Unlike most Victorian illustrators who merely provided drawings on paper or the woodblock itself, Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") had the knowledge and skill to carry an illustration all the way from initial conception to final production. Because he served as either the engraver or etcher for his own work, he could achieve a great deal more control over the final appearance of his images than could most illustrators. However, since he constantly complained that the "cutters" damaged his designs and failed to capture his full intention, we may reasonably conclude that, especially as the commissions poured in, he often jobbed out the work of cutting after he had transferred the designs to the blocks.
Whereas wood engraving requires creating a picture in relief, cutting away wood from the lines to be printed, etching requires the cutting of lines into a wax-covered metal plate (usually of steel) in an intaglio process. Browne was adept at working in both mediums; Steig's study of Phiz's working drawings reveals that many of the details in the plates were inserted after the process of transferring the drawing to the steel was complete.
Although the illustrations for The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, both of which appeared in the serial Master Humphrey's Clock, were wood engravings integrated with Dickens's text, Browne's usual method of illustrating involved two full-page, detached engraved pictures on separate pages for each issue of a monthly, two-shilling instalment of a novel. In contrast to the plates for Master Humphrey's Clock, in Martin Chuzzlewit , for example, Phiz etched the plates. Because etchings, even on steel, do not wear well, Phiz and his life-long assistant, Robert Young, had to create doubles — two copies of each illustration — to produce sufficient copies for Chapman and Hall. As Valerie Browne Lester notes,
wood engravings can be inked and printed simultaneously with the raised typeface, whereas etching plates, with their ink in grooves rather than on the surface, must be sent through a rolling press and printed on individual dampened pages. But the use of wood engravings required that Dickens wait until all the designs were completed before he could work out exactly how much text was needed. (78)
By the time the Household Edition of Dickens's works appeared in the 1870s, new, less labor-intensive and hence less expensive reproductive processes had become popular, processes which lent themselves to different styles of illustration. Increasingly, artists (or rather publishers and printers) used photographic processes, such as photogravure, to transform the illustrator's pen or pencil drawing into a plate capable of printing multiple images. The "wholly new" illustrations in the Household Edition by younger artists, such as Fred Barnard and W. A. Fraser, employed the new process, but this 1870s edition also included woodblock versions of some of Phiz's and Leech's earlier plates. These erstaz-plates do not have the delicate lines or subtle effects of the original etchings. The advantage of wood-engravings, of course, is that they can be formatted into a page of print, rendering a very effective visual-text synthesis which must have been an enjoyable novelty for readers in the 1860s when the technology came in. However, wood-engravings cannot provide much background detail, so that the artist has to focus on several large-scale figures, as in the Barnard cut of Mark Tapley assisting his fellow passengers in steerage; had Phiz done the same scene, he would have incorporated a wealth of detail that would have revealed much about the emigrant experience.
Phiz clung to the old methods and technologies well into the sixties, using them, for example, in the first ten parts of Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? (1864). (Meanwhile, younger artists such as Marcus Stone were committing themselves to the new technology; Stone, for example, created wood-engravings for the monthly parts of Our Mutual Friend in the same year.) Displeased by the old-fashioned look of Phiz's steels, Trollope dropped Phiz and compacted with a female illustrator (a Miss E. Taylor) to have the novel illustrated with wood-engravings, just as Dickens, after Phiz's engraving for A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, switched to Stone and wood-engravings for the Library Edition of Great Expectations in 1862. Steig notes that from the 1860s onward the more austere, less cartoon-like illustration of the 1860s school of Fred Walker and George Du Maurier was in vogue while critics tended to see the earlier steel engravings of Phiz and Cruikshank as primitive. Interestingly enough, although different techniques for reproducing images became associated with a particular artistic style, the spare classical style associated with the new school of illustrators seems to have been invented by John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt for the famous Moxon Tennyson, which was reproduced by wood-engraving — a fact that prompts two observations. First, technological determinism certainly does not seem to have created the change of styles, however much it may have promoted it. Second, The Pre-Raphaelites, who were known for the minute details in their early paintings, clearly understood that book illustration required a very different style, and in this they were followed by Arthur Boyd Houghton, Walker, and others. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, incidentally, did not understand how wood-engraving worked, and he tried to load his tiny images with detail the engravers were unable to reproduce.
Whereas Phiz and Cruikshank were principally etchers, John Leech was a wood-engraving cartoonist; working at Punch, he influenced the next generation of illustrators, especially Tenniel, Du Maurier, and Keene, so that by the 1860s wood-engraving replaced etching. However, confusions arise when even experts such as Steig speak of woodblock (p. 11) when they mean the more sophisticated wood-engraving. Phiz began his collaboration at age 21 with Dickens when as a wood-engraver he provided two wood engravings for Sunday Under Three Heads. The wood-engraver works against the end of the grain to produce much harder images than those of woodcutting, but Steig consistently uses the term "cuts" to refer wood-engravings. "Whereas steel engraving is done by hand, with a burin, in an etching the lines are 'bitten' into the copper or steel with acid" (Steig, p. 16). Phiz was technically an etcher working with a steel needle on a steel plate which would break down less quickly than a copper plate after successive printings. On page 17 in his text, Steig discusses very precisely the processes involved in producing then printing images from a polished steel plate that had been waxed then covered with lampblack. With an etching needle the artist cut through the surface layers to reveal the steel below, then subjected the plate to a succession of rapid acid-baths known as "biting-in." None of this procedure could be accomplished until Dickens had given his approval to the two sketches proposed for the monthly instalment. The schedule required about two weeks between the receipt of the text and the finishing of the second of the two plates (see Steig, p. 22).
Lester, Valerie Browne. "Note on CD's Letter to Phiz, 15-18 June 1844." Personal communication, 16 May 2007.
Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Last modified 17 May 2007