Wood Cuts/Wood Engravings

Wood Engravings: Eric Ravilious ‘Sussex Landscape.’ 1931. Tirzah Garwood ‘The Wife.’ 1929.

The term woodcut is often used to cover the woodcut proper and wood engraving which came much later, consequently a useful distinction is lost.

With woodcuts the design is drawn on a block and the parts which are white are cut out, cutting with the grain of the wood, leaving the surface in relief. The surface is then covered with ink and printed.

Wood-cuts are the oldest method of Relief Printing, the Chinese practised printing from wood long before moveable type was used in Europe. Just exactly when wood cuts were first used is not known but in the British Museum a Chinese manuscript bears a woodcut dated AD. 868, the earliest known illustration in a printed book. The illustration shows Buddha discoursing to Subhiti amongst a crowd of figures, all drawn in flowing black line.

Wood Cut: Buddha Discoursing to Subhiti

The first paper was used in China during the Eastern Han period (25–220 BC), During the 8th century, Chinese paper making spread to the Islamic world, replacing papyrus. By the 11th century, papermaking was brought to Europe, where it replaced animal-skin-based parchment and wood panels. Papermaking reached Europe as early as 1085 in Toledo and was firmly established in Xàtiva, Spain by 1150. The arrival of paper in Europe saw the introduction of wood blocks, both illustrations and lettering reproduced on a single printable block of wood.

Wood Cuts: The block book ‘Biblia Pauperum, printed in the Netherlands c1450. A page from William Caxton’s ‘Aesop’ 1484,

One of the earliest English printed books with illustrations is William Caxton’s is Aesop’s fables printed in 1484.

As an art form Albrecht Durer took the wood cut to new heights creating over 300 wood cuts including in 1498, a series entitled ‘The Apocalypse’ which capitalised on the popular belief that the beginning of the 16th century would bring about the end of the world. 

Wood Cut. Albrecht Durer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Copper engraving, an intaglio process, took the place of wood cuts in the 16th century but could not be printed at the same time as the type. Wood engraving was developed to imitate the fine line quality of copper engraving and printed in relief. To facilitate the fineness of line a harder wood was requited.  Hence boxwood using the end grain of the wood was used cutting into with a graver rather than the knife used with a wood cut.

The plain surface of the block is used as a black ground then using the graver to cut white lines.  It is like drawing on a blackboard with chalk as opposed to drawing with a pen on paper.

Thomas Bewick 1753 – 1828 perfected the art of wood engraving adopting metal-engraving tools to cut hard boxwood across the grain, producing printing blocks that could be integrated with metal type, but were much more durable than traditional woodcuts.

Wood Engraving. Thomas Bewick: The Chillingham Bull, 1789

The best known of all Bewick’s prints” is said by The Bewick Society to be The Chillingham Bull, executed by Bewick on an exceptionally large block for Marmaduke Tunstall, a gentleman who owned an estate at Wycliffe in the North Riding of Yorkshire.

Being so hard boxwood can produce thousands of prints. Thomas Bewick calculated that one of his cuts was sound after 900,000 prints !

Wood Cut: Graham Bennison ‘The Bishop’s Brig.’ Wood Engraving: Graham Bennison ‘ The Broken Fence, Foodieash.’

I hope these two works can further illustrate the difference between a wood cut and a wood engraving. The first image cut against the grain is chunkier. The second image on a far cheaper wood than boxwood (unfortunately !!) displays finer lines.

The early 20th Century saw wood engraving widely used for book illustration. The printer would make an electrotype from the block (a metal duplicate) and print from that.

Notable wood engravers:

Gwen Raverat: Jeu de boules, Vence, 1922

Paul Nash: Garden Pond. 1922.

John Nash: Shearing Sheep, 1923

AND AGAIN……….one of my favourites

Tirzah Garwood: The Wife B & W. 1929.

“The Wife,” was made before Tirzah was married. In the spring of 1929 Tirzah celebrated her 21st , shortly after developing appendicitis. The summer holiday that year was spent in Brittany with Barbara Church, the sister of Tirzah’s former fiancé Bob Church. Tirzah recalled: ‘I did a picture of myself sitting on one side of a big double bed and called it “The Wife.” It was one of a series I was doing called “Relations” for a calendar for the Curwen Press.’

It was a year later that she married Eric Ravilious.

This blog made with help from:- ‘The Illustration of Books’ David Bland 1962.

‘A History of Wood engraving’ Douglas Percy-Bliss 1964 (first published 1928).

‘Hornet & Wild Rose, the Art of Tirzah Garwood.’ Anne Ullmann. 2020. https://fleecepress.com/hornet-wild-rose

Graham Bennison July 2022. https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist

3 thoughts on “Wood Cuts/Wood Engravings

  1. Hello Graham,

    Another interesting tour – thank you!

    I’ve had a three week IT crisis, thankfully now resolved. (A lesson: a backup is useless if you have no machine to restore your backup to).

    I’m looking forward to returning to Ravilious at the end of this month, which is busy. Meanwhile I hope you’re enjoying my ‘War’.

    Best, John



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