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Wood Engraving

It is only in English that a distinction is commonly made between wood engraving and woodcut. In French the cumbersome phrase gravure sur bois au canif exists but usually gravure sur bois or even just bois, as with the German Holzshnitt, is used for both woodcuts and wood engravings. Appropriately original wood engraving is also a quintessentially English art.

The wood engraver’s principal tool is a burin, a sharpened steel rod with a triangular or lozenge shaped section secured in a wooden handle, similar to a copper line-engraver’s burin. Variations in section and purpose rejoice in such names as scorpers, spitstickers, bullstickers and tint tools. The burin can achieve very fine detail, but only on a hard, dense surface of wood, such as box, which has been cut across the grain (known as end-grain). Because box is very slow growing only small blocks are available, this has led to wood engravings often being on an intimate scale. For larger images several blocks are joined together by tongue and groove. For ease of manipulation the engraver often works with the block resting on a small leather cushion filled with sand and known as a sandbag (see image to the right of a wood engraver at work).

Wood engraving reverses the procedure of woodcut. The design is incised into the woodblock leaving the unengraved surface in relief to receive the ink, so that the design prints ‘white’ against a black ground. As in the intaglio technique of mezzotint, the wood engraver works from darkness towards light. Although the first treatise on wood engraving was published in 1776 in France by J M Papillon, it was the Newcastle engraver, Thomas Bewick, who revealed its potential and developed and perfected the technique. Through Bewick’s apprentices, such as Luke Clennell, the fashion spread to London, and was adapted to the reproduction of journalistic drawings. By Victorian times, throughout Europe, thousands were employed as ‘woodpeckers’ to cut woodblock illustrations for newspapers, periodicals and books.

Whereas Bewick had engraved his own designs into his blocks, Victorian wood engraving was used for reproductive purposes; technically skilful but often soulless. Photo-engraving techniques developed in the 1860’s ended this commercial exploitation and wood engraving was rediscovered by artists as an original medium for printmaking.

As an exception to the reproductive rule and subsequently of seminal influence were the original wood engravings made by William Blake to illustrate Dr Thornton’s school edition of  “The Pastorals of Virgil”, 1821 (see illustration immediately below). The publisher thought Blake’s images so crude they were almost abandoned; it was the enthusiastic support of fellow artists that prompted their use. And artists and print collectors have been fervent admirers since.

William Blake (1757–1827): Colinet departs in Sorrow. Wood engraving, 1821, for Thornton’s “Pastorals of Virgil”.

“Colinet departs in Sorrow”. One of William Blake’s miniature wood engravings, measuring only 35 x 75 mm, to illustrate ‘The Pastorals of Virgil’, 1821.
Edward Calvert (one of The Ancients – followers of Blake) wrote of Blake’s
wood engravings -‘They are done as if by a child, several of them careless
and incorrect, yet there is a spirit in them, humble enough and of force
enough to move simple souls to tears.’

From the 1890’s the artists of the Private Press movement, Charles Ricketts, Lucien Pissarro, Gordon Craig and slightly later Eric Gill, Robert Gibbings, &c. took wood engraving into new realms. Noel Rooke began to give lessons in the technique at the Central School of Art from 1912 and inspired and trained a whole generation, who produced both independent prints as well as images for book illustration. The popularity of the medium was confirmed in 1920 with the founding of The Society of Wood Engravers (SWE.).

Wood engraving has attracted a larger number of women artists than any other of the printmaking techniques, of whom several, such as Claire Leighton, Gwen Raverat and Gertrude Hermes, are pre-eminent in the medium.

Agnes Miller Parker (1895–1980): The Challenge. Wood engraving, 1934. (143 x 164 mm) Agnes Miller Parker (1895–1980):
" The Challenge".
Wood engraving,
(143 x 164 mm).



Hilary Paynter (born 1943):

Hilary Paynter (born 1943):
“Self-Portrait engraving”.

Wood engraving, 1976. (80 x 50 mm)

The block on which the artist is working is supported on a leather sandbag. Various burins can be seen and the old cigar box that the artist fitted out to house her tools. The boxwood block in the foreground, partially engraved on its upper surface, clearly shows the ‘end grain’ along its sides.


A mid-19th century box of wood engraving tools

A mid-19th century box of wood engraving tools. Two burins from the box show how the wooden handles are angled for ease of use.


"The Crucifixion and Chalice", by David Jones.

Above: A box wood block
(76 x 35 x 20 mm)
engraved c1925 with
"The Crucifixion and Chalice", by David Jones


See also :

RELIEF PRINTING - An Introduction


Hand-coloured Woodcut
Chiaroscuro Woodcut
Modern Colour Woodcut
Colour Linocut
Colour Wood Engraving

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