Welcome back this week we sail into the heart of map and print making, and discuss early wood engraving techniques. For many years newspapers around the world employed thousands of artists and wood engravers to create pictorial and illustrated papers. According to our resident historian, Bill Hall, there were more than 5000 wood engravers at work in New York City during its heyday. Many early artists, such as Winslow Homer and Frederick Remington began their careers as artists and wood engravers. Homer and Remington of course were prominent artists for the famous Harper’s Weekly, and what is really neat about this is yes we can afford original Homer and Remington wood engravings, like the famous Homer Sharpshooter below that was recently mentioned in the Wall Street Journal!
Frank Leslie an early pioneer of newspaper making stated in 1856, “A pictorial paper gives you literally nothing but pictures. He continued, “An illustrated paper, on the contrary, not only furnishes its weekly gallery of art, but gives the current news, thus bringing the genius of the pencil and the pen promptly to the illustrate the recorded event.” The header on this blog is a great example of this, the bombardment of the Rebel Fort Jackson in 1862 is also from Harpers Weekly. (Frank Leslie probably wouldn’t like his name in the same paragraph as Harpers, ha, ha:-).See our Fabulous Civil War Collection!
The first known woodcut was an image of Buddha from a Chinese manuscript dating to 868 AD, and this demonstrates their tremendous importance as an early communications media. My job at Prints Old and Rare often involves determining if a map or print is copper, steel or wood engraving and/or a lithograph. Many early maps reflect fine copper and steel engraving techniques, but the plates, especially copper wore out too quickly, enter the now lost art of interpretive wood engraving. What is interesting is about wood engraving is its done by cutting lines into the wood going cross grain mostly into boxwood from Turkey, Italy or France. Pear and apple wood were used in many early wood engravings, however, boxwood proved to be the hardest and easiest to use and was often assembled from smaller pieces and then bolted together.
When you look closely at wood engravings you can see the lines, (as in the F. Simeon’s L’ aimable Ingenue, above and in Singer Sargent’s Woodrow Wilson below) in the fifteenth century a knife called a “formschneider” was used by wood engravers. As wood engraving evolved and reached its artistic height in the sixteenth century, so did engraving tools. Early book illustrations in Spain, France, Germany and Italy used collections of copper and woodcuts and reflect the styles of the time, such as Baroque, Gothic, French Romance and the Italian pseudo-classical style. According to William Brandt, the author of Interpretive Wood Engraving, the work of nineteenth century Americans was acknowledged as the best in the world.
According to Brandt, the history of the repeatable image began in the early fifteenth century with the advent of relief printing of woodcuts, and allowed an image to be printed many times alongside movable print. Members of the Society of American Wood-Engravers and important artists of the time as we mentioned, published engravings that appeared in Harpers, Frank Leslie’s Newspaper and The Century Magazine. Creating wood prints often involved employing a pressman to create multiple overlays, and the precision of which the overlays were cut and attached made all the difference in the illustration. The image below from Brandt’s book clearly illustrates this.
When it comes to newspaper images, Kathleen and Bill are indeed the experts and I took the liberty of taking Kathleen’s quote from Brandt’s book about Winslow Homer’s engravings: Is a press run of as many as 100,000 copies of sufficient rarity to merit serious consideration for collecting? The answer is definitely affirmative. The critical point here is not how many copies were printed, but how many have survived. Educated guesses on the number of sets of any such journals now extant indicated fewer than one thousand available.
Above is an early engraving inset from an early San Francisco map showing Montgomery street as a port before the bay began to be filled. Inset engravings like this and many shown on the famous Tallis and Rapkin maps that I love were often difficult to do.
Above a fine colored engraving from the famous Picturesque America book that was very popular in its time. Below is a signed letter from Acme Wood Engravers and Electrotypers, Clay Street, San Francisco, August 13, 1891, their specialties, theatrical posters and show bills! Check out our Picturesque America Page!
As with any voyage there comes an end, and what is wonderful to know is that many of us can easily afford the works of the great artists through this medium such as the Mueller’s whimsical interpretation of George Brown’s “I’m Perfectly Happy” below, or Gertrude Hermes’ mesmerizing Fighting Dogs.
We hope you have enjoyed the discussion about wood engraving, it is indeed much more complicated than it seems but incredibly important for many years. Recommended reading this week Interpretive Wood Engraving, William Brandt, Oak Knoll Press, Newcastle Delaware, 2009, an outstanding book on the subject, and A History of Wood Engraving, Douglas Percy Bliss, 1964, Spring Books, London.