Thomas Bewick

Thomas Bewick, from a painting by James Ramsay, engraved by John Burnet, 1817
Thomas Bewick, from a painting by James Ramsay, engraved by John Burnet, 1817

By Rev. William Turner

Though the art of cutting or engraving on wood is undoubtedly of high antiquity, as the Chinese and Indian modes of printing on paper, cotton, and silk, sufficiently prove; though, even in Europe, the art of engraving on blocks of wood may probably be traced higher than that of printing usually so called; and though, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, designs were executed of great beauty and accuracy, such as Holbein’s Dance of Death, the vignettes and head-letters of the early Missals and Bibles, and the engravings of flowers and shells in Gerard, Gesner, and Fuhschius; yet the bare inspection of these is sufficient to prove that their methods must have been very different from that which Bewick and his school have followed. The principal characteristic of the ancient masters is the crossing of the black lines, to produce or deepen the shade, commonly called cross-hatching. Whether this was done by employing different blocks, one after another, as in calico-printing and paper-staining, it may be difficult to say; but to produce them on the same block is so difficult and unnatural, that, though Nesbit, one of Bewick’s early pupils, attempted it on a few occasions, and the splendid print of Dentatus by Harvey shows that it is not impossible even on a large scale, yet the waste of time and labour is scarcely worth the effect produced.

To understand this, it may be necessary to state, for the information of those who may not have seen an engraved block of wood, that whereas the lines which are sunk by the graver on the surface of a copper-plate are the parts which receive the printing ink, which is first smeared over the whole plate, and the superfluous ink is scraped and rubbed off, that remaining in the lines being thus transferred upon the paper, by its being passed, together with the plate, through a rolling-press, the rest being left white — in the wooden block, all the parts which are intended to leave the paper white, are carefully scooped out with burins and gouges, and the lines and other parts of the surface of the block which are left prominent, after being inked, like types, with a ball or roller, are transferred to the paper by the common printing-press. The difficulty, therefore, of picking out, upon the wooden block, the minute squares or lozenges, which are formed by the mere intersection of the lines cut in the copper-plate, may easily be conceived.

The great advantage of wood-engraving is, that the thickness of the blocks (which are generally of boxwood, sawed across the grain) being carefully regulated by the height of the types with which they are to be used, are set up in the same page with the types; and only one operation is required to print the letter-press and the cut which is to illustrate it. The greater permanency, and indeed almost indestructibility(1), of the wooden block, is besides secured; since it is not subjected to the scraping and rubbing, which so soon destroys the sharpness of the lines upon copper: and there is a harmony produced in the page, by the engraving and the letter-press being of the same colour; which is very seldom the case where copper-plate vignettes are introduced with letter-press.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to trace the history of wood-engraving, its early principles, the causes of its decay, etc, till its productions came to sink below contempt. But for its revival and present state we are unquestionably indebted to Bewick and his pupils.

(1) Many of Mr Bewick’s blocks have printed upwards of 300,000: the head-piece of the Newcastle Courant above a million; and a small vignette for a capital letter in the Newcastle Chronicle, during a period of twenty years, at least two millions.

Image source: A general History of Quadrupeds.