The Art of the Woodcut: Masterworks from the 1920s

The Art of the Woodcut: Masterworks from the 1920s


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This survey of woodcut illustration as practiced in the 1920s abounds in outstanding works by artists from around the world. Nearly 200 illustrations — rendered in two-color images as well as in an eight-page full-color insert — include landscapes and street scenes, portraits, and book illustrations by Rockwell Kent, Rudolph Ruzicka, William Zorach, Eric Gill, and other artists.
Organized by country, the book reviews the work of artists from several European nations, as well as Japan and the United States. An informative narrative offers artistic and historical perspectives on the naturalistic themes that dominated woodcut illustrations of the early twentieth century. In addition to pictures from books by Thackeray, Shakespeare, and Hardy, these woodcuts include depictions of people, animals, and landscapes, such as a country church, saints, peasants at work, ships in a harbor, a Spanish courtyard, and other striking images.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486473598
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/21/2010
Series: Dover Fine Art, History of Art Series
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 968,012
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Art of the Woodcut

Masterworks from the 1920s

By Malcolm C. Salaman

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 David A. Beronä
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15422-0



THE present volume is intended to supplement the survey I was privileged to make eight years ago in a Special STUDIO publication dealing with "Modern Woodcuts by British and French Artists." The advance of the wood-block in artistic favour since that time has been extraordinary in range and importance. In every country where art is alive the wood-block has been taken more and more into service for original design conditioned by the nature and expressive capacity of the material itself, a condition little regarded, if at all, by the splendidly fertile illustrators of the nineteenth century for whom the wood was merely the basis of a reproductive process. It is not my purpose, however, to trace again the causes that gradually emancipated the wood-block from its long slavery to the facsimile engravers, with their marvellously skilful yet stereotyped craftsmanship, even though the names of Dalziel, Swain and Linton gave it a sterling stamp. The story, with its lessons and inspirations from the examples of the early Italian and German engravers, of such master designers for the woodcut as Dürer and Holbein, and no less of the creative Bewick, Blake and Calvert, is an interesting one, while blazoned on its English chapters are the honoured names of Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon, Sturge Moore, Lucien Pissarro, Reginald Savage, William Strang, William Nicholson, Sydney Lee and Gordon Craig. Phases of the story may be read in the volume above-mentioned, and of course in the authoritative pages of Ricketts, Craig and Campbell Dodgson. But for the full relation you may turn to the important and valuable book, "The Modern Woodcut: A Study of the Evolution of the Craft," in which Mr. Herbert Furst has, with much sound erudition and independent critical analysis, linked the modern ramifications of zylography in many countries with the various phases of its use for original expression, for translation, and for reproduction, from its recorded beginnings and through the centuries. Then, thanks to the Print-Collectors Club, you may read, in a delightfully concise and illuminating lecture on "Woodcuts and Wood-engravings," the changes to modern conditions discussed with fresh and well-considered views by Mr. Noel Rooke, who is not only himself an accomplished engraver, but, owing to his masterly teaching, the cause of much excellent wood-engraving in others.

Before we turn our pages and look at the multifarious productions of the wood-engravers at home and abroad under contemporary conditions, it will be interesting for comparison to look at an example (p. 1) of the facsimile engraving for which the wood-block was exclusively used in that efflorescent period of book-illustration which covered at least a couple of decades of the last century, though we are accustomed to call it simply "the 'Sixties." This is from an unpublished block engraved by Swain to reproduce a pen-drawing by Frederick Walker, and as it is seen here, the block shows the picture the reverse way of the impression for which it had been inked. It represents an incident in the third chapter of Thackeray's"Esmond," the first meeting of little Harry Esmond with Lord Castlewood. "Mr. Holt, the priest, took the child by the hand, and brought him to this nobleman, a grand languid nobleman in a great cap and flowered morning gown, sucking oranges. He patted Harry on the head and gave him an orange." As Marks tells us in his life of the artist, Walker had undertaken to illustrate "Esmond," but made only one drawing for it, and of this all trace had been lost until that indefatigable collector, Mr. Harold Hartley, in his untiring pursuit of the illustrations of the 'Sixties, discovered this block. When we compare Du Maurier's more literal rendering of the same incident with Walker's—the noble lord is actually patting the child's head after having given him an orange—it is easy to see why Du Maurier was preferred for the work; he had less concern with a pretty little picture, but more with the characteristics and actualities of the scene. And Swain's crosshatching was as busy in both, his aim being to reproduce the pen-drawing as accurately as he could with the black line of unimaginative convention, an aim which is quite opposed to the spirit of the modern woodcut, in which the wood, having regained its freedom of speech, has something of its own to suggest to the artist in the matter of the design and the print.

Wood-engraving and wood-cutting are different methods of approach towards a relief or surface print, yet any image impressed on paper with ink from a woodblock we are accustomed to call indifferently a woodcut, whether the image be the result of cutting with a knife into the plank grain of the wood, or pushing a graver through the harder end-grain. In either case, the print will show the white paper wherever any portion of the block surface has been removed, while any portion of the surface left, a dot, a line, a mass, will take the ink and print black. The differences, however, between wood-engraving and woodcutting are more important and significant than they may appear to the lay eye, exercising a subtle influence on the design, and it may not be out of place at the beginning of a survey which in its very title yields for convenience to the common designation of woodcut, to offer some definition of these differences. They could hardly have been distinguished with more practical clearness than by Mr. Noel Rooke in his lecture. "Engraving," he says, "is a process of cutting whites out of black ; but the final operation, printing, is one of adding black on to white. An all-white-line block is, except on a quite small scale, difficult to print—so difficult as to be almost an unnatural piece of printing if the block is large and the lines are fine. A black-line block prints more easily. A block with a mixture of white line, black line and blank spaces usually prints most naturally of all. The simplest and most direct engravings to make are in white line; the simplest and most direct to print and to read are usually in black line. Except in the smallest blocks, the greatest successes will often be found to consist of a combination of white line, black line, white space and sometimes black space." Mr. Rooke then proceeds to differentiate between wood-engraving and wood-cutting. "In engraving, one simple straight stroke, or rather push of the graver, produces a white line, and two strokes two lines. In wood-cutting, one straight cut with the knife produces nothing; two parallel straight cuts produce nothing; two sloping converging cuts meeting each other produce nothing. It takes three straight cuts meeting at the bottom and sides, making an inverted triangular pyramid, to lift out a piece of wood, so that the print shall show a white triangle. This is the simplest form of mark that can be made in a cut. A white line can be cut in two strokes, provided that both ends of both lines are curved, or, what is more difficult, that both ends of one line are very much curved. A straight line with square ends takes four strokes to cut. Cutting, although so much older than engraving, is a more complicated process." In the black and white print, although both these methods are used nowadays, the graver has a wide preference over the knife, so too for the chiaroscuro, or camaïeu, as they call it in France, but for the colour-print in the Japanese manner, the wood being of soft grain and cut plank-wise, the knife is of necessity the dominant tool. But in the ways of using either the graver or the knife we shall see in the following pages an infinite variety, since the conception of the craft will be found to conform with appropriate technical differences to the diverse artistic ideals and expressions of numerous individual exponents. On the woodblock, more, perhaps, than any other graphic medium of contemporary use, the modern spirit can assert its freedom of utterance in abstract design with due respect for a traditional dignity in craftsmanship, for, however emphatic the originality of pictorial conception and design, the wood will be sympathetic and responsive if the steel approaches it confidingly as a co-operator in the beauty aimed at. "Forget yourself entirely—think only of the wood, and all will be well." This is the advice that Gordon Craig, out of the wealth of his long experience, gives in his fascinating book, "Woodcuts and Some Words," and when one thinks of the innumerable gems of his creative design on the wood-block, one understands its significance. Look at the remarkable example reproduced here, the first state of The Storm—"King Lear" (p. 7), a stage design for the second scene of the third act. Here are Lear, Kent and the Fool, and "the wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark"; and here is subject fused in rhythmical design ordered by a most flexible imagination, yet disciplined surely by the conditions of the tool and the boxwood. But when he was cutting out those curved spaces that left the significant emphasis of those black intersecting and contrasting curves, did Mr. Craig think he was thinking only of the wood? If he was forgetting himself as the craftsman, could he have been artistically unconscious of Shakespeare's tragic storm urging his pictorial, or perhaps I should say scenic, imagination to a design that was essentially a product of himself and no other? This woodcut was made in 1920, the year after the date of our last survey, at which time Gordon Craig was already a veteran of the craft and its master within the range of artistic expression and technical resource he had allowed himself. To-day he is still exquisitely creative on the wood-block. Since that survey eight years ago the ramifications of the woodcut movement in this country have been increasing year by year in extent and importance. The Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, finding nothing in its Royal Charter to exclude wood-engraving, evoked the sanction of the Privy Council to alter the Society's byelaws, enlarging the scope of its membership to admit, for the first time in its history, wood-engravers as such, the initial choice falling on Mrs. Raverat and Noel Rooke. Then an interesting group of the art's exponents formed themselves into the Society of Wood-Engravers, and began annual exhibitions which stimulated the interest of print-collectors who had never before regarded the modern original woodcut as worthy of their acquisitive attention. With the spread of interest and the artistic vitality of the movement, the Society of Wood-Engravers divided into two separate bodies, and the seceding body with many notable recruits became the English Wood-Engraving Society with headquarters at the St. George's Gallery, while the original Society moved house to the Redfern. But while the black print from the wood has been attracting a large amount of favour, the wood-block colour-print has also been making its way, its less numerous exponents having founded an association of their own. One would like, however, to see the Colour Woodcut Society join forces with the Society of Graver-Printers in Colours, the majority of whose members have always worked with a series of wood-blocks, mainly in the Japanese method, while the new President, Mr. William Giles, was long a masterly exponent of that method before he evolved the process of etching metal plates in relief for multi-plate surface printing in colours, which has been the method of his latest distinguished achievements.

The example reproduced in monochrome, The Bathing Pool (p. 46), however, is Mr. Giles's first print from the wood for several years. It is a blue and violet harmony, with a pattern suggested by the sparrows on the water-lily pond in Battersea Park, and it was printed from eight blocks. The same number, I suppose, were cut for Swans in Flight (Frontispiece), by Professor Allen W. Seaby, another veteran exponent of the Japanese method. In our colour-reproduction the charm of the blue and white against the fawn can be realised, while the graceful rhythmical motion of the swans flying down to the water lends a delightful animation to the print. Miss Mabel Royds (Mrs. E. S. Lumsden) is essentially a fine colourist, but Indian travel, with her vision and interest always engaged pictorially by the incidents and characteristics of native life, have enriched her chromatic experience. In Musicians (p. 25), for instance, with a group of native children listening curiously to two turbaned musicians who are sitting on the ground playing their stringed instruments of long tradition, what wonder that the artist should find play on the wood-blocks for pale yellow with orange notes, and blue, green, white, reds and brown? It was difficult to choose between this print and another fine original thing, The Shrine. Mr. John Platt is also a distinguished devotee of the Japanese method, and certainly none in this country has a surer understanding and command of the technique, while his prints appeal with distinctive charm of design and tonal harmony. The Siesta (p. 85) is a particularly attractive and original example, in which the idea of rest in a hot, sleepy sea-calm is subtly suggested by the rhythmical balance of the long curves of the quiet fishing-boats and shading canvases, and the hot sunny glare over the watery expanse that shows the blue water only where the shadow of a boat's stern allows. Six blocks compassed the design and tonality of this charming print, but in Mr. Platt's latest, Red Chestnuts, he has planned a more definite and elaborate colour-scheme. Among the many British artists practising the Japanese method, Mrs. Austen Brown, Miss Ethel Kirkpatrick, and Miss Ada L. Collier are familiarly memorable, while an interesting recruit is Major F. A. Wilkinson. Yet other methods are also practised, and the colour-prints of Mr. E. A. Verpilleux, from engraved designs passed through an ordinary printing-press, have a distinguished place of their own among the prints of the day. In St. Paul's—Twilight (p. 51), a beautiful example, Mr. Verpilleux has not for the first time, used the Cathedral as a noble theme for design on the wood, but here its venerable beauty is emphasised by the actuality of the passing crowd and motor-traffic, while the colour-motive is an atmospheric impression of subtle appeal. Evening on the Bure is another of his recent prints, and very lovely is this Norfolk landscape with its calm riparian beauty, reflecting the young moon, the sailing barge and the windmills on the banks. Mr. Rigden Read is another maker of attractive colour-prints who uses the burin. In the decoratively composed Roses (p. 46), the pottery bowl is green, the roses cream, white and yellow, while in the prettily appealing Little Fishes and The Batik Scarf, Mr. Read shows further a delicate skill in the handling of the wood-block for colour-printing.

While many artists design their prints for hanging decoratively on the wall, not the least important feature of this artistic revival of wood-engraving is its wider recognition as a factor in the decoration of books. This, of course, was the original purpose of the woodcut, its raison d'être, in fact, and its natural compatibility with type for the decoration of the printed page was the motive and guiding principle of the modern revival. Indeed, the woodcut embellishment was an essential part of the beautiful works produced by those Presses of the 'nineties bearing the now classic names of Vale and Eragny and Kelmscott. Yet there was little contemporary encouragement for those choice productions, and the regular publishers, profiting not at all by the executive example of Ricketts and Shannon, Sturge Moore and Pissarro, or by Morris's co-operative enthusiasm, continued to regard wood-engraving as only a reproductive method which had been entirely replaced by the photographic zinco-processes of modern usage. The last few years, however, have seen a promising change in the attitude of publishers, public and artists, and wood-engraving has been gradually coming into its own in this country as the natural ally of typography for book-illustration and adornment, an ideal which had been earlier realised in France in the book-production of many publishers as well as the societies of bibliophiles. While sporadically, notable books with woodcut illustrations have lately been issued by such important publishing houses as Macmillan, Constable, Duckworth, Dent, Jonathan Cape, Chapman and Hall, Gerald Howe and the Nonesuch Press, in the very forefront of this movement have been the activities of the Golden Cockerel Press under the direction, for the last three years, of Mr. Robert Gibbings. Himself an accomplished wood-engraver of much artistic originality and craft-resource, with a fine feeling for the dignity and beauty of the printed page, Mr. Gibbings would seem to be an ideal director of such an enterprise. The Golden Cockerel Press is no mere name of a publishing concern, but actually it is a "press," where the book is completely produced amid harmonious surroundings, for the workshops are idyllically placed in a Berkshire garden with birds singing in the apple-trees. Although several of the most attractive books from this Press bear the distinctive decoration of Mr. Gibbings's own art, he has commissioned over three hundred engravings by artists of the woodblock, chosen not less for their sympathetic co-operation with the printers in the relation of engraving to type than for their capacity for graphic interpretation of the author. Lady Mabel Annesley, for instance, who is represented in these pages by the bold black and white of The TrystGate (p. 12), has used the same free technique on some appropriately characteristic little head-pieces for "Songs from Robert Burns"; Miss Celia M. Fiennes, a recruit of promising talent, with a technique of fine and flexible white line on black silhouette, has decorated "The Fables of Æsop" with some delightfully whimsical designs, A Horse and an Ass, being, perhaps, happiest in significance. Another wise choice was Mr. Jon Farleigh to illustrate Swift's "Selected Essays," for his enjoyment of his author's irony seems to lend a jolly spontaneity to the cutting of his designs, and invests them with a natural frankness characteristic of Swift's day; though quite another phase of Mr. Farleigh's talent is shown here in Laurels (p. 18), an independent decorative arrangement designed for the colour-print, yet so happy in its tonal values that it is equally attractive in monochrome. For witty illustration in authentic terms of wood-engraving I would commend Mr. John Nash in Swift's "Directions to Servants," some of the cuts being deliciously funny, though the artist's command of the tools and the wood in graving an ordered design may be seen to richer purpose in Common Objects (p. 15), with its variety of textures, and in this as well as in any of the English landscapes or pastoral scenes in which he sensitively coaxes Nature to his own needs of design, or even in his exquisite illustrations to Ovid's "Elegies," such, for instance, as The Bird's Paradise.


Excerpted from The Art of the Woodcut by Malcolm C. Salaman. Copyright © 2010 David A. Beronä. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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