Cut­ting it fine

The an­cient art of wood en­grav­ing re­quires in­tro­spec­tion and se­crecy in or­der to cre­ate in­trigu­ing and in­tri­cate pieces of work, dis­cov­ers Clive Aslet

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The an­cient art of wood en­grav­ing re­quires in­tro­spec­tion to cre­ate in­tri­cate pieces of work, says Clive Aslet

If you want an an­ti­dote to the com­puter screen, turn to wood en­grav­ing. ‘We’ve reached 1790, with dashes of the 1920s,’ dis­closes one prac­ti­tioner, who would rather not be named for fear of in­cur­ring the wrath of other artists. This is an art, with a strong ad­mix­ture of craft, in which it rou­tinely takes days, if not weeks or months, to pro­duce works of unas­sum­ing di­men­sion—so small that they’re some­times best ap­pre­ci­ated with the help of a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

‘This is an art­form in which peo­ple think small and in black and white’

‘OCD,’ de­clares an­other ex­hibitor at the an­nual show by the So­ci­ety of Wood En­gravers (SWE), of the tem­per­a­ment re­quired. ‘It’s ridicu­lous,’ ad­mits Peter Lawrence, whose work is given pride of place as this year’s fea­tured artist, of the amount of labour in­volved. ‘I like to in­clude hu­mour. That be­comes dif­fi­cult when you may be work­ing on the same piece for 300 hours.’

for the col­lec­tor, how­ever, the ob­ses­sive­ness of the artists yields a glo­ri­ous re­ward. In re­la­tion to the amount of time spent in pro­duc­ing them, these modestly priced works —they rarely cost more than a few hun­dred pounds—are the steal of the cen­tury. Pro­duced not in ware­house-sized stu­dios, but of­ten on kitchen ta­bles, the works are in­ti­mate, if not al­ways in sub­ject, then in the mode of cre­ation. This in­vites in­tro­spec­tion, even se­cre­tive­ness, and I’m told that artists

are of­ten as­ton­ished to dis­cover what their peers have been work­ing on and the meth­ods in­volved.

For strangely, as the SWE ex­hi­bi­tion, now tour­ing the coun­try, demon­strates, this an­cient technique can be used to cre­ate ofthe-mo­ment ef­fects. Some works are bold, even gritty. Ev­ery day, thou­sands of peo­ple pass the wood en­grav­ings that David Gen­tle­man made for Lon­don Trans­port in 1978, which have been en­larged to plat­form scale.

These much loved images of the build­ing of the medieval Eleanor Cross—that is said (in­cor­rectly) to have given Char­ing Cross its name—have an equiv­a­lent in New­cas­tle upon Tyne. To cel­e­brate the 250th an­niver­sary of Thomas Bewick’s birth in 2003, the Metro there com­mis­sioned a suite of wood en­grav­ings for its sta­tions from Hi­lary Payn­ter (01237 479679; http://hi­lary­payn­ter. com). With the sub­ject ‘From the Rivers to the Sea’, the artist was care­ful to in­clude plenty of de­tail at the bot­tom of the pan­els to in­ter­est chil­dren as they wait for trains. How­ever, these are ex­cep­tions. The nat­u­ral con­di­tion of wood en­grav­ing is to be small. It opens a peep­hole into a pri­vate world.

Take out your spec­ta­cles. Like wild­flow­ers, wood en­grav­ings are best seen up close. They in­vite con­tem­pla­tion. This medium is the an­tithe­sis of throw­away con­sumerism and in­ter­net-in­duced short at­ten­tion spans. Its nat­u­ral home is, to many peo­ple, the coun­try­side—the Bri­tish coun­try­side at that.

Al­though the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes artists from as far away as Rus­sia, China and Ja­pan, wood en­grav­ing is still some­what un­der the en­chant­ment of Thomas Bewick, who ef­fec­tively in­vented the technique in the late 18th cen­tury. Those closely ob­served lit­tle de­pic­tions of snipe and bulls, old oak trees and river scenes placed wood en­grav­ing firmly in the English pas­toral tra­di­tion. There was a strong el­e­ment of nos­tal­gia to the re­vival that took place, un­der the hand of Eric Rav­il­ious and oth­ers, in the early 20th cen­tury.

It can still be said that a medium that re­quires im­mense pa­tience and a va­ri­ety of ex­tremely sharp, pe­cu­liarly named tools (spit-sticker, scor­per) doesn’t pro­duce front run­ners for the Turner Prize, but we live in a fallen age.

Let’s clear one thing up straight away. A wood en­grav­ing is not a wood­cut, let alone a linocut. Lino can be worked like but­ter (or so wood en­gravers tell me), but al­though it lends it­self to be­ing printed in colour, it won’t take the same al­most mi­cro­scop­i­cally fine lines. Wood­cuts are also rel­a­tively crude, be­cause, as the block is taken from a ver­ti­cal section of tree, the artist has to work around the grain.

The wood en­graver works on the end grain, typ­i­cally on a section of slow-grow­ing box (some­times lemon). As these trees don’t grow to a great size, the blocks that the en­graver can use are nec­es­sar­ily small. Over the years, ways have been found of get­ting around this re­stric­tion. Sec­tions can be joined to­gether to form a larger block and it’s pos­si­ble to find modern al­ter­na­tives made from resin—in­deed, cer­tain types of kitchen work­top have been em­ployed.

Even so, this is an art­form in which peo­ple nat­u­rally think small—and in black and white. Which means, as Leonie Bradley ( tells me, ‘it’s all about the light’.

She shows me the stu­dio that she shares with her hus­band, David Robert­son, in a house over­look­ing Bath. It con­tains work benches and two old presses—one of them, a Vic­to­rian Her­cules, be­ing much as Cax­ton would have used. How­ever, Leonie is as likely to work up­stairs in the kitchen. Sim­plic­ity is part of the medium’s ap­peal. ‘All you need is a de­cent light and five tools and you’re away,’ she elab­o­rates. ‘You can bur­nish a print from a block us­ing the back of a spoon to press down the pa­per.’

This art­form also re­quires a self-im­posed dis­ci­pline. Ev­ery wood en­graver talks about the ex­cite­ment of see­ing light emerg­ing from the dark­ness of the seem­ingly pri­mor­dial block. Un­like etch­ing or steel en­grav­ing, where each mark will be printed black, ev­ery gouge, scrape or dot made by the wood en­graver comes out white—it’s the wood left be­hind that stays black.

Some artists dis­re­gard the ob­vi­ous lim­i­ta­tions and pro­duce works that look as if they could be pen­cil sketches, al­though it will have taken hours of pa­tient labour to iso­late each seem­ingly spon­ta­neous black line. For Leonie, the chal­lenge is dif­fer­ent. ‘Light and shadow are what re­ally ex­cite me. How do you achieve the dark grey tones?’ The an­swer is by many, many, many lit­tle lines and—as demon­strated by sev­eral artists in the show—an al­most mes­meris­ing level of skill, to which the word ‘vir­tu­oso’ only does half jus­tice.

It would be an out­ra­geous stereo­type to sug­gest that print­ing is a mas­cu­line ac­tiv­ity, but it tends to be in the Bradley-robert­son house­hold. David is by train­ing an en­gi­neer and, in an­other life, worked on oil rigs. He has a nat­u­ral affin­ity with the presses,

‘Hu­mour is dif­fi­cult when you might be work­ing on the same piece for 300 hours

as well as the Columbia and the Al­bion that Leonie’s mother, the wood en­graver Hi­lary Payn­ter, has in Devon.

We won’t even men­tion inks. ‘They’re a whole world of their own. There are men who get very ex­cited about inks.’

Ar­cane mys­ter­ies such as these may seem far re­moved from Leonie and David’s other in­ter­ests—they’re both film­mak­ers. There is, how­ever, a com­mon theme: pho­tog­ra­phy and films are equally de­pen­dent upon light.

Wood en­grav­ing is also a nat­u­ral part­ner of the writ­ten word. Al­though art prints are now pro­duced in lim­ited edi­tions, the hard­ness of the block also al­lows a huge vol­ume of im­pres­sions to be made as re­quired, hence the il­lus­tra­tions that adorn 19th­cen­tury pe­ri­od­i­cals such as The Il­lus­trated

Lon­don News, Punch and The Field. Now, it’s more likely to be seen in con­junc­tion with beau­ti­ful ty­pog­ra­phy, per­haps printed by means of let­ter­press.

‘This is how books have been made since the Re­nais­sance,’ ex­plains Mer­lin Water­son, for­mer re­gional direc­tor, East Anglia, of the Na­tional Trust, who took up wood en­grav­ing on his re­tire­ment a dozen years ago. He now makes pow­er­ful ar­chi­tec­tural stud­ies, which are some­times ac­com­pa­nied by his own texts, and David Gen­tle­man re­calls with af­fec­tion the cov­ers that he made for the ‘New Pen­guin Shake­speare’ edi­tions in the 1970s. Long-stand­ing read­ers of Coun­try

Life will re­mem­ber the images of hares and fields by Howard Phipps that we com­mis­sioned in the 1990s. Phipps’s sub­jects are drawn from the Wilt­shire coun­try­side where he lives. ‘When I drove to his house,’ re­calls Geri Wadding­ton, chair of the SWE. ‘I thought, I’m in Howard Phipps coun­try—i recog­nised the lanes.’

Ap­pro­pri­ately, one of Geri’s own wood en­grav­ings in the show is of a wa­ter­wheel, to ac­com­pany a book on pa­per­mak­ing. An­other shows a green­house at Great Dix­ter for a book on the gar­den cre­ated by Christo­pher Lloyd. Enough said. Find the ex­hi­bi­tion if you can and let it cast its spell.

For more de­tails about wood en­grav­ing, con­tact the So­ci­ety of Wood En­gravers (01900 267765; www.wood­en­ The SWE’S 79th an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion runs from March 4 to 25 at the Zil­lah Bell Gallery in Kirk­gate, near Thirsk, North York­shire (01845 522479; www.zil­lah­bell­gallery.

‘Ev­ery wood en­graver talks about see­ing light emerge from the dark­ness

Howard Phipps’s sub­jects, such as Lewes­don Hill Beeches (right), are drawn from the Bri­tish coun­try­side

Thomas Bewick (left, in a por­trait by Sir John Mil­lais of 1892 made into a litho­graph by Bewick) pop­u­larised the use of metal-en­grav­ing tools to cut hard box­wood across the grain, mak­ing durable print­ing blocks that gave high-qual­ity il­lus­tra­tion at a low cost. He was known for his charm­ing en­grav­ings of nat­u­ral sub­jects (above, Look­ing for the shot), most no­tably for A His­tory of Bri­tish Birds

Cherry Burn (above) by Hi­lary Payn­ter (left), the birth­place of Bewick and a place of pil­grim­age for all wood en­gravers

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