Printing from wood-blocks was the dominant graphic form of the mid-nineteenth century. Cheap, efficient, and fuelled by plentiful labour and the application of new technologies, it was part of a process that allowed vast numbers of images to be issued to a mass-audience. Steel-engraving and engraving on copper had created a demand in the 1820s and 30s, but it was not until the forties that relief engraving on box-wood had revolutionary effects. Its currency and fast turn-around allowed the illustrated press to flourish, notably in the form of Punch (which was set up in 1841) and Herbert Ingram’s Illustrated London News(1842). Its dominance was clinched in the eighteen sixties by the appearance of fine prints in magazines such as The Cornhill Magazineand Good Words, and also in elaborate gift-books for Christmas.

Wood-engraving became a vast industry; dominated by the Dalziel Brothers, William Linton and Joseph Swain, it was a curious mixture of handicraft and industrial techniques. These craftsmen and the ‘woodpeckers’ working under their supervision had a dramatic impact on the style and ‘look’ of mid-Victorian illustration. The process by which a drawing was converted into a print is nevertheless a more complicated arrangement than might be assumed, and is frequently both misunderstood and inaccurately described. The workings of this procedure are exemplified in the practice of George Pinwell, who was one of the outstanding wood-block illustrators of his time.

Pinwell’s designs had to be converted into surfaces from which a print could be made, and this could have been done in three ways. He might have worked entirely on paper, presenting the engravers with a sheet that was pasted to the block; he may have drawn directly in hard pencil onto the surface, which had been smoothed and painted in Chinese white; and he may have had his work photographed ‘onto the wood’. Indeed, it is likely that his work was prepared in all of these ways. The fact that relatively few original drawings have survived strongly suggests he drew directly on the block, or handed the engravers a design on paper. In each of these techniques the process of engraving destroyed the original work, which ceased to exist as soon as the lines were cut. Yet the survival of others also proves that some of his works were photographed, transferring the image onto the printing surface while leaving the design on paper untouched.

This was certainly the process deployed by the Dalziels in preparing his illustrations for Robert Buchanan’s Wayside Posies and Jean Ingelow’s Poems, which were both published in 1867. Several original drawings, including A Shadow for Buchanan’s book and Brothers and a Sermon for Ingelow’s, have been preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. These images were photographed in negative onto the surface of the block, which was sensitised using a variety of chemicals. As noted above, this technique allowed the drawing to survive, and it was also useful in allowing the designer to produce images of any size which could be photographically adjusted to fit the scale of the block. The process was quick and efficient, relieving the illustrator from the tedium of having to draw his image in reverse, this effect having been achieved by the use of negatives. For modern commentators the photographic technique has the added advantage of allowing us to study the changes that came about as a result of engraving. In the case of the two illustrations mentioned here, both are fine, intricate works in ink and pencil, heightened in Chinese White; and it is interesting to compare Pinwell’s primary work with the Dalziels’ interpretation in black and white.

The differences between the two states was of course a primary concern for Pinwell and all of those working in this idiom. In the manner of an industrial process, some attempt was made at what we would call ‘quality control’. This involved submitting proofs of the engraved design. The prints were handed for checking to the publisher and artist, who would approve the image or suggest revisions. Pinwell was careful to protect the quality of his work, and there is at least one surviving letter in which he gives the engraver permission to proceed. Published here for the first time, it is probably indicative of his dealings with the Dalziels and William Linton, although the engraver on this occasion is his friend Joseph Swain. Dated 25 March 1875, the letter refers to his illustrations for Jean Ingelow’s Fated to be Free, which were then being prepared for the pages of Good Words. ‘Dear Swain’, he notes:

I think the engraving of the enclosed proofs very beautiful. I did not understand your letter when I received it – but I see now the lines are very fine and I dare say most troublesome to cut, but I am so driven with my work in the gallery that I have not been able to give the drawings the thought I could wish.

He also comments that he would ‘like a proof of the page block’, which would allow him to consider the effect of his designs and their relationship to the enclosing letter press.

Once the proof was approved the work was prepared for printing. However, it is important to point out that the process of approval was in itself a flawed procedure, and reveals a curious mismatch between the desire for quality and the demands of the printing technology. The artists approved the proofs taken from the wood, but the printing itself was done from metal electrotypes made from the engraved blocks, with ‘printing from the original block’ reserved for luxury editions. No-one seems to have commented on the fact that what was really needed was a proof made from the electrotype, which would have been slightly different from one struck from the wood.

Nevertheless, Pinwell and his associates accepted the established procedure. Positioned as artists who depended on the excellence of craftsmen, their relationships with the engravers were generally easy-going, with only Frederick Sandys and Dante Rossetti creating tensions and problems. Pinwell’s dealing with Swain is a more typical response, inscribed here in a single surviving letter.

Works Cited

ALS from George Pinwell to Joseph Swain, 25 March 1875. The Simon Cooke Collection.

Cooke, Simon. Illustrated Periodicals of the 1860s. Pinner: PLA; London: The British Library; Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2010.


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Last modified 10 April 2014