A History of Wood Engraving – Chapter 5 Part 3


Chapter 5 – Part III

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












Among the engravers and designers on wood who were pupils of Bewick, and who have contributed to the extension and promotion of the at, the following may be considered as chiefly deserving of notice:- John Bewick, his brother; Charlton Nesbit; Luke Clennell; and William Harvey. 

On the expiration of his apprenticeship, John Bewick came to London, and during his residence there he engraved the cuts for the following works:- “Emblems of Mortality,” with cuts, chiefly copied or altered from those in Holbein’s “Dance of Death,” printed in 1789, for T. Hodgson, the publisher of the “Hieroglyphic Bible;” Dr. Trusler’s “Progress of Man and Society,” 1791; and “The Looking Glass of the Mind,” 1796. 

Though several of those cuts display considerable talent, yet the best of them are better in design than in execution. The best specimens of John Bewick’s abilities as a designer and engraver on wood, are to be found in Goldsmith’s and Parnell’s Poems, 1795, and Somerville’s “Chase,” 1796, both printed in quarto, by Bulmer. 

Most of the cuts in Goldsmith’s and Parnell’s Poems were drawn by John Bewick, who also engraved the vignettes on the title-pages – the large cut of the “Old Woman Gathering Water-cresses,” and the tail piece at the end of the volume. The others were engraved by Thomas Bewick. 

All the cuts in Somerville’s “Chase,” except one, were drawn by John Bewick, but none of them was engraved by him. Shortly after he had finished the drawings on the blocks he returned to the north in consequence of ill health, and died at Ovingham on the 5th December, 1795, aged 35. All the cuts in the “Chase” were engraved by Thomas Bewick, with the exception of the tail-piece at the end of the volume, which was engraved by Nesbit.

Charlton Nesbit, on the expiration of his apprenticeship, came to London about 1799, and continued to reside there till 1815, when he returned to the north. In 1830 he returned to London about 1799, and continued to reside there till 1815, when he returned to the north. 

In 1830 he returned to London, where he remained to the time of his decease, which happened on the 11th November, 1838, in the sixty-third year of his age. 

In 1799 Nesbit engraved a large cut, containing a view of St. Nicholas’ Church, Newcastle-on-Tyne, from a drawing by his fellow apprentice, Robert Johnson. For this cut, which is one of the largest that had ever been engraved in England, Nesbit received a medal from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures. 

Nesbit’s best cuts are to be found in “Religious Emblems,” published by R. Ackermann and Co., 1908; Savage’s “Decorative Printing;” Northcote’s “Fables,” Second Series; and in the edition of White’s “Selbourne,” published by Baldwin and Cradock in 1834.

Luke Clennell, who attained a high reputation as a painter and designer, as well as an engraver on wood, was born at Ulgham, near Morpeth, in Northumberland, on the 8th April 1781. 

At an early age he was placed with a relation, a grocer, in Morpeth, with whom he continued till he was sixteen; but having displayed a great taste for drawing, he was apprenticed by his friends, in 1797, as a wood-engraver, with Thomas Bewick, with whom he remained for seven years. 

For a few months after the expiration of his apprenticeship, Clennell continued to work for Bewick, who chiefly employed him in engraving some of the cuts for a “History of England,” published by R. Scholey, Paternoster-row. Clennell, however, having learnt that his employer received five pounds for each of the cuts, for which he paid him only two, sent a proof of one of them to the publisher stating that he was in reality the engraver. 

In the course of a few days, Clennell received an answer from Mr. Scholey, inviting him to London, and offering him employment till all the cuts intended for the work should be finished. Clennell accepted the offer, and proceeded to London, where he arrived about the end of autumn, 1804. 

One of the principal designers on wood, in London, at that period, was the late John Thurston, who, though an artist of great talent, yet had not so good a knowledge of the means of giving effect to drawings to be executed on wood as Clennell. 

The latter used, therefore, to occasionally heighten the effect of such drawings of Thurston as he had to engrave, and also to correct and improve them in other respects. Thurston was at fist displeased with the liberties which Clennell took with his drawings, but, perceiving the decided improvement which they received, he subsequently allowed Clennell to heighten the effect according to his own judgment. 

An admirable specimen of Clennell’s talent is to be found in a vignette , at page 43 of the octavo edition of Falconer’s “Shipwreck,” published by Cadell and Davies, in 1808. The subject is a ship running before the wind in a storm; and the motion of the troubled waves and louring appearance of the sky were never more truly represented in an engraving; the whole speaks not only to the eye but to the mind. 

The drawing was made by Thurston, but the spirit and effect were introduced by Clennell.

The largest and best cut that Clennell ever engraved was for the diploma of the Highland Society, from a design by Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy. West’s drawing was made on paper; the figures within the circle were drawn on the block by Thurston; and the supporters – a fisherman and a stalwart Highland soldier – were drawn by Clennell himself. 

For the part which he drew, Thurston received fifteen pounds. The block on which the drawing was made consisted of several pieces of box, veneered upon beech. One afternoon, when Clennell had been employed about two months upon it, it suddenly split, when he was at tea. 

As he had heard the crack, he immediately suspected what had happened and, on finding the block split, beyond the possibility of properly repairing it, he, in a passion, threw the tea-things into the fire, and “that day worked no more.” 

He, however, soon got a new block made, of solid pieces of box, firmly screwed and cramped together; and, having paid Thurston fifteen pounds more for re-drawing the figures within the circle, and the supporters, as before, having been copied by himself, he began to engrave with renewed spirit, and completed his work without further mishap. 

For this cut Clennell received on hundred pounds, he himself paying Thurston for his drawings on the block; and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures presented him with their gold medal. 

This cut affords a good specimen of Clennell’s talents and peculiarities as a wood-engraver – a free and spirited manner of execution in the more important parts; and an artistic “making-out” of the details, with occasional slightness and carelessness in the subordinate portions of the subject. 

The block engraved by Clennell having been burnt in the fire of Bensley’s printing-office, when a comparatively small number of impressions had been printed, the subject was re-engraved on a block of the same size, by John Thompson.

Among the best of Clennell’s small cuts are the illustrations which appeared in an edition of “Rogers’s Poems,” published in 1812. Those cuts were drawn on the wood, with pen and ink, by T. Stothard, R.A. 

Several additional cuts, of the same kind, drawn also by Stothard, but engraved by John Thompson, were inserted in a later edition. Clennell, who was an excellent water-colour painter, made many drawings for the “Border Antiquities,” and also for other works; and the encouragement which he received induced him to abandon the profession of wood-engraving, and to devote his talents exclusively to drawing and painting. 

In 1814 he received a commission from the Earl of Bridgewater to paint a large picture of the entertainment given to the Allied Sovereigns in Guildhall, by the city of London. 

He lost much time, and experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining likenesses of the various persons – illustrious by deeds, or illustrious by courtesy – whose portraits were to be introduced in the picture; but having at length succeeded in obtaining the necessary sketches, he began his picture; and had made considerable progress in it, when, in April, 1814, he displayed symptoms of insanity, which, becoming confirmed, put a stop to his further progress in the work, and closed for ever his career as an artist. 

The following account of the first indication of Clennell’s insanity we received from one of his intimate and warmly attached friends:- 

“I regret to say I was the cause of the first discovery of his mind being affected. Poor fellow! how sadly does
the recollection dwell on my memory! I was on very friendly terms with the family of his father-in-law, Charles Warren, the engraver, – as fine a hearted man as ever breathed. I was consequently well acquainted with Clennell, and frequently visited him at his house in Pentonville. 

I have sat for hours beside him whilst he was engaged in painting that fatal picture. On night a large party of young folks had assembled at Mr. Warren’s, – a very frequent occurrence, for everybody went there when they wished to be happy;- and we had spent a long night in juketting and play, and games of all sorts, twirling the trencher, being as I well remember, one of them; and at last had gathered in a large circle round the fire. Clennell was seated next the fire on one side, and I sat next to him. 

I had remarked that for at least half an hour before he had been looking vacantly under the grate, paying no attention to the fun that was going on. In order to rouse him, I gave him a hearty slap on the thigh, and said, ‘Why, Clennell, you are in a brown study.’ He gave a faint laugh, and said, ‘Indeed I think I am.’ He did not, however, become so much roused as to pay any attention to the melée of waggery that was going on. 

We broke up about one o’clock; and; and on my calling at Mr. Warren’s next afternoon I was shocked to hear from him that he feared Clennell’s mind was affected; for, that about three in the morning,- after having gone home with his wife and retired to bed,- he started up and dressed himself, telling his wife that he was going to her father’s on a very important affair. 

As his wife could not prevail on him to defer his visit to a more seasonable hour, she determined to accompany him. On arriving at Gray’s Inn-road, he knocked violently, and on being let in by Mr. Warren, he said that he had been grossly insulted by me and that he was determined on having immediate satisfaction. 

All Mr. Warren’s arguments as to the impossibility of my having intended to insult him were met with positive assertions to the contrary. He said that he knew better; “I had been placed next him on purpose, an it was a pre-concerted thing.” 

Mr. Warren, at last, seeing how it was with him, humoured him so far as to say that he would go with him, and have an explanation, an apology, or satisfaction! They accordingly set out for my house; but Mr. Warren, being now quite sensible on the subject, instead of proceeding towards my house, took a very different direction, and led him about till he became tired; he was at that time any thing but strong. 

He also by degrees quieted his mind towards me, by speaking of my friendship for him and my love of art; and by daylight he got him home and to bed. I need hardly say what exquisite pain this account gave me, for I really loved Clennell; he was always so mild, so amiable, in short, such a GOOD fellow.”

Not long after Clennell became decidedly insane, his wife fell into the same state, and being attacked with fever, she died after a short illness, leaving three young children. 

Those heavy afflictions excited the sympathy of several noblemen and gentlemen, admirers and patrons of Clennell; and a committee having been appointed to consider of the best means of raising a fund for the support of him and his children, it was determined to publish, by subscription, an engraving from his picture of the “Decisive Charge of the Life Guards at Waterloo,” for which he had obtained a premium from the British Institution. 

This engraving, executed by Mr. W. Bromley, was published in 1821, and the sum thus raised was invested in trustees for the benefit of Clennell and his children.

Clennell, after having been for about four years an inmate in a lunatic asylum, in the neighbourhood of London, so far recovered, that it was no longer necessary to keep him in confinement. 

He was accordingly placed under the care of a relation, at St. Peter’s Quay, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with whom he remained for several years in a state of harmless insanity, amusing himself with drawing, engraving little subjects, of his own designing, and in pieces of poetry, several of which he got printed in Newcastle to present to his friends. 

He once called on his old master, Bewick, and asked him for a block to engrave, as he wanted employment. Bewick, to humour him, gave him a piece of wood, and told him to make a drawing for himself. On his next visit Clennell brought the cut finished; but though he said that it was the “best he had ever engraved,” it was just such a one as an amateur might be expected to produce in his first essays. 

Clennell engraved several little cuts in a similar style as head-pieces to his poetry. The following are specimens of his poetry at this period. As none of his verses are written in a gloomy strain, it is to be hoped that he felt little of the misery which people, who believe themselves sane, usually ascribe to persons in his state, but that he was cheered by an inward light, which passeth the understanding of the wise.

“Lady, where do you go?
Do you go the Spring flow –
Lady, ah! Me,
Thine own image to see?
Thou takest thy date,
Whom thou dost pat with thy hat,
A very ass, as he doth pass,
When he doth sip with his moe
The spring flow –
With thy hand thou dost lave
The light drop of his moe.”

“An hear have I for true love framed,
I never could injure thee,
The dew-drop upon the rose
Not dearer to me.

No sunny ray, at the rise of day,
Such joy to me can bring;
Or the robin’s wild note
In the budding of the spring.

L. C. St, Peter’s, 1829.”

Clennell, having been relapsed into a state which rendered restraint necessary, was again placed, in 1831, in a lunatic asylum, at Newcastle, 9th of February, 1840. 

His great talents and unhappy fate must be our excuse for devoting so large a portion of our paper to his biography, and for thus endeavouring to “give the melancholy theme a more enduring date.” Though not personally acquainted with him, we know well the pleasant scenes with which he was familiar when a boy, and which dwelt on his mind and prompted his pencil in the loneliness of his last confinement. 

Several of the drawings which he made when in the lunatic asylum at Newcastle are reminiscences of the banks of the Wansbeck and of the Coquet, of Bothal and Sheepwash, Warkworth and Weldon, Widdrington and Cockle-ark Tower. 

A monument to the memory of Clennell, executed by Mr. R. Davies, a young sculptor of talent and rising reputation, has recently been erected in St. Andrew’s Church, Newcastle-on-Tyne. 

We give a view of the monument; but, from a feeling of charity to all concerned in it, we omit the inscription which disgraces it; the four lines of miserable verse contain neither meaning nor truth.