THE DECLINE OF WOOD-ENGRAVING IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY; ITS REVIVAL IN THE EIGHTEENTH, AND ITS SUBSEQUENT EXTENSION
Scarcely a single artist of reputation is known as a designer on wood in the sixteenth century. Rubens, indeed, made a few large drawings on wood; but, as they were printed for himself, it would seem that they were made rather as an experiment for his own satisfaction than for general circulation.
It is not unlikely that he wished to compare his own designs engraved on wood with those of the older German masters, of whose works, executed in this manner, he is known to have been an admirer.
From his having made so few it is not unreasonable to suppose that he was not satisfied with the experiment.
The best of those cuts is a woodland scene, in which the Virgin and the infant Christ, with three infantine figures are introduced in the foreground.
In all of them the mere mechanism of the execution is too obtrusively apparent to entitle them to high praise as wood-engravings.
Those impressions which have a tint of sepia printed over them, appear much better, in consequence of having the harshness of the lines subdued, than those which are printed simply on white paper.
Those cuts were engraved by Christopher Jegher resided at Antwerp, but is said to have been born in Germany, about 1578.
Cornelius Van Sichem, a native of Holland, and a contemporary of Jegher, executed, generally in a dry hard manner, an immense number of wood-engravings, most of which appear to be bad copies from the cuts of Albert Durer, and other old masters of the German school.
In this period very few books are to be found, which derive any additional value from the excellence of the wood-cuts which they contain. Wood-engraving, for the purpose of book-illustration, had now fallen far behind engraving on copper.
A wood-engraver of the name of Switzer, probably a foreigner, executed the cuts for Speed’s “History of Britain,” printed in 1611, and is lauded in the preface as “the most exquisite and curious hand of that age.” Even admitting the compliment to be true, the inevitable consequence is, that the best wood-engraver of the age was a very poor workman.
Switzer also engraved the cuts in Parkinson’s “Herbal,” 1629. Switzer had a son who was also a wood-engraver, and who is mentioned in the first edition of Evelyn’s “Sculptura,”
ealthier book buyers appear from about 1616, to have chiefly indulged their taste in near little books, from small Svo, size to 16 mmos. Ornamented with frontispieces, or title-pages, delicately engraved on copper, while the thin 4to pamphlets, story-books, and such like, of the same period, intended for a different class of purchasers, were generally printed on vile paper, and illustrated with no less vile wood-cuts – as if every printer had been “his own artist.”
The following extracts, relative to wood-engraving, from John Bates’s “Mysteries of Nature and Art,” London, 1635, give a curious account of the art as known and practised in England at that period:-
“THE MANNER OF ENGRAVING IN WOOD.- The figures that are to be carved, or graven, in wood, must first be drawn, traced or pasted upon the wood, and afterwards all the other standing of the wood, except the figure, must be cut away with the little narrow pointed knives made for the purpose.
The working is far more tedious and difficult than the working in brass; first, because you must cut twice of thrice to take out one stroke, and when you have cut it so that it may be picked our, yet if you have not a great care in picking it out, you may break out a part of your work, which may deface it.
Secondly, because that, in cross-hatches, you must stand picking, so that it would weary one to see one’s work go so slowly on; yet a good resolution may in time overcome these and other difficulties that attend thereupon; and for those inconveniences, an artist may find in the practise thereof, his is one commodity he shall gain; he shall be private in his designs, for he himself may print them when they are cut, nor shall they be exposed to the view of every stationer that frequent the housen of common, where by one receiveth much injury and vexation.
“OF THE CHOICE OF WOOD TO CUT IN.– Box is the best; but walnut-tree, beech, maple, or any hard, close, and well-seasoned wood may serve: let it be cut our and planed an inch thick, and in pieces according as the bigness of your figures do require.
“OF DRAWING YOUR FIGURES UPON WOOD.- Having whitened one side of your wood, blacken or redden the blank side of your figure, as I have taught in the At of Painting, and with a little stick or swallow’s quill, trace or draw over the strokes of your figure.
“OF PASTING YOUR FIGURES UPON WOOD.- Note, that you must not whiten over the wood when you intend to paste the figures, for that will make that your figure will pill off; only see the wood be well planed, then wipe over the drawn, or printed side of your figure, with gum tragant dissolved in fair water, and clap it, even and smooth, upon your wood, and let it dry thoroughly; then wet it a little all over, and fret off the paper gently, until you can see perfectly every stroke of your figure; then let it dry again, and when it is thoroughly dried, fall to cutting or carving; beware you fret not the figure away in any part when you are fretting it.
“THE MANNER OF PRINTING YOUR WOODEN PIECES.- In the following book of “Extravagants” I have taught how to make a printing-ink of sundry colours, to which I refer you; you must also have some wool bound up in a piece of sheep’s leather; also a roller, smooth and even, which must have a piece of cotton baize rolled hard twice about it; first wet the paper you would print upon, with a sponge wet with alum-water, then take some of the kinds of ink, and put it upon the leather, and lightly clap it all over the print; then put the paper that you wet upon it, and roll it hard on with the roller, and it is done.
From these extracts it might be safely concluded – even if there were no wood-cuts of the period in existence to abundantly prove the fact – that the art of wood-engraving was then at a very low ebb in England; and from books containing wood-cuts, published in countries where it had formerly been most successfully cultivated, it does not appear to have been in a much better condition.
For one professing to reveal the “Mysteries of Nature and Art,” John Bates appears to have had but an imperfect insight into the arcane of wood-engraving – one of the principal of which is, to have the subject distinctly drawn on the block. As he does not allude to the method of making a drawing directly on the block by means of a pen or pencil, it would seem that he was ignorant of the process of drawing on wood; the sum of his revelations on the subject distinctly drawn upon the block.
As he does not allude to the method of making a drawing directly on the block by means of a pen or pencil, it would seem that he was ignorant of the process of drawing on wood; the sum of his revelations on the subject consisting of instructions how to make a clumsy tracing or transfer on the block from a drawing or engraving, and how, when the cut is finished, to take impressions by means of a roller.
His idea of the “commodity” of the art appears to have been on a par with his knowledge of its practice. He represents wood-engraving as being “far more tedious and difficult than the working in brass” – by which latter expression he means the usual copperplate-engraving, not engraving in brass in relief for the purpose of printing like a wood-cut – and yet to compensate for those inconveniences it has “one commodity,” namely, that the artist, who is so skilful as to be able to place a subject on the block by tracing or transferring, may engrave it or print it himself without exposing it to the view of inquisitive booksellers, who are always poking about in printing-offices, and engraver’s work-shops, or, to speak in modern Italianate phrase, studios, for, now-a-days, all who have the slightest pretensions to art have “cut the shop.”
John Bates, indeed, seems to have mistaken the only peculiar commodity which wood-engraving, according to his own account of it, possesses over “working” brass; and that is the facility with which a person who is no artist, may make a tracing or a transfer on wood; for an artist may work on a copper-plate in private, and also take proofs of his work by means of a roller, as well as an amateur may work on and take proofs of a wood-block.
A collection of “privately, [and primitively] printed” amateur wood-cuts of the time of Charles I., engraved from tracings or transfers after the method of John Bates, would unquestionably display all the characteristics of “rough proofs.”
The best wood-cuts, designed and executed about the middle of the sixteenth century, are to be found in a little book of devotion, the subject of which is Christ’s Passion, fist printed at Antwerp, in Latin, French, Spanish, and Flemish, about 1646. It was published at a small price – being chiefly intended as a help to the devotion of the poorer classes – and an immense number of copies were circulated, probably in a manner similar to the works issued by modern tract societies, thirty thousand of the Latin and Flemish editions having been printed before those in French and Spanish appeared.
There are forty cuts in this book, and many of them contain both mark of the designer, A. S., and that of the engraver, I. S. I. The drawing of those cuts is extremely bold and free, and will in this respect bear a comparison with most of the cuts, of a similar character, of the preceding century; but though they are not badly engraved, for the time, yet the style in which they are executed is not worthy of the design. These are said to have been drawn by a Flemish artist names Sallerte, who had been a pupil of Rubens.
The latter half of the sixteenth century is remarkable for its dearth of artists. It would indeed be difficult to name a painter or a sculptor of genius who flourished in that period. It would seen as if the old sources of inspiration had become exhausted, and that new ones had not yet been discovered; for whether old time-hallowed subjects or scenes of every day life were depicted, the same want of imagination and of natural sentiment is generally perceptible in all.
It was the reign of absurd fashion, and the “Grand Monarque” was Louis XVI., whose full-length portrait – representing him wearing a huge periwig, high-heeled shoes, and the order of the Holy Ghost, and standing in an attitude between the posture of a dancing master in the first position, and the “parade” of a master of fence, – may well stand as the emblem of the kind of art which flourished in this age.
At such a period, when good drawing, skilful composition, and natural expression are so rarely to be found in the higher productions of art, it would be unreasonable to look for excellence in wood-engraving. Its productions indeed were then of the very meanest character, – feeble and puerile in design, and coarse or dryly laboured in execution, – in short, they are truly “wooden cuts.”
A fair specimen of the state of wood-engraving at that period is afforded by the “curious sculptures” which enrich the “precious old quarto” editions of “Reynard the Fox,” “Sir Bevis of Southampton,” “Robin Hood,” and other pleasant histories of the same kind, which appeared between 1670 and 1700, and by the perversely graceless head and tail-pieces which appear as ornaments in other books of the same time.
It would appear that the professional wood-engravers were chiefly employed on the execution of such ornaments; while the more wildly daring illustrations of the pleasant histories – “sold with large allowance to chapmen and others who attend fairs,” – were mostly the productions of untutored genius.
Until a comparatively recent period, indeed, it was not unusual for county printers to engrave themselves such wood-cuts as they might occasionally require for the illustration of tale or history. When Dr. Franklin first began business as a printer in America, he was accustomed to engrave both his own wood-cuts and copper-plates.