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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Thomas Bewick and wood engraving

Every aspect of book production was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The manufacture of paper, type and printer’s ink, the printing press itself, the materials and technique of binding – all were profoundly affected by technical innovation.

The mechanisation of printing enabled publishers to meet the demands of their expanding market, as literacy spread, mass education was introduced and the book-reading public embraced the growing urban and lower middle classes.

Despite and perhaps because of this sea change, the 19th century also witnessed a renaissance in the arts of fine printing and book illustration. In the early years of the century Thomas Bewick pioneered the revival of wood engraving, influencing other illustrators.

Later in the century it became the vogue for literary works to be illustrated, a phenomenon not widely seen in previous or subsequent centuries. The Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries further fostered the wood engraver’s art, championing the individual artist and craftsman in an age of mass production.

Wood engravings of a sandpiper bird and a man seated in the countryside, on facing pagesWood engraved headpiece depicting a red-legged sandpiper bird and a wood engraved tailpiece depicting a man seated in the countryside below a monumentThomas Bewick (1753-1828), the son of a Northumberland tenant farmer and collier, was largely responsible for the revival in Britain of the delicate art of wood engraving and for its gradual supplanting of copperplate engraving as a means of book illustration. 

A wood engraving is made by incising the design on the block with a graver, so that, when printed on paper, the design appears as a pattern of white lines on the otherwise inked page;  being printed in the same press as a book’s text-block, it enables a unity of both production and design that had been absent in the age of copperplate engraving.

Apprenticed to Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby, Bewick combined artistic genius with consummate technical skill and sound business sense. Throughout his life he had a love of the English countryside and an interest in natural history, both reflected in his best known and most successful work, the two-volume History of British birds. The book’s success was mainly due to the outstanding quality of the illustrations. Their close attention to detail satisfied the naturalist, while the evocative depiction of the birds’ habitats made the book an inspirational work for the general reader.

Just as important as the illustrations of the birds themselves are the tail-pieces which follow many descriptions. Some are straightforward depictions of rural scenes or activities such as farmyards, snowy fields, cats, or men fishing or ploughing; some show a sometimes dark sense of humour: a man urinating against a tree, or a boy leading a blind beggar past a sign warning of man-traps; others suggest a melancholy romanticism.

Readers of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will remember how in the novel’s opening chapter Jane, then a child of ten, loses herself in the contemplation of these evocative engravings:

I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quiet solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone;  its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a low wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide … Each picture told a story;  mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting …

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