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Title: Why Bewick Succeeded - A Note in the History of Wood Engraving
Author: Kainen, Jacob, 1909-2001
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Contributions from The Museum of History and Technology:

Paper 11


A Note in the History of Wood Engraving








_By Jacob Kainen_

_A Note in the History of Wood Engraving_

_Thomas Bewick has been acclaimed as the pioneer of modern wood
engraving whose genius brought this popular medium to prominence. This
study shows that certain technological developments prepared a path for
Bewick and helped give his work its unique character._

The Author: _Jacob Kainen is curator of graphic arts, Museum of History
and Technology, in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National

No other artist has approached Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) as the
chronicler of English rustic life. The little wood engravings which he
turned out in such great number were records of typical scenes and
episodes, but the artist could also give them social and moral
overtones. Such an approach has attracted numerous admirers who have
held him in esteem as an undoubted homespun genius. The fact that he had
no formal training as a wood engraver, and actually never had a lesson
in drawing, made his native inspiration seem all the more authentic.

The Contemporary View of Bewick

After 1790, when his _A general history of quadrupeds_ appeared with its
vivid animals and its humorous and mordant tailpiece vignettes, he was
hailed in terms that have hardly been matched for adulation. Certainly
no mere book illustrator ever received equal acclaim. He was pronounced
a great artist, a great man, an outstanding moralist and reformer, and
the master of a new pictorial method. This flood of eulogy rose
increasingly during his lifetime and continued throughout the remainder
of the 19th century. It came from literary men and women who saw him as
the artist of the common man; from the pious who recognized him as a
commentator on the vanities and hardships of life (but who sometimes
deplored the frankness of his subjects); from bibliophiles who welcomed
him as a revolutionary illustrator; and from fellow wood engravers for
whom he was the indispensable trail blazer.

During the initial wave of Bewick appreciation, the usually sober
Wordsworth wrote in the 1805 edition of _Lyrical ballads_:[1]

O now that the genius of Bewick were mine,
And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne!
Then the Muses might deal with me just as they chose,
For I'd take my last leave both of verse and of prose.
What feats would I work with my magical hand!
Book learning and books would be banished the land.

If art critics as a class were the most conservative in their estimates
of his ability, it was one of the most eminent, John Ruskin, whose
praise went to most extravagant lengths. Bewick, he asserted, as late as
1890,[2] "... without training, was Holbein's equal ... in this frame
are set together a drawing by Hans Holbein, and one by Thomas Bewick. I
know which is most scholarly; but I do _not_ know which is best."
Linking Bewick with Botticelli as a draughtsman, he added:[3] "I know no
drawing so subtle as Bewick's since the fifteenth century, except
Holbein's and Turner's." And as a typical example of popular
appreciation, the following, from the June 1828 issue of _Blackwood's
Magazine_, appearing a few months before Bewick's death, should suffice:

     Have we forgotten, in our hurried and imperfect enumeration of wise
     worthies,--have we forgotten "_The Genius that dwells on the banks
     of the Tyne_," the matchless, Inimitable Bewick? No. His books lie
     in our parlour, dining-room, drawing-room, study-table, and are
     never out of place or time. Happy old man! The delight of
     childhood, manhood, decaying age!--A moral in every tail-piece--a
     sermon in every vignette.

This acclaim came to Bewick not only because his subjects had a homely
honesty, but also, although not generally taken into account, because of
the brilliance and clarity with which they were printed. Compared with
the wood engravings of his predecessors, his were more detailed and
resonant in black and white, and accordingly seemed miraculous and
unprecedented. He could engrave finer lines and achieve better
impressions in the press because of improvements in technology which
will be discussed later, but for a century the convincing qualities of
this new technique in combination with his subject matter led admirers
to believe that he was an artist of great stature.

[1] William Wordsworth, _Lyrical ballads_, London, 1805, vol. 1. p. 199.

[2] John Ruskin, _Ariadne Florentina_, London, 1890, pp. 98, 99.

[3] _Ibid._, p. 246.

Later, more mature judgment has made it plain that his contributions as
a craftsman outrank his worth as an artist. He was no Holbein, no
Botticelli--it is absurd to think of him in such terms--but he did
develop a fresh method of handling wood engraving. Because of this he
represents a turning point in the development of this medium which led
to its rise as the great popular vehicle for illustration in the 19th
century. In his hands wood engraving underwent a special transformation;
it became a means for rendering textures and tonal values. Earlier work
on wood could not do this; it could manage only a rudimentary suggestion
of tones. The refinements that followed, noticeable in the highly
finished products of the later 19th century, came as a direct and
natural consequence of Bewick's contributions to the art.

Linton[4] and a few others object to the general claim that Bewick was
the reviver or founder of modern wood engraving, not only because the
art was practiced earlier, if almost anonymously, and had never really
died out, but also because his bold cuts had little in common with their
technician's concern with infinite manipulation of surface tones, a
feature of later work. But this misses the main point--that Bewick had
taken the first actual steps in the new direction.

[4] William Linton, _The masters of wood engraving_, London, 1889, p.

[Illustration: Figure 1.--Woodcutting Procedure, showing method of
cutting with the knife on the plank grain, from Jean Papillon's _Traité
de la gravure en bois_, 1766.]

Unquestionably he gave the medium a new purpose, even though it was not
generally adopted until after 1830. Through his pupils, his unrelenting
industry, and his enormous influence he fathered a pictorial activity
that brought a vastly increased quantity of illustrations to the public.
Periodical literature, spurred by accompanying pictures that could be
cheaply made, quickly printed, and dramatically pointed, became a
livelier force in education. Textbooks, trade journals, dictionaries,
and other publications could more effectively teach or describe;
scientific journals could include in the body of text neat and accurate
pictures to enliven the pages and illustrate the equipment and
procedures described. Articles on travel could now have convincingly
realistic renditions of architectural landmarks and of foreign sights,
customs, personages, and views. The wood engraving, in short, made
possible the modern illustrated publication because, unlike copper plate
engraving or etching, it could be quickly set up with printed matter.
Its use, therefore, multiplied increasingly until just before 1900, when
it was superseded for these purposes by the photomechanical halftone.

But while Bewick was the prime mover in this revolutionary change,
little attention has been given to the important technological
development that cleared the way for him. Without it he could not have
emerged so startlingly; without it there would have been no modern wood
engraving. It is not captious to point out the purely industrial basis
for his coming to prominence. Even had he been a greater artist, a study
of the technical means at hand would have validity in showing the
interrelation of industry and art although, of course, the aesthetic
contribution would stand by itself.

But in Bewick's case the aesthetic level is not particularly high. Good
as his art was, it wore an everyday aspect: he did not give it that
additional expressive turn found in the work of greater artists. It
should not be surprising, then, that his work was not inimitable. It is
well-known that his pupils made many of the cuts attributed to him,
making the original drawings and engraving in his style so well that the
results form almost one indistinguishable body of work. The pupils were
competent but not gifted, yet they could turn out wood engravings not
inferior to Bewick's own. And so we find that such capable technicians
as Nesbit, Clennell, Robinson, Hole, the Johnsons, Harvey, and others
all contributed to the Bewick cult.

Linton, who worshipped him as an artist but found him primitive as a
technician, commented:[5] "Widely praised by a crowd of unknowing
connoisseurs and undiscriminating collectors, we have yet, half a
century after his death, to point out how much of what is attributed to
him is really by his hand."

Chatto,[6] who obtained his information from at least one Bewick pupil,
says that many of the best tailpieces in the _History of British birds_
were drawn by Robert Johnson, and that "the greater number of those
contained in the second volume were engraved by Clennell." Granted that
the outlook and the engraving style were Bewick's, and that these were
notable contributions, the fact that the results were so close to his
own points more to an effective method of illustration than to the
outpourings of genius.

[5] _Ibid._

Low Status of the Woodcut

Bewick's training could not have been less promising. Apprenticed to
Ralph Beilby at the age of fourteen, he says of his master:[7]

     ... The work-place was filled with the coarsest kind of
     steel-stamps, pipe moulds, bottle moulds, brass clock faces, door
     plates, coffin plates, bookbinders letters and stamps, steel,
     silver and gold seals, mourning rings, &c. He also undertook the
     engraving of arms, crests and cyphers, on silver, and every kind of
     job from the silversmiths; also engraving bills of exchange, bank
     notes, invoices, account heads, and cards.... The higher department
     of engraving, such as landscapes or historical plates, I dare say,
     was hardly thought of by my master....

A little engraving on wood was also done, but Bewick tells us that his
master was uncomfortable in this field and almost always turned it over
to him. His training, obviously, was of a rough and ready sort, based
upon serviceable but routine engraving on metal. There was no study of
drawing, composition, or any of the refinements that could be learned
from a master who had a knowledge of art. Whatever Bewick had of the
finer points of drawing and design he must have picked up by himself.

[6] William Chatto, and John Jackson, _A treatise on wood engraving_,
London, 1861 (1st ed. 1839), pp. 496-498.

[7] Thomas Bewick, _Memoir of Thomas Bewick_, New York, 1925 (1st ed.
London, 1862), pp. 50, 51.

When he completed his apprenticeship in 1774 at the age of twenty-one,
the art of engraving and cutting on wood was just beginning to show
signs of life after more than a century and a half of occupying the
lowest position in the graphic arts. Since it could not produce a full
gamut of tones in the gray register, which could be managed brilliantly
by the copper plate media--line engraving, etching, mezzotint and
aquatint--it was confined to ruder and less exacting uses, such as
ornamental headbands and tailpieces for printers and as illustrations
for cheap popular broadsides. When good illustrations were needed in
books and periodicals, copper plate work was almost invariably used,
despite the fact that it was more costly, was much slower in execution
and printing, and had to be bound in with text in a separate operation.
But while the Society of Arts had begun to offer prizes for engraving or
cutting on wood (Bewick received such a prize in 1775) the medium was
still moribund. Dobson[8] described its status as follows:

     During the earlier part of the eighteenth century engraving on wood
     can scarcely be said to have flourished in England. It existed--so
     much may be admitted--but it existed without recognition or
     importance. In the useful little _État des Arts en Angleterre_,
     published in 1755 by Roquet the enameller,--a treatise so catholic
     in its scope that it included both cookery and medicine,--there is
     no reference to the art of wood-engraving. In the _Artist's
     Assistant_, to take another book which might be expected to afford
     some information, even in the fifth edition of 1788, the subject
     finds no record, even though engraving on metal, etching,
     mezzotinto-scraping--to say nothing of "painting on silks, sattins,
     etc." are treated with sufficient detail. Turning from these
     authorities to the actual woodcuts of the period, it must be
     admitted that the survey is not encouraging.

[Illustration: Figure 2.--Wood Engraving Procedure, showing manipulation
of the burin, from Chatto and Jackson, _A treatise on wood engraving_,
1861. (See footnote 6.)]

Earlier, among other critics of the deficiencies of the woodcut, Horace
Walpole[9] had remarked:

     I have said, and for two reasons, shall say little of wooden cuts;
     that art never was executed with any perfection in England;
     engraving on metal was a final improvement of the art, and supplied
     the defects of cuttings in wood. The ancient wooden cuts were
     certainly carried to a great heighth, but that was the merit of the
     masters, not of the method.

[8] Austin Dobson, _Thomas Bewick and his pupils_, Boston, 1884, pp. 1,

[9] Horace Walpole, _Anecdotes of painting in England. A catalogue of
engravers who have been born, or resided in England. Digested from the
manuscript of Mr. George Vertue_ ... London, 1782 (1st ed. 1762), p. 4.

Woodcut and Wood Engraving

It is necessary, before continuing, to distinguish clearly between the
woodcut and the wood engraving, not only because early writers used
these terms interchangeably, but also to determine exactly what Bewick
contributed technically. The woodcut began with a drawing in pen-and-ink
on the plank surface of a smooth-grained wood such as pear,
serviceberry, or box. The woodcutter, using knife, gouges, and chisels,
then lowered the wood surrounding the lines to allow the original
drawing, unaltered, to be isolated in relief (see fig. 1). Thus the
block, when inked and printed, produced facsimile impressions of the
drawing in black lines on white paper. Usually an accomplished artist
made the drawing, whereas only a skilled craftsman was needed to do the
cutting; very few cutters were also capable of making their own

The wood engraving, on the other hand, started with a section of dense
wood of a uniform texture, usually box or maple, and with the end-grain
rather than the plank as surface. For larger engravings a number of
sections were mortised together. The drawing was made on the block, not
in pen-and-ink although this could be done (certain types of wood
engraving reproduced pen drawings) but in gray washes with a full range
of tones. The engraver, using a burin similar to that employed in copper
plate work, then ploughed out wood in delicate ribbons (see fig. 2).
Since the surface was to receive ink, the procedure moved from black to
white: the more lines taken away, the lighter the tones would appear,
and, conversely, where fewest or finest lines were removed the tones
would be the darkest. In the finished print the unworked surface printed
black while each of the engraved lines showed as white. It was the
"white line" that gave wood engraving its special quality. On the
smoother end-grain it could be manipulated with extreme fineness, an
impossibility with the plank side, which would tear slightly or
"feather" when the burin was moved across the grain. Tones and textures
approaching the scale of copper plate engraving could be created,
except, of course, that the lines were white and the impressions not so
brilliant. But since grays were achieved by the visual synthesis of
black ink and white paper, it mattered little whether the engraved lines
were black or white so long as the desired tones could be produced.

[Illustration: Figure 3.--Late 15th-Century White-Line Engraving "The
crowning of the Virgin," in the "dotted manner" executed on metal for
relief printing. Parts were hand colored.]

For purposes of realism, this was an enormous improvement over the old
black-line woodcut. Natural tones and textures could be imitated. The
engraver was no longer a mere mechanical craftsman cutting around
existing lines; special skill was needed to translate tones in terms of
white lines of varying thickness and spacing. The opportunity also
existed for each engraver to work his own tones in his own manner, to
develop a personal system. In short, the medium served the same purpose
as copper plate line engraving, with the added virtue that it could be
printed together with type in one impression. If it failed artistically
to measure up to line engraving or to plank woodcut, this was not the
fault of the process but of the popular reproductive ends which it
almost invariably served.

Actually, white-line engraving for relief printing dates from the 15th
century. The most conspicuous early examples are the so-called "dotted
prints" or "gravures en manière criblée," in which the designs were
brought out by dots punched in the plates, and by occasional engraved
lines (see fig. 3). Until Koehler's[10] study made this fact plain,
19th-century critics could hardly believe that these were merely
white-line metal relief prints, inked on the surface like woodcuts. But
a number of other examples of the same period exist which were also made
directly on copper or type metal--the method, although rudimentary,
being similar in intent to 19th-century wood engraving. One of these
examples (fig. 4), in the collection of the U. S. National Museum, is
typical. This was not simply an ordinary line engraving printed in
relief rather than in the usual way; the management of the lights shows
that it was planned as a white-line engraving. The reason for this
treatment, obviously, was to permit the picture and the type to be
printed in one operation.

The well-known wood engravings of soldiers with standards, executed by
Urs Graf in the early 1500's, are probably the only white-line prints in
this medium by an accomplished artist until the 18th century. But these
are mainly in outline, with little attempt to achieve tones. No
advantage was gained by having the lines white rather than black other
than an engaging roughness in spots: the prints were simply whimsical
excursions by an inventive artist.

[10] Sylvester R. Koehler, "White-line engraving for relief-printing in
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries," in _Annual report of the ...
Smithsonian Institution ... for the year ending June 30, 1890, report of
the U. S. National Museum_, Washington, 1892, pp. 385-389.

[Illustration: Figure 4.--White-Line Engraving on Metal for Relief
Printing, "The Franciscan, Pelbart of Temesvar, Studying in a Garden,"
from "_Pomerium quadragesimale, fratris Pelbarti ordinis sancti
Francisci_," Augsburg, 1502.]

Relief engraving on type metal and end-grain wood really got under way
as a consistent process in England at the beginning of the 18th century.
Chatto[11] gives this date as conjecture, without actual evidence, but a
first-hand account can be found in the rare and little-known book,
published in 1752, in which the combination of anonymous authorship and
a misleading title obscured the fact that it is a digest of John Baptist
Jackson's manuscript journal. This eminent woodcutter, who was born
about 1700 and worked in England during the early years of the century,
must be considered an important and reliable witness. The unknown editor
paraphrases Jackson on the subject of engraving for relief purposes:[12]

     ... I shall give a brief Account of the State of Cutting on Wood in
     _England_ for the Type Press before he [Jackson] went to _France_
     in 1725. In the beginning of this Century a remarkable Blow was
     given to all Cutters on Wood, by an Invention of engraving on the
     same sort of Metal which Types are cast with. The celebrated Mr.
     _Kirkhal_, an able Engraver on Copper, is said to be the first who
     performed a Relievo Work to answer the use of Cutting on Wood. This
     could be dispatched much sooner, and consequently answered the
     purpose of Booksellers and Printers, who purchased those sort of
     Works at a much chaper [sic] Rate than could be expected from an
     Engraver on Wood; it required much more Time to execute with
     accuracy any piece of Work of the same Measure with those carved on
     Metal. This performance was very much in Vogue, and continued down
     to this Day, to serve for Initials, Fregii and Finali; it is called
     a clear Impression, but often gray and hazy, far from coming up to
     that clear black Impression produced with cutting on the side of a
     piece of Box-wood or Pear-tree. Much about the same time there
     started another Method of Engraving on the end ways of Wood itself,
     which was cut to the height of the Letters to accompany them in the
     Press, and engraved in the same Manner as the Metal Performance;
     this Method was also encouraged, and is the only way of Engraving
     on Wood at present used in the English Printing-houses. These
     performances are to be seen in Magazines, News Papers, &c. and are
     the Remains of the ancient Manner of Cutting on Wood, and is the
     reason why the Curious concluded it was intirely lost.

[11] Chatto, _op. cit._ (footnote 6), p. 446.

[12] _An enquiry into the origins of printing in Europe, by a lover of
art_, London, 1752, pp. 25, 26.

This is important evidence that end-grain wood engraving was not only
known in England in the early 18th century but was actually the
prevailing style. In that country, where a woodcut tradition did not
exist, the new method gained its first foothold. But it was not yet
conceived in terms of white lines; it was merely a cheaper substitute
for cutting with the knife on the plank. In European countries with long
art and printing traditions, this substitute method was considered
beneath contempt. Jackson[13] describes the aversion of French
woodcutters for the newer and cheaper process:

     From this Account it is evident that there was little encouragement
     to be hoped for in _England_ to a Person whose Genius led him to
     prosecute his Studies in the ancient Manner; which obliged Mr.
     _Jackson_ to go over to the Continent, and see what was used in the
     Parisian Printing-houses. At his arrival there he found the
     _French_ engravers on Wood all working in the old Manner; no Metal
     engravers, or any of the same performance on the end of the Wood,
     was ever used or countenanced by the Printers or Booksellers in
     that City.

[Illustration: Figure 5.--Example of the Woodcut Style that Created
Facsimile Drawings. Woodcut (actual size) by Hans Lutzelburger, after a
drawing by Holbein for his "Dance of Death," 1538.]

There were good reasons for the lack of development of a white-line
style, even in England with its lower standards in printing and
illustrative techniques. On the coarse paper of the period fine white
lines could not be adapted to relief (typographical) presswork; they
would be lost in printing because the ribbed paper received ink
unevenly. Even the simple black lines of the traditional woodcut
usually printed spottily when combined with type. The white lines, then,
had to be broadly separated. This did not permit the engraving of
delicate tones. If this could not be achieved, the effect was similar to
woodcutting but with less crispness and accuracy in the drawing. A good
woodcut in the old manner could do everything the wood engraving could
do, before Bewick, with the added virtue that the black line was
comparatively clear and unequivocal, as can be seen in figure 5.

[13] _Ibid._, p. 27.

[Illustration: Figure 6.--Woodcut Tailpiece by J. M. Papillon, from
_Traité historique et pratique de la gravure en bois_, 1766. The cutting
was done so minutely that some details were lost in printing. (Actual

The woodcut, in the hands of a remarkable cutter, could produce miracles
of delicacy. It could, in fact, have black lines so fine and so closely
spaced as to take on the character of line engraving. It did not, of
course, have the range of tones or the delicacy of modeling possible in
the copper plate medium, where every little trench cut by the burin
would hold ink BELOW the wiped-off surface, to be transferred to
dampened paper under the heavy pressure of the cylinder press. In
addition, the roughness of early paper, which was serious for the
woodcut, created no difficulties for the line engraver or for other
workers in the intaglio or gravure media.

But the influence of copper plate work was strong, and some skillful but
misguided woodcut craftsmen tried to obtain some degree of its richness.
French artists from about 1720, notably Jean M. Papillon, produced cuts
so delicate that their printing became a problem (see fig. 6). Jackson,
who had worked with the French artist in Paris, condemned his efforts to
turn the woodcut into a tonal medium through the creation of numerous
delicate lines because such effects were impossible to print.
Jackson[14] is quoted in the _Enquiry_:

     In 1728 Mr. _Pappillon_ began his small _Paris_ Almanack, wherein
     is placed Cuts (done on Wood) allusive to each Month, with the
     Signs of the Zodiack, in such a Minute Stile, that he seems to
     forget in that Work the Impossibility of printing it in a Press
     with any Clearness ... But alas! His father and M. _le Seur_ [also
     woodcutters] had examined Impression and its Process, and saw how
     careful the Ancients were to keep a proper Distance between their
     Lines and hatched Works, so as to produce a clean Impression ... I
     saw the Almanack in a horrid Condition before I left _Paris_, the
     Signs of the Zodiack wore like a Blotch, notwithstanding the utmost
     Care and Diligence the Printer used to take up very little Ink to
     keep them clean.

It is clear that too thin a strip of white between black lines was not
suitable for printing in the first half of the 18th century. But when
Bewick's cuts after 1790 are examined we can see many white lines
thinner than a hair. Obviously something had happened to permit him a
flexibility not granted to earlier workers on wood. Bewick's whole craft
depended upon his ability to control white lines of varying thickness.
Why was he able to do this, and why could it be done without trouble by
others after him?

Early paper, as already mentioned, had a ribbed grain because it was
made on a hand mould in which wires were closely laid in one direction,
but with enough space between to allow the water in the paper pulp to
drain through. Crossing wires, set some distance apart, held them
together. Each wire, however, made a slight impression in the finished
paper, the result being a surface with minute ripples. The surface of
this laid paper presented irregularities even after the glazing
operation, done with hammers before about 1720 and with wooden rollers
up to about 1825.[15]

In 1756 James Whatman began to manufacture a new, smooth paper to
replace the laid variety that had been used since the importation of
paper into Europe in the 12th century. Whether Whatman or the renowned
printer John Baskerville was the guiding spirit in this development is
uncertain.[16] Baskerville, who had been experimenting with type faces
of a lighter and more delicate design, had been dissatisfied with the
uneven surface of laid paper. Possibly he saw examples of the Chinese
wallpaper on wove stock, made from a cloth mesh, which was a staple of
the trade with the Orient. Hunter[17] describes the new mould:

     The wove covering was made of fine brass screening and received its
     name because it was woven on a loom in about the same manner as
     cloth. It left in the paper an indistinct impression resembling a
     fabric. Baskerville had been in the japanning and metal-working
     trades before becoming a printer, so that he was naturally familiar
     with this material, metal screening having been used in England for
     other purposes before it was put to use as a material upon which to
     mould sheets of paper.

The first book printed in Europe on wove paper unquestionably was the
Latin edition of Virgil produced by Baskerville in 1757. This was,
however, partly on laid also. The actual paper was made in James
Whatman's mill in Maidstone, Kent, on the banks of the river Len, where
paper had been made since the 17th century. Whatman, who became sole
owner of the mill in 1740, specialized in fine white paper of the
highest quality. But while the book attracted considerable attention it
did not immediately divert the demand for laid paper, since it was
looked on more as an oddity than as a serious achievement. Baskerville
was strictly an artist: he took unlimited time and pains, he had no
regard for the prevailing market, and he produced sporadically; also, he
was harshly criticized and even derided for his strange formats.[18]
With such a reputation for impracticality the printer's influence was
negligible during his lifetime although, of course, it was widely felt

[14] Jackson, _op. cit._ (footnote 12), p. 29.

[15] Dard Hunter, _Papermaking through eighteen centuries_, New York,
1930, pp. 148, 152.

[16] A. T. Hazen, "Baskerville and James Whatman," _Studies in
Bibliography, Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia_,
vol. 5, 1952-53. For a brilliant study of the Whatman mill, where
practically all wove paper up to the 1780's was manufactured, see Thomas
Balston's _James Whatman, father and son_, London, 1957.

[17] Hunter, _op. cit._ (footnote 15), p. 215.

[18] R. Straus and R. K. Dent, _John Baskerville_, Cambridge, 1907. On
page 19 the authors include a letter to Baskerville from Benjamin
Franklin, written in 1760 in a jocular tone, which notes that he
overheard a friend saying that Baskerville's types would be "the means
of blinding all the Readers in the Nation owing to the thin and narrow
strokes of the letters."

About 1777 the French became acquainted with wove paper, which Franklin
brought to Paris for exhibition. In 1779, according to Hunter,[19] M.
Didot the famous printer, "having seen the _papier vélin_ that
Baskerville used, addressed a letter to M. Johannot of Annonay, a
skilled papermaker, asking him to endeavour to duplicate the smooth and
even surface of this new paper. Johannot was successful in his
experiments, and for his work in this field he was in 1781 awarded a
gold medal by Louis XVI."

[19] Hunter, _op. cit._ (footnote 15), p. 219.

[Illustration: Figure 7.--Wood Engraving by Thomas Bewick, "The Man and
the Flea," for _Fables, by the late Mr. Gay_, 1779. (Actual size.) Note
how the closely worked lines of the sky and water have blurred in
printing on laid paper. The pale vertical streak is caused by the laid

Wove paper was so slow to come into use that Jenkins gives the date 1788
for its first appearance in book printing.[20] While he missed a few
examples, notably by Baskerville, it is certain that few books with wove
paper were published before 1790. But after that date its manufacture
increased with such rapidity that by 1805 it had supplanted laid paper
for many printing purposes.

The reasons for this gap between the introduction and the acceptance of
the new paper are not clear; the inertia of tradition as well as the
probable higher cost no doubt played a part, and we may assume that
early wove paper had imperfections and other drawbacks serious enough to
cause printers to prefer the older material.

Bewick's early work was printed on laid paper. Up to 1784 he had worked
in a desultory fashion on wood, much of his time being occupied with
seal cutting because there was still no real demand for wood engraving.
In Gay's _Fables_, published in 1779, the cuts printed so poorly on the
laid paper (see fig. 7) that Dobson[21] was moved to say:

     Generally speaking, the printing of all these cuts, even in the
     earlier editions (and it is absolutely useless to consult any
     others), is weak and unskillful. The fine work of the backgrounds
     is seldom made out, and the whole impression is blurred and

[Illustration: Figure 8.--"The Spanish Pointer", illustration (actual
size) by Thomas Bewick, from _A general history of quadrupeds_, 1790, in
the collections of the Library of Congress.]

[20] Rhys Jenkins, "Early papermaking in England, 1495-1788," _Library
Association Record_, London, 1900-1902, vol. 2, nos. 9 and 11; vol. 3,
no. 5; vol. 4, nos. 3 and 4.

[21] Dobson, _op. cit._ (footnote 8), p. 56.

Even in the _Select fables of Aesop and others_ of 1784, when Bewick's
special gifts began to emerge, the cuts on laid paper appeared weak in
comparison with his later work. Bewick was still using wood engraving as
a cheaper, more quickly executed substitute for the woodcut. The designs
were based upon Croxall's edition of _Aesop's Fables_, published in
1722, which was probably the best and most popular illustrated book
published in England during the century up to Bewick's time. According
to Chatto, the cuts were made with the burin on end-grain wood, probably
by Kirkall,[22] but Bewick believed they were engraved on type
metal.[23] It was not easy to tell the difference. Type metal usually
made grayer impressions than wood and sometimes, but not always,
nail-head marks appeared where the metal was fastened to the wood base.
The Croxall cuts, in turn, were adapted with little change from
17th-century sources--etchings by Francis Barlow and line engravings by
Sebastian Le Clerc. Bewick's cuts repeated the earlier designs but
changed the locale to the English countryside of the late 18th century.
This was to be expected; to have a contemporary meaning the actors of
the old morality play had to appear in modern dress and with up-to-date
scenery. But technically the cuts followed the pattern of Croxall's wood
engraver, although with a slightly greater range of tone. Artistically
Bewick's interpretation was inferior because it was more literal; it
lacked the grander feeling of the earlier work.

Bewick really became the prophet of a new pictorial style in his _A
general history of quadrupeds_, published in 1790 on wove paper (see
figs. 8, 9, and 10). Here his animals and little vignetted tailpieces of
observations in the country announced an original subject for
illustration and a fresh treatment of wood engraving, although some
designs were still copied from earlier models. The white line begins to
function with greater elasticity; tones and details beyond anything
known previously in the medium appear with the force of innovation. The
paper was still somewhat coarse and the cuts were often gray and muddy.
But the audacity of the artist in venturing tonal subtleties was
immediately apparent.

[22] Chatto, _op. cit._ (footnote 6), p. 448.

[23] Thomas Bewick, _Fables of Aesop and others_, Newcastle, 1818.

One of Bewick's old friends at Newcastle had been William Bulmer, who by
the 1790's had become a famous printer. In 1795 he published an edition
of _Poems by Goldsmith and Parnell_, which was preceded by an
Advertisement announcing his intentions:

     The present volume ... [is] particularly meant to combine the
     various beauties of PRINTING, TYPE-FOUNDING, ENGRAVING, and
     PAPER-MAKING.... The ornaments are all engraved on blocks of wood,
     by two of my earliest acquaintances, Messrs. Bewick [Thomas and his
     brother and apprentice John], of Newcastle upon Tyne and London,
     after designs made from the most interesting passages of the Poems
     they embellish. They have been executed with great care, and I may
     venture to say, without being supposed to be influenced by ancient
     friendship, that they form the most extraordinary effort of the art
     of engraving upon wood that ever was produced in any age, or any
     country. Indeed it seems almost impossible that such delicate
     effects could be obtained from blocks of wood. Of the Paper, it is
     only necessary to say that it comes from the manufactory of Mr.

The following year, 1796, a companion volume, _The Chase, a Poem_, by
William Somervile, appeared with cuts by Bewick after drawings by his
brother John (see fig. 11). In both books, although no acknowledgment
was given, there was considerable assistance from pupils Robert and
John Johnson and Charlton Nesbit, as well as from an artist associate
Richard Westall.[24] Bulmer was quite conscious that a new era in
printing and illustration had begun. Updike[25] notes Bulmer's
recognition of the achievements of both Baskerville and Bewick in giving
the art of printing a new basis:

     To understand the causes of the revival of English printing which
     marked the last years of the century, we must remember that by 1775
     Baskerville was dead.... There seems to have been a temporary lull
     in English fine printing and the kind of type-founding that
     contributed to it. The wood-engraving of Thomas Bewick, produced
     about 1780, called, nevertheless, for more brilliant and delicate
     letter-press than either Caslon's or Wilson's types could supply.
     If Baskerville's fonts had been available, no doubt they would have
     served.... So the next experiments in typography were made by a
     little coterie composed of the Boydells, the Nicols, the Bewicks
     (Thomas and John), and Bulmer.

[Illustration: Figure 9.--Tailpiece by Thomas Bewick (actual size), from
_A general history of quadrupeds_, 1790, in the collections of the
Library of Congress.]

When the cuts in this book are compared with earlier impressions from
wood blocks, the difference is quickly seen. The blocks are more highly
wrought, yet every line is crisp and clear and the impressions are black
and brilliant. When we realize that the only new technological factor of
any consequence was the use of good smooth wove paper, we can appreciate
its significance.

There were no other developments of note in the practice of printing
during the 18th century. The old wooden hand press, unimproved except
for minor devices, was still in universal use. Ink was little improved;
paper was handmade; type was made from hand moulds. The ink was still
applied by dabbing with inking balls of wool-stuffed leather nailed to
wooden forms. The leather was still kept soft by removing it and soaking
it in urine, after which it was trampled for some time to complete the
unsavory operation. Paper still had to be dampened overnight before
printing, and freshly inked sheets were still hung to dry over cords
stretched across the room.

[24] D. C. Thomson, _The life and works of Thomas Bewick_, London, 1882,
p. 152.

[25] D. B. Updike, _Printing types, their history, forms and use_,
Cambridge and London, 1922, vol. 2, pp. 122, 123.

But with a more sympathetic surface for receiving ink from relief
blocks, a new avenue for wood engraving was now open. In the following
year, 1797, the first volume of Bewick's finest and best-known work was
published. This was the _History of British birds_, for which he and his
pupils did the cuts while Ralph Beilby, his partner and former master,
provided the descriptions (see figs. 12, 13, and 14.) It achieved an
immense and instantaneous popularity that carried the artist's name over
the British Isles. The attractiveness of the subject, the freshness of
the medium--which could render the softness of feathers and could be
interspersed with text--the powerful and decorative little tail pieces,
and the comparative inexpensiveness of the volumes, brought the _Birds_
into homes everywhere.

[Illustration: Figure 10.--Tailpiece by Thomas Bewick (actual size),
from _A general history of quadrupeds_, 1790, in the collections of the
Library of Congress.]

Actually, wood engraving was not immediately adopted on a wide scale.
Having done without it for so long, printers and publishers made no
concerted rush to avail themselves of the new type of cuts. Bewick's
pupils found little of this kind of work to do before about 1830. Luke
Clennell dropped engraving for painting; William Harvey restricted
himself to drawing and designing; Charlton Nesbit and John Jackson
remained engravers, as did a host of lesser individuals. Dobson

     The pupils who quitted him to seek their fortunes in London either
     made their way with difficulty, or turned to other pursuits, and
     the real popularization of wood-engraving did not take place until
     some years after his death.

One reason for delay in adopting the new technique may have been the
danger of the block splitting, or of the sections of wood coming apart
at the mortise-joints during the printing operation. If this happened,
work had to be suspended until a new block was engraved, or until the
sections were reglued. For periodicals with deadlines, this was a
serious hazard.

Wood Engraving and the Stereotype

In any event, wood engraving did not really flourish until a practical
stereotyping process was perfected. By this procedure substitute blocks
of type metal could replace the wood engravings in the press, and the
danger of splitting the block was eliminated. The first steps of any
importance toward a practical process were made by the Earl of Stanhope
around 1800, but not until Claude Genoux in France, between 1828 and
1829, developed the papier mâché or wet mat process could acceptable
stereotypes of entire pages be produced.[27] By this method, patented on
July 24, 1829, and others that followed, a number of duplicate plates of
each page could be made as required for rapid printing on a battery of
presses. Wood engraving now emerged as a practical method of
illustration for popular publications. The _Penny Magazine_ and the
_Saturday Magazine_, founded in 1832, immediately made use of Genoux's
stereotyping process. Dobson[28] describes the effect of these

     "The art of wood engraving received an astonishing impact from
     these publications. The engraver, instead of working merely with
     his own hands, has been obliged to take five or six pupils to get
     through the work." (Mr. Cowper's evidence before the Select
     Committee on Arts and Manufactures, 1835). It is difficult nowadays
     [1884] to understand what a revelation these two periodicals, with
     their representations of far countries and foreign animals, of
     masterpieces of painting and sculpture, were to middle-class
     households fifty years ago.

[26] Dobson, _op. cit._ (footnote 8), p. 174.

[27] George Kubler, _A history of stereotyping_, New York, 1941, p. 75.

[28] Dobson, _op. cit._ (footnote 8), p. 173.

[Illustration: Figure 11.--Tailpiece by Thomas Bewick (actual size),
engraved after a drawing by John Bewick, from _The Chase_, by William
Somervile, 1796. (_Photo courtesy the Library of Congress._)]

We will not pursue Bewick's career further. With habits of hard work
deeply ingrained, he kept at his bench until his death in 1828,
engraving an awesome quantity of cuts. But he never surpassed his work
on the _Birds_, although his reputation grew in proportion to the spread
of wood engraving throughout the world.

The medium became more and more detailed, and eventually rivaled
photography in its minute variations of tone (see figs. 15 and 16). But
printing wood engravings never was a problem again. Not only was wove
paper always used in this connection, but it had become much cheaper
through the invention of a machine for producing it in lengths. Nicholas
Louis Robert, in France, had developed and exhibited such an apparatus
in 1797, at the instigation of M. Didot. John Gamble in England, working
with Henry and Charles Fourdrinier, engaged a fine mechanic, Bryan
Donkin, to build a machine on improved principles. The first
comparatively successful one was completed in 1803. It was periodically
improved, and wove paper appeared in increasing quantities. Spicer[29]
says: "Naturally these improvements and economies in the manufacture of
paper were accompanied by a corresponding increase in output. Where, in
1806, a machine was capable of making 6 cwt. in twelve hours, in 1813 it
could turn out double that quantity in the same time at one quarter the

[29] A. D. Spicer, _The paper trade_, London, 1907, p. 63.

[Illustration: Figure 12.--Wood Engraving by W. J. Linton, 1878 (Actual
Size). The detail opposite is enlarged four times to show white


[Illustration: Figure 13.--"Pintail Duck" by Thomas Bewick (actual
size), from _History of British birds_, vol. 2, 1804. The detail
opposite is enlarged three times.]

At about the same time the all-iron Stanhope press began to be
manufactured in quantity, and shortly the new inking roller invented by
the indispensable Earl came into use to supplant the old inking balls.
Later in the century (there is no need to go into specific detail here)
calendered and coated papers were introduced, and wood engraving on
these glossy papers became a medium that could reproduce wash drawings,
crayon drawings, pencil drawings, and oil paintings so faithfully that
all the original textures were apparent.[30] The engraver, concerned
entirely with accurate reproduction, became little more than a mechanic
who rendered pictures drawn on the blocks by an artist. In time,
photographic processes came to be used for transferring pictures to the
blocks and eventually, of course, photomechanical halftones replaced the
wood engraver altogether.

[Illustration: Figure 14.--Title-Page Illustration by Thomas Bewick,
from _History of British birds_, vol. 1, 1797. (Actual size.)]

[30] The electrotyping process, which came into prominence in 1839
through the experiments of Professor Jacobi in St. Petersburg and Jordan
and Spencer in England, had made it possible to produce substitute
plates of the highest fidelity. For fine work, these were much superior
to stereotyping.

Bewick was an artist, not a reproductive craftsman. His blocks were
conceived as original engravings, not as imitations of tones and
textures created in another medium. If wood engraving advanced in the
direction of commercialism to fill an overwhelming mass need, it was
only because he had given it a technical basis. But it had greater
artistic potentialities, as proved by Blake, Calvert, and Lepére, among
others, and has found new life in the engravers of the 20th-century

The reasons for Bewick's remarkable effectiveness can now be summed up.
He succeeded, first, because he was the natural inheritor of a
specifically English graphic arts process, burin-engraving on the end
grain of wood. This had been practiced almost solely in England, which
lacked a woodcut tradition, for about 75 years before the date he
finished his apprenticeship. We know from Jackson's contemporary account
that end-grain wood engraving was standard practice in England from
about 1700. Bewick merely continued and refined a medium that came down
to him as a national tradition.

Secondly, his country isolation and lack of academic training saved him
from the inanity of repeating the old decorative devices--trophies,
cartouches, classical figures, Roman ruins, and other international
conventions that had lost their significance by the 1780's, although a
spurious classicism was still kept alive for genteel consumption and the
romantic picturesque still persisted in interior decoration.


Thirdly, he looked at life and nature with a fresh eye, without
preconceptions. While his lack of larger vision held him down as an
artist, it contributed to his feeling for natural textures and
story-telling detail. His approach to illustration, therefore, was the
spontaneous expression of an observant but unimaginative nature, coated
with a bitter-sweet sentiment. It was this quality, so homely and common
and yet so charged with integrity, that delivered the shock of
recognition to a mass audience.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly in the long run, he was fortunate
enough to live at a time when a necessary prerequisite for the physical
appearance of his work, wove paper, was coming into use. Without it he
would soon have had to simplify his line system, returning to older and
less detailed methods, or his work would have remained unprintable. It
was the new paper that allowed him to extract unprecedented subtleties
from the wood block, that made his cuts print clearly and evenly, and
that encouraged the expansion of the wood engraving process. These
factors, taken together, make up the phenomenon of Thomas Bewick.

[Illustration: Figure 15.--Tailpiece by Thomas Bewick, from _History of
British birds_, vol. 2, 1804. (Actual size.)]


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