Early woodcuts were cut on the side grain of woodblocks with knives or gouges and, with some notable exceptions, generally gave crude images. Thomas Bewick (1753 - 1828) was a pioneering wood engraver who used metal engraving tools (burins or "gravers") to engrave images on the endgrain of harder woods such as boxwood.

Bewick was a superb draughtsman and his method allowed him to work in fine detail. He is particularly remembered for his illustrations of wildlife and two birds have been named after him, the Bewick's Swan and Bewick's Wren.

This illustration shows a Barn Own from Bewick's History of British Birds:

The methods developed by Bewick were quickly taken up and wood engraving became the most important common method of illustrating books. Engravers became very skilled at interpreting images drawn by artists and, eventually, photographs were printed directly onto the woodblock to be engraved.

Not all great engravings were technically proficient. In 1820-21, William Blake (1757 - 1827) engraved a number of small images for a school edition of Virgil. Blake was a skilled engraver on metal but these are relatively crude images. Despite this, they are without doubt my favourite wood engravings.

Here is an example:

During the 20th Century, several artists developed wood engraving from being a purely reproductive medium to produce very individual images. The works by artists such as Eric Gill. Gwen Raverat, Eric Ravillious, among others, are much admired and prized. In a time of photographic reproduction, wood engravings were used to illustrate fine editions of books in small editions by private presses. This engraving, called "Eve", is by Eric Gill:

It is almost impossible to work as a wood engraver today and not be aware of those who have gone before.

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