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End Grain: A History of Wood Engraving

The history of the medium of wood engraving evolved from the oldest printing technique, woodcut—which, in Western culture, goes back to the fifteenth century. A wood block is cut from a smoothed plank cut longitudinally from the tree trunk so that the grain runs in parallel lines to the block. Once the design has been established by cutting away the wood around the areas that will be printed, the block is inked with a small roller called a brayer. To print the block, a moistened piece of paper is placed on top of the block, along with a protective layer, called the tympan, and then put through the printing press. Alternately, a circular tool called a baren or even a spoon or the palm of the hand can be used to create enough pressure to print the inked block.

Enthusiasm for the woodblock waned in Europe after the sixteenth century, though it would revive again in the nineteenth century. In 1768, British naturalist and illustrator Thomas Bewick made his first wood engraving, using the grain side of the wood block. With this process, the block of wood is carved with a burin, an engraving tool, which creates a finer and more defined rendering than is possible with woodcut tools. Wood engraving blocks are typically made of boxwood or other hardwoods, such as lemonwood or cherry, and are expensive because end-grain wood must be cut from a section through the trunk or large bough of a tree.

The high reputation of Bewick’s work, interpreting nature succinctly with a series of tones varying from black to white, brought the process much acclaim. By the 1830s, the commercial ramifications of this technique were obvious: though the blocks were laboriously carved, they could be cheaply and quickly printed by letterpress, at the same time as text. Many of the block engravers were women, working freelance out of their homes. By the 1840s there were a number of firms who specialized in the manufacture of ready-prepared blocks, thus eliminating one of the time-consuming tasks of making a wood engraving.

By the end of the nineteenth century, wood engraving as a method for reproducing works of art or for illustration was disappearing, replaced by photography, a much quicker and more efficient process. But the rise of the small presses kept the process from totally disappearing, and by the early part of the twentieth century some artists were again reviving their interest in creating original wood engravings. In 1920 the Society of Wood Engravers was established in England by a group of artists which included Gwen Raverat, Eric Gill, Lucien Pissarro, Robert Gibbings, and Philip Hagreen. Their annual exhibitions, still held today, have attracted contributions from Clare Leighton, John and Paul Nash, and Paul Gauguin. The Society continues with annual traveling exhibitions of its members, who hail from Britain, Poland, Canada, the United States, Bulgaria, Japan, the Netherlands, and Australia.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs