of Death,” that the practice was well understood by the old wood-engravers.
In the same year, 1538, that the “Dance of Death” was first printed at Lyons, another book containing illustrations of the Old Testament, engraved on wood from Holbein’s designs, was also published at the same place and by the same publishers.
The first four cuts are the same as the first four of the “Dance of Death,” being printed, in fact, from the same blocks.
The rest of the cuts contained in the book, amounting to eighty-six, are of very unequal merit – some displaying great beauty of design and neatness of execution, while others appear to have been carelessly drawn and coarsely engraved. Though they are decidedly inferior to the cuts of the “Dance of Death,” yet the hand and mannerisms of the same designer may be frequently perceived in them.
Several editions of the Bible Cuts were subsequently published at Lyons; one of them, of the date of 1549, has the explanatory text in English.
It has frequently been asserted that the cuts of the “Dance of Death” were engraved by Holbein himself; but there is not the slightest ground for the supposition.
If he were an engraver on wood as well as a painter and designer, and had actually engraved those cuts, it is most likely that he himself would have engraved some of the designs which he made in England, where, in his time, there were no good engravers on wood, and, perhaps, no one who devoted himself exclusively to the profession.
The cuts contained in Archbishop Crammer’s Catechism, printed at London, 1548, have been ascribed to Holbein; and two of the are unquestionably of his designing, for one of them contains his name at full length, and the other his initials, H. H.
The rest, twenty seven in number, whether designed by Holbein or not, appear to have been more feebly drawn than the other two, and display none of Holbein’s characteristic vigour.
The execution of the whole is that of a very ordinary workman. It is certain that they were not engraved by the person who engraved the cuts of the “Dance of Death,” for it is impossible that he could have disguised his hand so completely; and if it be supposed that Holbein himself engraved the two which contain his mark, and if they are to be considered as a fair specimen of his abilities on this respect, it is certain that he did not excel as a wood-engraver.
The cuts in Crammer’s Catechism may, however, be considered as the best which had hitherto appeared in any book printed in England.
The best wood-cuts to be found in English books printed between 1550 and 1600, are the ornamental borders of title-pages and large initial letters; and though some of them possess considerable merit, yet scarcely one can be pronounced excellent.
There appears to have been a want both of talented artists to furnish designs, and of skilful engravers to execute them.
One of the most “profusely illustrated” English books of this period, is a work entitled, “A Book of Christian Prayers,” but more generally known by the name of Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer Book, printed at London, by John Day, 1569.
Each page is surrounded by a border formed of wood-cuts, partly ornamental, and partly illustrative of the text.
It is stated in Herbert’s edition of “Ames’s Typographical Antiquities,” that such of the cuts as relate to the history of Christ are “after Albert Durer and his wife.”
The statement is incorrect: the cuts are not copied from any of Albert Durer’s; and there is not the slightest reason for supposing that his wife was accustomed to make drawings, or to engrave on wood.
The mark I. C., with a graver between the letters, occurs on several of those cuts, and is probably that of the engraver.
About 1560, Virgil Solis, a native of Nuremberg, appears to have been held in great repute by the German booksellers, as a designer on wood, and to have been much employed by them, not only in this branch of art, but also as a copper-plate engraver.
Though many of his cuts display great fertility of invention, they yet generally want the stamp of truth; his figures are deficient in character; and his subjects are more likely the compositions of a dexterous rather than of a great artist.
Bernard Solomon, a French artist, contemporary with Vigil Solis, appears to have been chiefly employed by the Lyons booksellers. He is said to have been an engraver on wood as well as a designer.
The cuts ascribed to him are generally remarkable for their slim, meagre figures, and the comparative delicacy of their execution. Both he and Solis are justly classed with the little masters.
One of the best professional designers on wood in Germany, between 1560 and 1590, was Jost Amman, a native of Zurich, but who removed to Nuremberg, about 1560. His cuts display much more spirit and vigour than those of Virgil Solis; and they are also generally better engraved.
The best of Jost Amman’s numerous cuts, are contained in the following works:— “A Description of all Ranks Arts, and Trades,” in German verse, by Hans Sachs, first printed at Frankfort, in quarto, 1564, and several times reprinted in a smaller form, with the descriptions in Latin, by Hartman Schopper; among the cuts is one of a wood-engraver. Three books of costume, published between 1580 and 1585; and a work on Hunting and Fowling, published in 1582.
From the time of Jost Amman, who died in 1591, wood-engraving appears to have rapidly declined in Germany. In new books of a superior class, copper-plate engravings now began to supersede wood0cuts, and the latter became chiefly confined to books of comparatively low price and inferior character.
Artist of talent, not meeting with encouragement, no longer applied themselves to designing on wood; and the art of wood-engraving being thus left to mere workmen, had, by the end of the sixteenth century, sunk into neglect with respect to the higher purposes of book-illustration.
The publication of the celebrated “Collection of Voyages and Travels,” with copper-plate engravings, by the brothers De Bry and others, which was first commenced at Frankfort, about 1590, may be considered as distinctly marking the period when copper-plate engravings began to supersede wood-cuts in books.
Some of the best wood-engravings which appeared towards the end of the sixteenth century are from the designs of Henry Goltzius, a Flemish artist; and several of the largest, printed in a chiaro-scuro, are said to have been engraved by himself.
In 1590 there was published at Venice a book of costumes, ancient and modern, of various parts of the world, with upwards of three hundred cuts, drawn by Cesare Vecellio, a relation of Titian. Those cuts, which display much character, have the appearance of having been drawn in a free and spirited manner with pen and ink.
About this period, and indeed for twenty years previously, the wood-engravers of France and Italy appear to have been principally employed in executing ornamental vignettes and borders, and in engraving illustrative cuts for books of emblems and devices.