A History of Wood Engraving – Chapter 5 Part 2


Chapter 5 – Part II

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












The two cuts given below will afford an idea of the general style of wood-engraving which prevailed in England from the reign of Charles II., to the commencement of that of George I. They are copied from a little book with the following title:- “The Pious Youth’s Recreation; containing a Pleasant Historical Relation of the Families of Riches and Poverty, Godliness and Labour. 

Illustrated with a variety of Pictures suited to their several occasions. London: printed and sold by B. Harris, at the Golden Boar’s Head, in Gracechurch street, in 1711. Price 6d. stitcht (stitched), 8d. bound.” This little book, which appears to have escaped the notice of all book-collectors and bibliographers, is, in “manner, form, and style,” worthy of the genius and piety of John Bunyan, and deserves to be reprinted in the present day.

The first cut which we give from it occurs at page 21, and represents Riches and his wife and children walking our, accompanied by his chaplain and the lady’s maid.

It may be observed, by the way, that in the opinion of Dr. John Echard, who wrote in 1670, the disparaging treatment which the chaplain often met with in gentlemen’s families – his being seated near “my cousin Abigail” at meals, and being presented with her to the little vicarage – contributed not a little to bring both the clergy and religion itself into the contempt and disregard in which they were held at that period.


Now Riches having a large house
And sev’ral miles of land,
Maintain’d a numerous family
To be at his command.

The next cut, which occurs at page 28, represents the consequences o the imprudent marriage of Miss Delicacy, the daughter of riches , and in temper “most like her mother, Jezabel.”

And when her mother would prefer
A match to raise her fame,
She took her father’s serving man,
One Prodigal by name.
Like dogs and cats they lived some time
In restless anxiety,
And had one only daughter born,
Whose name was Infamy.

About this time, 1710, and for many years afterwards, wood-engravers appear to have been accustomed to engrave subjects , both ornamental and illustrative, on type-metal, in relief, in the same manner as on wood, for the purpose of being printed with letter-press.

There indeed appears reason to believe that several of the ornamental head and tail pieces which appear in the books printed by Tonson and Watts, between 1713 and 1720, were executed in this manner, by Edward Kirkhall.

Many of those ornaments are executed in a clear and delicate style, and prove that the engraver was expert in the mechanism of his profession.

Kirkall, who was also a copper-plated engraver, published between 1722 and 1724, twelve chiaro-scuros, engraved on copper, with a sepia tint printed over then from a wood-block. In 1722, Tonson and Watts published the first edition of “Croxall’s Æsop’s Fables,” with cuts, probably engraved either by Kirkall or under his superintendence, but whether on wood or on type-metal, it is not easy to determine.

To the conclusion that they were engraved on wood, from the assumed greater facility of execution on wood than on type-metal, some of the cuts themselves present a very material objection in the fact of certain little marks and flaws being discoverable, which can only be satisfactorily accounted for by supposing that the subjects were engraved on type-metal. Those cuts, whether executed on wood or on metal, are certainly better than any that had previously printed as illustrations of Æsop, and most decidedly superior to all that appeared subsequently, till the time of Thomas Bewick.

John Baptist Jackson, who was probably a pupil of Kirkall, was certainly one of the best wood-engravers of his time, notwithstanding that his contemporary, John Michael Papillon, a French wood-engraver, mentions him in a disparaging manner, “as having acquired an insipid taste, not above the little mosaics on snuff-boxes, and surcharging his works with ornaments, which, though delicately executed, were deficient in effect.”

Jackson, probably from want of encouragement in his own country, visited Paris, about 1726, where he appears to have remained for about five years. He at first was employed by Papillon, but, having left him, he, according to the account of the latter, “went the round of printing-offices in Paris, and was obliged to engrave his cuts without order, and to offer them for almost nothing; and many of the printers, profiting by his distress, supplied themselves amply with his cuts.”

Jackson afterwards went to Venice, where at first he appears to have been chiefly employed in executed ornamental cuts of the printers. In an Italian translation of “Suentonius’s Lives of the Twelve Cæsars,” printed at Venice, in 1738, the ornamented border of the title-page is of his engraving; and in the same year he engraved a chiaro-scuro, “Christ Taken Down from the Cross,” from a painting by Rembrandt, then in the possession of Joseph Smith, Esq., the British Consul at Venice, but now in the National Gallery, Trafalgar-square, to which it was bequeathed by the late Sir George Beaumont. Between 1738 and 1742, when living at Venice, he also engraved twenty-seven large chiaro-scuros, chiefly from paintings by Titian, J. Bassano, Tintoret, and Paul Veronese.

The best of those chiaro-scuros is that representing the Martyrdom of St. Peter Dominicanus, from the celebrated painting of Titian; most of the others are but inferior productions, and will not bear a comparison with the chiaro-scuros engraved in the sixteenth century from designs by Andrea Mantegna, Raffaele, Parmegiano, and other Italian painters. It appears that Jackson was induced to engrave those chiaro-scuros from the encouragement of three English gentlemen – Mr. Frederick, Mr. Lethuilier, and Mr. Smith, the Consul; who also procured him a subscription for the set, which when finished were published in a large folio volume.

It does not appear that Jackson on his return to England resumed the ordinary business of wood-engraver, to which, as it was chiefly confined to the cutting of mere ornaments, he might think himself superior after having engraved his large chiaro-scuros. From a work entitled “An Essay on the Invention of Engraving and Printing in Chiaro-Oscuro,” published in Jackson’s name, in 1754, it appears that he was then living at Battersea, and that he was endeavouring to render his skill in engraving and his knowledge of printing in colours available for the purpose of printing paper-hangings.

The book contains eight prints; four of them are chiaro-scuros, and the other four are printed in colours, in imitation of coloured drawings. They are inferior to his other works of the same kind executed at Venice; and they appear worse than they otherwise would, in consequence of the paper on which they are printed having become stained by the oil with which the colours had been mixed.

John Michael Papillon, the best French wood-engraver of his time, an enthusiastic admirer of his art, and the first person who wrote a work expressly treating of its history and practice, was born at Paris in 1698. Both his grandfather and his father were wood-engravers, but the business of the latter at the time of John Michael’s birth was chiefly confined to engraving blocks for printing paper-hangings.

In this branch of the art young Papillon appears also to have been chiefly employed until the decease of his father, which happened in 1723. Both father and son also acted as paper-hangers, as we learn from the following passage in the younger Papillon’s “Trianté de la Gravure en Bois:” – “When young, being engaged with my father in going almost every day to hand rooms with our papers, I was, some time in 1719 of 1720, at the village of Bagneux, at a Monsieur de Greder’s, a Swiss captain, who had a pretty house there. After I had papered a small room for him, he ordered me to cover the shelves of his library with paper in imitation of Mosaic.

One day after dinner he surprised me reading a book, which occasioned him to show me some very old ones which he had borrowed of one of his friends, a Swiss officer, that he might examine them at his leisure. We talked about the figures which they contained, and of the antiquity of wood-engraving; and what follows is a description of those ancient books as I wrote it before him, and as he was so kind as to explain and dictate to me.”

It is necessary to observe here that the description which Papillon says he wrote out from the explanation and dictation of Mons. de Greder, relates to a series of wood-cuts – which no person has ever since seen, and no previous writer on bibliography, or art, had ever mentioned – pretended to have been executed in Italy about 1285, by two twins, names Alexander Alberic Cunio, and Isabella Cunio, between their fourteenth and sixteenth years.

The subjects related to the conquests of Alexander the Great; and the youthful amateurs, after the manner of artists in the time of Papillon, had engraved their names, with the customary “Pinxt. et Sculpt.,” at the bottom of the cuts. It appears that the interesting memoranda which Papillon made from a personal inspection of those cuts, and from De Greder’s explanation, were mislaid for upwards of thirty-five years, but that he was so lucky as to find them before the publication of his great work on the History and Practice of Wood-engraving, which appeared, in two volumes octavo, in 1766, and to which he added a Supplement, in 1768.

It is needless here to enter into any lengthy refutation of Papillon’s account of those ancient wood-cuts; it is sufficient to declare that a more trumpery story was never palmed upon the world, notwithstanding that it is embalmed as a piece of authentic history, in “Ottley’s Inquiry into the Early History of Engraving,” and in the “Encyclopœdia metropolitana” – article, “Wood-engraving.”

As an excuse for Papillon, it may be urged that he had been insane in the interval between his conversation with De Greder and the publication of his book, and that as he was a man of weak intellect, but of great enthusiasm on the subject of his art, he may, in good faith, have told for truth that which he had only imagined, or which had been imposed on his credulity for truth, by a retired Swiss Captain, whose want of active employment might occasionally tempt him to indulge in that species of Impious fraud vulgarly called “hoaxing.” Be this as it may, Mr. Otterly and the writer in the “Encyclopœdia metropolitana” have most certainly got a “bargain.”

After the death of his father, Papillon appears to have applied himself more particularly to designing and engraving small cuts for “book-work.” He engraved with great neatness, and had a better knowledge of the effect to be attained in wood-cuts, by skilful contrasts of black and white, than any other wood-engraver of his time. He dies in 1776; and from the period of his decease, until within very recent times, when it received an impulse from England, wood-engraving made no progress in France.

Nicholas Le Sueur, a French wood-engraver, who was born in 1691, and dies in 1764, excelled in the execution of chiaro-scuro engravings. His works in this style are decidedly the best that appeared in the eighteenth century. His small wood-cuts are generally engraved in a dry spiritless manner; they display neither freedom nor delicacy of execution, and are totally devoid of what is termed “effect.”

P. S. Fournier, the younger, a celebrated letter-founder, born at Paris, 1712, died 1768, also occasionally engraved on wood. He, however, chiefly merits a passing notice here in consequence of three tracts which he published, between 1758 and 1761, relating to the origin and progress of wood-engraving, and the invention of typography. About that period considerable curiosity appears to have been excited in France and Germany with respect to the origin and early history of wood-engraving, in consequence of the researches of Schœpflin, Meerman, and others, respecting the invention of printing. In Germany, at this period, there does not appear to have been a single wood-engraver of the slightest pretensions to talent.

Schlœpflin, in his “Vindiciæ Typographicæ,” having made an assertion on a question of wood-engraving, as being admitted “by all experienced persons,” Fournier remarks, that “so far from there being many experienced wood-engravers to choose from, M. Schœpflin would be the most likely to experience some difficulty in finding one to consult.”

For the purpose of showing that at this period wood-engraving was not in a better condition in Italy than in Germany we merely remark that the wood-cut ornaments in the copies of the Pope’s Bulls and Decretals printed at Rome between 1760 and 1770, are not superior to the cuts which are to be found in cheap editions of the “Pilgrim’s progress” of the same date, notwithstanding that the engraver – Lucchesini – has put his name to them as if hi had performed a work from which he deserved to be held in honourable memory.

The cuts in a Spanish book entitled “Letania Lauretana de la Virgen Santissima,” translated from the Latin, and printed at Valencia in 1768, are by the same engraver; considerable fancy is displayed in the designs, and though the execution by paltry, yet the book, as Tom Hearne says, “is a curiosity,” and possibly might justify the Rev. Waldo Sibthorp in his denunciaion of what, since his re-conversion, he calls “MARIOLATRY.”

Though wood-engraving was in a very languishing state when Thomas Bewick first began to practice the art, it yet was not wholly extinct, as some persons have imagined who have ascribed to him the credit of re-inventing it. Such an assertion, indeed, could only have been made by persons who had no knowledge of the state of the art, either in England or on the Continent, in the time of Bewick’s boyhood; they might have been well-informed in other respects; but most certainly they had never read Papillon’s work, which contains a minute account of the practice of the art, nor had ever seen the “Oxford Sausage,” a highly-seasoned little volume of wit, which first appeared in 1764, when Bewick was about eleven years old, and which contains several cuts, probably engraved by a person of the name of Lister.

About 1763, a person of the name of Watts engraved some large cuts, after drawings by Luca Cambiaso, besides several others of small size; and there are four cuts, “engraved by T. Hodgson,” in Sir John Hawkins’s “History of Music,” which was published in1776, the year in which Bewick first visited London.

At this time he certainly was not the sole professor of the art in England, and neither did the wood-engravers whom he found established in business in London, and amongst whom he found employment, acquire their practical knowledge of their art from him. Though it ma be unquestionable that Bewick was self-taught, it by no means follows that the art of wood-engraving was lost in England when he first entered on his course of self-instruction.

There can, however, be no doubt that the genius and talents of Bewick chiefly contributed, not only to recall attention to the art of wood-engraving, but also to elevate its character and promote its extension, both in England and in other countries.

Thomas Bewick was born on the 10th August, 1753, at Cherry-burn, in the county of Northumberland, but on the south side of the Tyne, about twelve miles westward of Newcastle. A view of the cottage in which he was born is introduced in the cut of “The Blackbird,” in his “History of British Birds.”

His father rented a small land-sale colliery at Mickley Bank, in the same neighbourhood, and Bewick, when a lad, was occasionally employed in the pit. He received his education at the school kept by the Rev. Christopher Gregson, at the Parsonage-house, at Ovingham, on the opposite side of the Tyne.

It was in this pleasant neighbourhood that Bewick, when a lad, fishing for trout n the Tyne, and seeking for birds’-nests in the woods on its banks, fist acquired that love of nature which, becoming enlarged and confirmed as he grew in years, is so strikingly displayed in his works.

Though Bewick, as an artist, had no master, yet Nature was his mistress; he courted her on the hill-side and in the meadow, in the dene and in the loaning, by the stream and in the wood; he courted her as a country beauty, and as he found her so has he depicted her. Bewick having shown a fondness and an aptitude for drawing when a lad, was placed by his father, in 1767, as an apprentice to Mr. Ralph Beilby, a copper-plate engraver, in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Though Mr. Beilby used to engrave copper-plates for books and bill-heads, when he had the chance of such work, yet the principal part of his business consisted in engraving crests and initials on articles of plate for silversmiths, and in cutting brass clock-faces and door-plates.

Bewick, in the latter part of his life, told a friend of his that when an apprentice the cutting of clock-faces made his hands as hard as a blacksmith’s, and almost disgusted him with engraving. Circumstances, however, occurred, which gave him an opportunity of trying his hand on a more yielding material – wood.

Dr. Charles Hatton, late Professor of Mathematics at Woolwich, then a schoolmaster at Newcastle, being about to publish his “Treatise on Mensuration,” and wishing to have the diagrams engraved on wood, consulted Bewick’s master on the subject. The result was, that he undertook to do them; but, as he knew nothing of engraving on wood, their execution was committed to Bewick, who invented a graver with a fine groove at the point, which enabled him to cut the outlines by a single operation.

In one of the diagrams a view of the tower and steeple of St. Nicholas Church, Newcastle, is introduced. The publication of Dr Hatton’s “Mensuration,” in numbers, commenced in 1768, and was finished in 1770. Bewick afterwards engraved bill-heads on wood; and it is likely that, while he remained with Mr. Beilby, he also engraved the cuts for a little book, entitled “Youth’s Instructive and Entertaining Story Teller,” printed by T. Saint, Newcastle, 1774.

Bewick’s apprenticeship having expired in October, 1774, he returned to his father’s house a Cherryburn, where, though he continued to do work as a general engraver for Mr. Beilby, he applied himself chiefly to wood-engraving. While living with his father, it is probable that he engraved the cut of the “Huntsman and the Old Hound,” for which a premium was awarded to him by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures.”

This cut was printed in an edition of Gay’s “Fables,” with illustration by Bewick, published by T. Saint, 1779; and it is given in Charnley’s edition of “Select Fables,” with cuts by Thomas and John Bewick, 1820. In 1776, Bewick visited London. After working there for a few months, he returned to Newcastle, where he entered into partnership with his former master, Mr. Ralph Beilby.

There seems reason to believe that Bewick was employed when in London by a person of the name of Hodgson – probably the engraver of the cuts in Sir John Hawkins’s “History of Music” – who published about 1780 a little work entitled “A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible.” It is at any rate certain that many of the cuts in this book were engraved by Bewick.

Bewick, who was decidedly a man of country habits and country taste, did not like London. Writing, in 1803, to one of his old school-fellows, Mr. C. Gregson, the son of his old schoolmaster, who then kept an apothecary’s shop in the neighbourhood of Blackfriars, he says: “I wonder how you can think of turmoiling yourself to the end of the chapter, and let the opportunity slip of contemplating at your ease the beauties of nature so bountifully spread out to enlighten, to captivate and to cheer the heart of man. For my part I am still of the same mind I was in when in London, and that is, I would rather be herding sheep on Mickley Bank top than remain in London, although for so doing I was to be made Premier of England.”

The cuts by Bewick, which appear in an edition of “Select Fables,” published by T. Saint, Newcastle, 1784, are much superior to his former productions of the same kind, in drawing, execution, and general effect. From this time he seems to have become fully conscious of his powers, and to have determined to apply himself to the production of works of a higher character.

He accordingly began, in 1785, to draw and engrave the cuts of his “History of Quadrupeds,” the first edition of which appeared in 1790 – the descriptions having been written by his partner. In 1789, he drew and engraved his large cut of the Chillingham Bull, which is by far the best of his large cuts, but much inferior as a work of art to many of the cuts in his “British Birds.”

When only a few impression of the Chillingham Bull had been taken – not more than six as is said, on thin parchment – the block warped and split. It was repaired by Bewick, but soon got so much out of order, that but few impressions were printed off.

It was again repaired, but with better success, about 1819, though at the sacrifice of the ornamented border, with which the cut was originally surrounded. While the “Quadrupeds” were in progress, he also engraved, on copper, the plates in Consett’s “Tour of Sweden,” 1789; the Whitley Large Ox, 1789; and the remarkable Kyloe Ox, bred in Argyleshire, 1790. Those copper-plates might have been executed by an ordinary provincial engraver, without adding much to his reputation.

The “History of Quadrupeds” having been favourably received by the public, and highly praised in the critical journals of the period, on the account of the excellence of the cuts, which were decidedly superior to all the wood-engravings of the same kind that had previously appeared, an any country.

Bewick forthwith began to draw and engrave the cuts for the “History of British Birds,” the first volume of which appeared in 1797, and the second in 1804. The descriptions in the first volume were mostly written by his partner, but the partnership having been dissolved shortly after its publication, the descriptions in the second were written by Bewick himself, but revised by the Rev. Henry Cotes, Vicar of Bedlington.

The cuts contained in those volumes entitle Bewick, not only to the character of an excellent wood-engraver, but also to that of an artist of great genius. The skill with which he has availed himself of the means afforded by wood-engraving to indicate the peculiar plumage of each bird, whether sleek or downy ; the fidelity and spirit with which he has represented the birds themselves in their natural attitudes and with their characteristic look; and the judgment and feeling with which he has introduced the accessories of foliage and back-grounds, have not been surpassed by any subsequent wood-engraver, even with the aid of a professional draftsman to make the drawings for him. Bewick’s birds have a “touch of Nature” which no mere manual dexterity in the use of tools can impart.

For their excellence as wood-engravings, looking merely at the manner of their execution, as well as for their truth-like character, with respect to the objects represented, in general form, detail, and expression, the following cuts in the “British Birds” are more especially deserving of notice:- the Yellow Bunting, the Lark, the Fieldfare, the Turkey, the Pintado, the Partridge, the Quail, the Bittern, the Woodcock, and the common Duck.- Bewick himself considered the Yellow Bunting the best of all his cuts.

The admirable tail-pieces in the “British Birds,” – picturesque, moral, humorous, and entertaining – display in an eminent degree both Bewick’s keenness in observing, and power in depicting Nature, such as he found her in his walks and perambulations, which may be considered as extending from Hexham to the sea, and from Cherryburn to the Scottish border. Those tail-pieces, indeed, may be considered as Graphic Notes made by Bewick when rambling about o’er hill and dale, high-way and bye-ways, for the purpose of observing the habits of birds, having a special eye at the same time to the manners and employments of men.

Without intending to detract form Bewick’s honest and well merited fame, we think it but just to mention here that several of those tail-pieces were drawn by a young man named Robert Johnson, who was an apprentice of Beilby and Bewick, as a copper-plate engraver, and who drew beautifully in water colours. Johnson, who died in 1796, aged twenty-six, drew the human figure more correctly than Bewick, and in the delineation of picturesque subjects was scarcely, if at all, inferior to him. A few of the tail-pieces in the second volume, chiefly of coast scenery, were drawn and engraved by Luke Clennell.

Bewick had an excellent knowledge both of the means and appliances of his art and of its just limits; and he never attempted, by mere delicacy of lines, to rival the productions of the copper-plate engraver. He always employed the simplest means to accomplish his object; and never mis-spent his time in the execution of cross-hatchings for the mere purpose of displaying his mechanical skill.

Much fine work, with very little meaning, is not to be found in the cuts of Bewick’s engraving; he employed lines as his means, not as the end, of his art and the best of his works display more of though and observation than of hand-labour.

The best of Bewick’s cuts appeared in the first edition of his “British Birds;” for though many new cuts were inserted in the subsequent editions, yet the best of them are not equal to the best of those which had previously appeared. In later editions, the increase of numbers without increase of merit is strikingly apparent.

When the second volume appeared, in 1804, Bewick had attained his fiftieth year; and, though he continued to draw and engrave for many years afterwards, he produced nothing to extend the fame which he had already merited. In 1818 he published a volume of Fables, with cut from drawings by himself and Robert Johnson, and chiefly engraved by his pupils.

Public expectation was disappointed in this work; many of the subjects did not allow of the exercise of his peculiar genius, which was most powerfully displayed in homely scenes; and he always succeeded better in depicting what he himself had seen and felt than in illustrating the fictions of others. He did not even engrave well from the drawing of another person when the subject was not such a one as he might have drawn himself.

Bewick was a man of strong and athletic frame, being nearly six feet high and proportionally stout. Though fond of country sports when a young man, he was extremely industrious, and most regular and methodical in his manner of business.

He worked hard and lived frugally, though not meanly; and acquired, by the exercise of his talents, a decent competence, as he had he prudence to retain the copyright of his principal works, the “Quadrupeds” and “British Birds.” He died at his house on the Windmill-hills, Gateshead, on the 8th November, 1828, aged seventy-five, and was buried in the churchyard of Ovingham, his native parish.

The excellence of Bewick’s wood-engravings, and the unquestionably contributed in a very great degree to restore wood-engraving to the position which it formerly occupied as a branch of art, and to bring it to its present very high degree of excellence.