An Essay in Wood-cuts: Introductory Essay

The wood-cut has been made and published for five hundred years. At first it was accepted, because no way of multiplying drawings was known, but with reservations. I expect it was considered to be a poor substitute for painting; and bereft of all the graces of art. At any rate many of the early wood-cuts were coloured by hand, a proceeding which is now regarded as analogous to gilding refined gold, or painting the lily. It is recorded that Michaelangelo was so pleased with Martin Schongauer's print, "St. Anthony tormented by the Devils," that he set himself to colour it.

Artists forever strove to invent processes for printing pictures in colour, and to more closely ally them to the art of painting. In the past hundred years they have succeeded many times and in many ways.

The wood-cut in colour, as foreshadowed by Albrecht Altdorfer, was developed by Oriental artists. Then came le Blon's scientific mezzotints based on Newton's three-colour theory, followed by the coloured aquatint and lithograph, the Baxter print, and the more recent photographic porcesses. Colour-prints can be created with ease, but, such is human perversity, the collector now prefers his prints plain, and, by virtue of the law of supply and demand, the price has changed to two pence plain and penny coloured.

My own excursion in the field of wood engraving was not inspired by the contrariness of collectors. A set of gravers had been lying neglected in my studio for more than ten years, together with a stack of maple blocks. I lacked the opportunity and the impulse to make use of them. Now I will confess that I enjoyed making my first woodcuts more, even, than I had expected.

The term "wood-cut" is inexact, but just as lucid as wood-engraving and more euphonious.

Planning a painting presents many difficulties, not the least of which is that of weaving a design through several receding planes, and the painting itself requires rather more consideration than if it were, as Vasari said, no other than the close imitation by drawing and colouring simply, of all the forms presented by nature. On the other hand the wood-cut is merely a monochromatic pattern lying upon a single plane, the making of which should constitute one of the simplest pleasures of every artist's life.

The painter of to-day prefers to leave the close imitation of nature to the camera-man, whom sometimes balks at it too. He rends the veil of appearances and discloses significant and fundamental truths which he incorporates in his designs; such things as the rhythm of growth, the essence and interrelation of form, the interdependence of all things, the essential solidity of rock and the tenuity of vapour. he has discovered that colours and contours are inconstant, and that light is supreme and shadow a negation. he is becoming emancipated from the restrictions imposed by imitation, and —this is the point—no print medium is better suited for the expression of his ideas than wood.

No doubt Rembrandt substituted wood for copper, because the wood plate and the etching needle were better able to display the anatomy of the shadow, which seemed to consume his interest. Etching suits the modern impressionist just as well as it suited Rembrandt. It will suggest subtle variations of tone, the most delicate shadings, all with black lines, which, so far as lines go, are unsurpassed for sheer beauty. But no black is so rich and "fat" as the black in a wood-cut, and no white is so pure. For graphic boldness, directness and simplicity the wood-cut is supreme.

The impulse and the opportunity to dig out a design in wood came when I turned over the pages of the sketch-book which I had filled in the Kwakiutl country three years ago. Some of the drawings have been converted into paintings, others into colour wood-cuts, and those that remained seemed to be equally interesting. I thought it would be a pity to discard them. I still loved the brooding Hoh-hok, the portentous Tunder-bird, the spotted whale, and all the other queer creatures of legend, each endowed with splendid abilities, not the least of which was a knack for acrobatics that enabled them, even the fishes, to retain a perpendicular pose whilst standing on the shoulders of another and bearing the weight of one or several upon their own. Moreover they will soon be extinct. I doubt if any other records of these particular specimens of Kwakiutl wood-sculpture, save those in my sketch-book, exist. The winter villages of Mamalilicoola and Karlukwees are remote in the sense that they are practically inaccessible to tourists, and to all unless they go by boat. They lie some distance to the east of Alert Bay.

You may prefer these aboriginal essays in wood, achieved with the adze, to mine, which were made with the graver.

Reverting for a moment to the present extraordinary revival of the wood-cut, which seems logical enough, it may be suggested that we have become accustomed to achromaticism, through the photograph and its universal applications. We satisfy our hunger for colour in other ways, perhaps deeming it redundant, and repressive to the imagination in certain types of prints. The fact is, the wood-cut, through the work of Gordon Craig, Sidney Lee, Ricketts, Shannon, Moore, Pizzarro and others has achieved a new dignity of purpose. It no longer masquerades as a pen-drawing, or as a drawing in any other medium, but is a medium of its own right, with plain characteristics and peculiar beauties. There is no mistaking a new wood-cut.

A year ago I turned over a pile of old wood-cuts, reproduced and assembled by a German publisher—only a German could have done the job so thoroughly and well—and discovered a small cut that is attributed to Rembrandt: a portrait of a philosopher in a high fur hat, his face in profile, and ornamented with a flowing white beard. To be accurate, two impressions were placed side by side on the page. One showed the Philosopher's cheek relieved of a shadow that appeared in the other. The latter apparently was a trial proof.

After looking somewhat listlessly over this mass of un-beautiful but familiar representations of wading St. Christophers, of literary St. Jeromes wach with his constant sick lion, of limp St. Sebastians bristling with arrows like hedgehogs, and of portraits of homely mediaeval warriors, all wrought in hard lines, it was thrilling to happen unexpectedly upon such a fine print as "The Philosopher." It showed remarkable freedom of line, and a variety of textures never achieved hitherto. nearly every artist of this period made prints from the engraved surfaces of either metal or wood. Not until Rembrandt's time, however, was the character of the material considered. Engraving had not advanced much beyond the stage of reproductions, to which it again reverted. It reproduced in its earliest phases the line of a reed pen. Afterwards shadows or tones were suggested by the use of parallel or cross-hatched lines, or, in chiaroscuro prints, by one or more extra plates. Differences in texture were never considered.

If Rembrandt really made this cut, doubtless he would have become as great a "formschneider" (this was a German portfolio) as he was an etcher if he had persisted with it, and the wood-cut might even now stimulate the acquisitive sense of the ordinary picture buyer instead of the ubiquitous etching. But the rich balcks and the pure whites peculiar to it were not appreciated in his day as highly as the etched line, with its elasticity and capacity for detail and subtle variations in tone.

Immediately after the Rembrandt print came two by the hand of Jan Livencz. Here, I thought, is the supreme master, the true and authentic father of modern engraving on wood. For the modernity of the portrait of a Venetian noble, seated on a rush-bottomed chair, is amazing. The texture of the silk cape, of the rush seat, of the nobleman's hair, of his skin, of every surface, is most convincing. It is delightfully rendered with a line as graceful and free as many that are etched. The fame of Bewick momentarily dwindled to nothing compared with that of this master. Timothy Cole became a low degrader of an incomparable art, and it seemed that some of the moderns had never realized its flexibility. Only two impressions of this great plate are known to exist. A Landscape with Three Trees is equally fine and almost as rare.

Jan Livencz is an interesting figure in art. Born at Leyden in the year 1607, he was instructed in the rudiments of design by Joris Verschuten, and at ten years of age, was placed under Peter Lastman, with whom he continued for two years. There was no further instruction in art. At twelve he copied pictures by Cornelis van haarlem so perfectly that the copy and the original were indistinguishable. At eighteen he was a famous portrait painter. In 1630 he visited England, and painted Charles I and his queen, and many of the nobility. He returned to his native land, settled in Antwerp, and painted altar pieces. He died about 1670.

Critics say that he etched in the manner of Rembrandt. Some swear that ht engraved The Philosopher. The fact is he and Rembrandt were close friends from their earliest years. Their families were acquainted. The boys were born within a year of each other. it is recorded that they attended Lastman's studio together, and that besides learning the art of painting, they learned how to etch, and doubtless how to cut wood-blocks also.

They grew in fame together, Malcolm Bell says, like cherries on a single stem. Jan comforted his friend when he was burdened with sorrow for Saskia's death, and with disappointment at the reception of his great painting, The Sortie of the Company of Banning Cocq.

Rembrandt's fame was enormous, but there is no reason why critics should strive to add to it at the expense of Livencz, many of whose paintings are attributed to Rembrandt. However, it is a pleasure to recall the name of an artist who was greatly honoured in his day as painter and engraver, and who still may be considered great in spite of his association. I shall think of him always as the master engraver on wood and I shall covet his work as long as I live.


Only one radical change has come upon wood-engraving during the five-hundred years of its practice. The work of Jan Livencz will serve to illustrate the method used in the first period. his wood, possibly pear-wood, was cut plank-wise, that is, along the grain, and his chief tool was the knife. A gouge must have been used afterwards to cut down the large white spaces.

An unnamed Englishman, somewhere around 1700, first thought to use boxwood cut sectionally, or across the grain, and to incise white lines with a graver instead of a knife. Gravers are thin bars of steel from four to six inches long which are pushed to make furrows in the wood, like a plough cuts into the soil. They answer to the names of tint-tool, spitstickers, bullstickers, scorpers and chisels, according to their generic shape. The scorper is the space which does the rough work. The bullsticker is an oval-shaped instrument that will cut a white line of varying thickness. Characteristic cuts made with a graver may be recognized readily enough, and so also may knife cuts.

The graver made possible the suggestion of gradation of tone, and all kinds of textures. Inevitably the wood-engraver was immediately occupied in reproducing paintings and wash-drawings, and he persisted until the half-tone process came into use. Timothy Cole and Auguste Lepere debased the medium in hundreds of such cuts that remain marvels of technical skill. The Dalziel Brothers made many of the famous cuts of the 'sixties, all translations of drawings done by other hands. Theywrote, "When we look at the reproductions of tint from the camera, we feel our occupation is done." It was.

In the early eighteen hundreds thomas Bewick popularized white-line engraving, but he reproduced drawings also. Durer made wood-cuts earlier still, but only for a time, for he eventually relegated the reproduction of his designs to other engravers. Holbein's prints are equally famous, but Lutzelburger and others made them. the phrase "an original print" now indicates a print designed, engraved and printed by one man, and generally speaking, only an original print manifests a proper regard for material.

The best impressions from the block are those obtained by had-rubbing. A thin film of ink is dabbed or rolled over the surface, a sheet of thin paper superimposed, and the back (of the paper) rubbed with a steel or agate brnisher, or the finger nail, or a Japanese baren. A hand-press is a little less laborious to use, and almost as efficient, but a mechanical press is unsatisfactory. All the prints in this edition are hand-rubbed, and having done all the rubbing myself, I feel qualified to echo a statement made by Noel Rooke, a very eminent wood-engraver, in a lecture he gave before the London Print Society. He said "There can be no form of penal servitude that can equal printing to a high standard from a block after one has got tired of the proceeding."