A History of Wood Engraving – Chapter 5 Part 4


Chapter 5 – Part IV

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












William Harvey, who is still in the prime of life – or at most not beyond “a certain age,” somewhere between the summer and autumn of manhood – was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and served an apprenticeship as a wood-engraver with Thomas Bewick, and was one of his favourite pupils, both on account of his talents and his amiable disposition; and all who know him now, and may have known, or heard of his character in youth will acknowledge, that in his case the boy was truly “the father of the man.” 

In 1817 Harvey came to London, and in a short time afterwards became a pupil of B. R. Haydon, the historical painter, with a view of improving himself in drawing, and of thus further qualifying himself for the profession of a designer on wood. While studying under Haydon, he drew and engraved his large cut of the “Death of Dentatus,” from a painting by his master. 

This cut, which was published in 1821, though correctly drawn, elaborately engraved, and displaying the greatest skill in the mechanism of the art, is yet not a good specimen of the effective employment of the means of wood-engraving. In the mere cutting of lines it displays all that skill in the use of tools, combined with great patience and unremitting perseverance, can effect in wood-engraving; but though parts of it may appear beautiful when viewed separately, yet when viewed as a whole it does not powerfully arrest the mind as a successful production of art, without regard to the means employed. It has, in short, too much the appearance of being an elaborate effort to emulate a copper-plate; and in attempting this, the engraver has thrown away a great portion of his labour, while he has sacrificed some of the peculiar advantages which wood-engraving possesses over engraving on copper. 

In 1824, Harvey drew and engraved the beautiful vignettes and tail-pieces in Dr. Henderson’s “History of Ancient and Modern Wines.” With those cuts he may be considered as having closed his career as an engraver, and to have entered on that of a designer on wood. In the latter capacity, perhaps no artist that ever lived has made so many drawings, or furnished so much employment for wood-engravers. 

Among the numerous works illustrated by him, it is only necessary to enumerate the following for proofs of his great and various talent and untiring application: – “Northcote’s Fables,” first and second series; the “Tower Menageries;” the Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society;” White’s “Selbourne;” Lane’s “Arabian Nights;” Knight and Co.’s Edition of the “Common Prayer;” and Charles Knight’s “Shakespeare.” 

The Various other works to which Harvey has furnished illustrations are so numerous, that we may be well excused from attempting to give a list – although such a list would be curious, as showing what talent and industry can effect – seeing that he himself does not recollect a tithe of them, Chodowiecki of Germany, and Stothard in England, are famed for the number and excellence of the designs which they made for engravers; Harvey, however, had made more drawings, and of a greater variety of subjects, that either; and should he live, and retain his powers, to the age of Stothard, he bids fair to double his artistic progeny. 

It is unnecessary to enumerate all the wood-engravers who, since the revival of the art by Bewick, have proceeded from the great northern hive in “the coal country,” either direct from “Old Tommy’s” shop, in St. Nicholas’ Church Yard, or, the cut the shop, from the “establishments” of his pupils.

Of the few wood-engravers practising the art in London, towards the latter end of the last century, the only names that have come of our knowledge are those of T. Hodgson and James Lee. The former, as has been previously observed, was probably the engraver of the cuts in Hawkins’s “History of Music,” and was unquestionably the publisher of the “Hieroglyphick Bible” and the “Emblems of Mortality.” Lee engraved the cuts in the “Cheap Repository,” a collection of moral tales – similar to those of the modern Tract Societies – published between 1794 and 1798. 

Lee also engraved in brass, as appears form the following imprint on a sheet of Twelfth Night Characters of his engraving: “London: Printed for JAMES LEE, Engraver in wood, Brass, &c. (for the Letter Press), No. 68, Hatton Gardern. Entered at Stationers’ Hall and published as the Act directs, Dec. 29, 1796. Price plain 2d. Coloured 4d. Cut up in Packets 6d. coloured.” 

A hundred years hence a set of those impressions may be of value to the City Library, as illustrative of the costume in the eighteenth century, of such characters as “Billingsgate Nan, the Duchess of Puddle Dock, Mother Cole, Alderman Guttle, Tippy Bobby, and Captain Cacafogo, of the Tower Hamlets Militia.” We believe our set to be unique. Lee engraved the cuts in this book entitled the “Wreath,” from designs by W. M. Craig. He died in 1804; and his apprentice, Henry White, went down to Newcastle, and served out the remainder of his time with Bewick. While subsequently proved himself to be no unworthy pupil of Bewick.

That which may be considered the London School of wood-engraving produced nothing which would bear a comparison with the works of Bewick and his pupils, till the appearance of Robert Branston , who, as a wood-engraver, we believe, was, like Bewick, self-taught. He was born at Lynn, in Norfolk, about 1780, and served an apprenticeship with his father as a general copperplate engraver and heraldic painter; but, coming to London, and not meeting with sufficient encouragement in the business to which he had been brought up, he applied himself to wood-engraving, there being then an increasing demand for the productions of this branch of art.

Some of his first cuts were engraved for lottery-bills, in the “getting-up” and printing of which in different colours he displayed great skill. He afterwards applied himself to finer work, and at length became a very excellent wood-engraver. He succeeded best in engraving human figures, but did not excel in landscape, not in the engraving of animals. Some of the best specimens of his talents as a wood-engraver are to be found in the “History of England,” published by Scholey, 1804-1810; Bloomfield’s “Wild Flowers;” and “Epistles in Verse,” by George Marshall, 1811. 

His master-piece, however, is a large cut of the “Cave of Despair,” in “Savage hints on Decorative Printing, 1822.” This is one of the best large cuts which up to that time had appeared in this country. Mr. Branston died in 1827, leaving two sons, Robert and Frederick, who are both wood-engravers. John Thompson – by the general assent of his profession, the best wood-engraver in England – was a pupil of Robert Branston the elder. Thompson’s best cuts are to be found in “Puckle’s Club, 1817;” “Butler’s Hudibras, 1819;” and “Butler’s Remains, 1827;” “Major’s Edition of Walton’s Angler;” “Northcote’s Fables, Second Series;” and in “Charles Knight’s Edition of Shakespeare.” 

Though the cuts engraved by Thompson, in Van Voorst’s edition of the “Vicar of Wakefield,” from designs by W. Mulready, R.A., have been highly lauded as excellent specimens of wood-engraving, yet we by no means consider them as his best; and, moreover, without expressing any opinion how far Mr. Mulready may have succeeded in pictorially embodying Goldsmith’s characters and sentiment, we feel no hesitation in declaring that in those designs he has not skillfully availed himself of the means of wood-engraving; the full powers of which can never be displayed in the representation of mere outline subjects which appear like copies of meagre etchings. All persons, possessing the least knowledge of wood-engraving, who have seen them, will understand what we mean when we say, that they “want a little more fat.” Objects, both real and imaginary may be lean, without being graceful or pleasing.

Among the modern wood-engravers who have contributed by their taste and abilities to promote their art, and to render it more deserving of public favour, the late John Orrin Smith is deserving of a passing notice. He was born at Colchester, and was brought up as an architect. He, however, abandoned that profession for the anticipated pleasures and profits of a managing partner in a Sunday Newspaper, which he was either instrumental in establishing, or in which he purchased a share, about 1823. This Newspaper proving an unprofitable speculation, he was thrown, as the phrase is, “Upon his resources” – the said “resources” generally meaning the sack, which, in consequence of its having been emptied, is insufficient to break the fall of the luckless wight who is “thrown” upon it. 

Having a large acquaintance amongst publishers, artists, and literary men, he determined to become a wood-engraver; and was, we believe, chiefly indebted to Wm. Harvey for his first lessons in the practice of the art. He subsequently entered into partnership with Mr. John Jackson; but it was soon dissolved. He then commenced the business of wood-engraver on his own account, in 1828; and from that year till the time of his decease, he was employed in executing, for various works, some of the best wood-cuts which appeared in that period. 

He particularly excelled in landscape, and in conveying the idea of space and distance by a skillfully managed gradation of tone, conveying the idea of the relative distance of the different objects as affected by aerial perspective. In this respect Mr. Smith had no superior. He also engraved several of the cuts in the illustrated works published in France, about seven years ago, from designs by T. Johannot, Grandville, and other French artist; and so highly did the publishers esteem his talents that they gave a medallion portrait of him in “Paul and Virginia.” 

To Mr. Smith, in conjunction with his partner, Mr. W. J. Linton, the superintendence of the drawing and the engraving of the cuts for the illustration of this article were entrusted. Mr. Smith, however, having died before they were finished, their completion devolved entirely on Mr. Linton, who, as an engraver, is certainly not inferior to his late partner. W might justly say something more positive in Mr. Linton’s favour, but we prefer, without referring to what he has previously done so well, to allow the cuts given in the course of these papers to speak both for him and for themselves. 

One of the last cuts on which Mr. Smith was employed, was the portrait of Captain Coram, given in No. 105, May 4. He had just begun it a few days before his death, which, though he had been for some time previously in a delicate state of health, yet took place very suddenly and unexpectedly, on the 18th October, 1843, in the forty-fourth year of his age.

When Bewick’s wood-engravings first began to attract notice, there were two classes of persons who admired them – those who viewed them as spirited and truth-like representations of natural scenes and objects, and who appreciated the talents of the artist who had thus excited in their minds pleasing sensations and recollections; and those who looked on them merely with regard to the means by which they were executed, and “wondered that such things could be done on wood.” 

A considerable proportion of the professed admirers of wood-engraving, at the present day, are of the latter class; they estimate a wood-cut as if it were a piece of cambric, according to its “fineness;” paying but little attention to the subject, and never asking themselves what meaning, what sentiment, or what pictorial beauty, is conveyed by the “niggling work” with which they are so charmed. 

It is said that George III. thought so highly of the cuts in Goldsmith’s and Parnell’s poems, previously notice, that he could not be persuaded that they were engraved on wood, until the blocks were shown to him by Mr. George Nicol, his bookseller. At a time when surprising that a king should have no knowledge of its capabilities, or should be incapable of distinguishing between a wood-cut, printed with letter press, and a copperplate-engraving. There is no royal road to a knowledge of the practice of art, any more than there is to a knowledge of the principles of science.

Before concluding this portion of our paper it may not be unnecessary to add a few remarks on the state of wood-engraving in other countries. In France, Papillon, who died in 1776, left no successor of talent to advance wood-engraving beyond the state in which he left it; and the art remained neglected in that country for many years after the works of Bewick and others had recalled attention to it in England.

Within the last twelve years however, wood-engraving has advanced greatly in public estimation, and has been very extensively and successfully cultivated in France, though when the principal of the French works illustrated with wood-cuts were commenced, the Parisian publishers were obliged to avail themselves of the skill of English engravers to execute them.

The number of French wood-engravers, however, who have since attained to a very high degree of skill in their profession, have rendered the French publishers comparatively independent of English aid, though a considerable number of wood-cuts from designs of French artists and for French works are still executed in this country.

The best of the cuts, whether executed by French wood-engravers, or by English wood-engravers on French account, are to be found in the large octavo editions of, “Paul and Virginia” and “Fontaine’s Fables.”

Many of those cuts are excellent, both in design and execution; but many more a great deal of labour has been wasted in the execution of minute cross-hatchings, which, so far from improving the subject, either in contributing to give effect, or in expressing character, have made the cut look like a piece of net-work. It would indeed, seem that some of the best of the French designers on wood have got an idea that a cut was excellent in proportion to the quantity of work it contained.

About the time of Papillon’s death, wood-engraving was in a more depressed state in Germany than in France. Almost the only German wood-engraver of the time was a person named Ungher, who appears to have been chiefly employed in engraving tasteless ornaments for books.

He, however, appears to have paid some attention to the history and former practice of the art, for in 1779 he published a tract, illustrated with five cuts, in which he discusses the question “whether Albert Durer engraved on wood,” and gives his own conclusion in the negative. In the same year his son, who was also a wood-engraver, published a dissertation, illustrated with cuts, on the progress of wood-engraving in Brandenburg.

The Unghers, father and son, also executed several chiaro-scuros on wood. About five-and-thirty years ago a German wood-engraver, of the name of Gubitz, executed several cuts, of considerable merit; some of them are very effective in point of colour; and others, of a smaller size, are engraved with great clearness and delicacy.

Wood-engraving is making rapid progress in Germany, and more especially in Bavaria. The head pieces for each month in the “Munich Almanack” for 1843, from the designs of William Kaulback – an artist of high reputation – are excellently engraved, and no less excellently printed.

Should the German designers and engravers on wood continue to advance in this manner, the reputation which the art formerly enjoyed in Germany will speedily be restored. Wood-engraving is at present making considerable progress in the United States, and numerous American books and periodical publications are now illustrated with wood-cuts.

Adams, the best of the American wood-engravers, is at present employed in engraving the cuts for an “Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible,” at present in course of publication, in parts, by Harper and Brothers, New York.

The work when completed will contain fourteen hundred cuts, a great number of which will be from original designs by J. G. Chapman, an American artist.

The ornamental title-page, printed in black and red, contained in the first part, the only one of which has yet come under our notice, is a beautiful specimen of wood-engraving and printing.

Several of the large cuts are copied from illustrations of the Bible published by Churton, London, 1833. We do not consider that they are improved by the fanciful borders with which they have been ornamented by Mr. Chapman. There is too much frame – and that not always appropriate in its ornaments – for the picture.

An American artist, with the talents of Bewick, who should apply himself to the representation of the scenery and natural objects of his own country, with graphic traits of the character and manners of the people, could not fail of securing for himself as high a reputation as that of “the genius who dwelt on the banks of the Tyne.”