Pre-Raphaelite Illustrations: The Wood Engraving Process
Created by Laura MacCulloch
02 June 2009
During their careers the majority of the Pre-Raphaelite artists designed illustrations for publication in periodicals and books. Many of them found illustrating a useful additional source of income, as well as an enjoyable artistic outlet. From the mid-nineteenth century wood engraving began to dominate as the preferred method of production. This was due to an improvement in the technology associated with the process and the clarity of the designs. By the 1860s the market for books, periodicals and illustrated newspapers had exploded, and wood engraving was at the height of its popularity among engravers, publishers and artists. The two main engraving firms in the 1860s were Joseph Swain and The Dalziel Brothers. Their work dominated the market and they sought out many of the leading artists, including the Pre-Raphaelites, to design illustrations for their publications.
This resource aims to provide an overview of the wood engraving process using the large number of objects related to Pre-Raphaelite illustration in the Birmingham collection. These items include preliminary drawings, woodblocks, printed proofs and the final illustrations. The collection offers a unique insight into the various stages of the wood engraving process and the relationship between the artists and the wood engravers who translated their designs into carved woodblocks.
Although the collection is rich in objects relating to several of the Pre-Raphaelites this resource examines the work of two artists whose careers as illustrators are particularly well documented by the collection: Ford Madox Brown (1821-1892) and Frederick Sandys (1828-1904).
Each stage of the wood engraving process will be outlined using visual sources from the collection.
Frederick Sandys produced illustrations for several books, including 'English Sacred Poetry' (pub. 1862) and the 'Dalziels’ Bible Gallery' (pub. 1881), but the majority of his commissions were for periodicals popular with the middle classes, notably 'The Cornhill Magazine,' 'Good Words' and 'Once a Week.'
Conversely, Brown worked almost exclusively on book illustrations. He often re-worked his designs into paintings, spending a vast amount of time on the conception and preparation for each composition. For this reason, he produced far fewer illustrations than Sandys.
In the heyday of wood engraving it was most often not the publishers who commissioned artists to execute designs for their publications but the engravers. Extracts from Brown’s diary and letters to him from the Dalziel Brothers, offer an insight into how engraving firms approached artists with whom they were interested in working.
On 4 March, 1856, Brown recorded in his diary: 'came home and found Dalziel here with a note from Rossetti, wants me to do him a Prisoner of Chilon [sic] on wood.' (Virginia Surtees, ed. 'The Diary of Ford Madox Brown,' London and New Haven, 1981, p. 165)
By 1863, having already worked with Brown, the Dalziels felt bold enough to write to him with an idea, rather than meeting him in person. In a letter, dated 19 November 1863, the Dalziels wrote, 'we send 6 subjects [for a proposed illustrated Bible] from which you can select 3 or if they do not suit you then we must think of more or perhaps you can suggest what you would like to do.' (Letter to Ford Madox Brown from the Dalziel Brothers, 19 November 1863, V&A)
Engravers, such as the Dalziels, held the Pre-Raphaelite artists in high regard and sometimes allowed them a certain amount of artistic freedom to choose the subjects which most inspired them.
Preparatory Drawings: Compositional Sketches
Having received a commission both Sandys and Brown spent a considerable amount of time on their designs, approaching them in virtually the same way as they would a painting, by making numerous preparatory drawings.
This sheet of drawings includes a very early compositional sketch for Brown’s illustration Joseph’s Coat, which was published in the 'Dalziels’ Bible Gallery.' The scene illustrated is from the story of Joseph and depicts the moment when Joseph’s father, Jacob, sees his son’s blood stained coat of many colours. Brown’s conception of his design as a printed illustration is highlighted by the way he has already surrounded the composition by borders, as it would appear in the final wood engraving. He uses very loose, sketchy lines to help him put the design in his head onto the page. He appears to have had trouble with the pose of the Jacob’s granddaughter. In order to perfect this figure, he seems to have hired a young model. We can see from the drawings around the sides of the paper that he asked her to try out several poses before settling on one and adding her costume.
Having come up with a composition, Brown and Sandys often worked on particular sections of the design such as figures, drapery and accessories. This is a detailed drapery study for the bottom of the dress worn by the mother in 'The Sailor’s Bride,' published in 'Once a Week' (vol. 4, 13 April 1861, p. 434). Sandys illustration accompanied a poem of the same name, by Maria E. James, about a sailor who returns home after a long voyage to find his fiancee has died. The artist depicted the overwhelming grief of the sailor and the mother of the bride-to-be, who comforts him.
The Pre-Raphaelite dedication to ‘truth in nature’ extended to their illustrations, as this rather grotesque study of a corpse by Ford Madox Brown makes clear. As mentioned above, in 1856 the Dalziel brothers commissioned Brown to illustrate Byron’s poem 'The Prisoner of Chillon' for an anthology entitled 'Poets of the Nineteenth Century' (pub. 1857). The stoical hero of the poem is imprisoned in a dungeon with his two brothers, each chained to a column, and is forced to watch both die. In order to make his illustration as realistic as possible Brown asked his friend John Marshall, an assistant surgeon at University College Hospital, London, to arrange access to a cadaver. Brown spent two days making this study of the dead body. He arranged the corpse as he wanted it, even including a rope to stand in for the chain that ties the dead brother to the wall. On 13 April 1856, he described the sombre task in his diary:
'Out shopping, then to University hospital to ask John Marshall about a dead boddy [sic]. He got one that will just do. It was in the vaults under the dissecting room. When I saw it first, what with the dim light, the brown & parchment like appearance of it & the shaven head, I took it for a wooden imulation [sic] of the thing. Often as I have seen horrors I really did not remember how hideous the shell of a poor creature may remain when the substance contained is fled. Yet we both in our joy at the obtainment of what we sought declared it to be lovely & a splendid corps [sic]. Marshall evidently loves a thing of the kind.' (Virginia Surtees, ed. 'The Diary of Ford Madox Brown,' London and New Haven, 1981, p. 167)
Once an artist was satisfied with their design they produced a final drawing in pen-and-ink. Before the late 1860s, when photography began to be used to transfer the design to the woodblock, the composition was reversed in the engraving process. This can be seen by comparing the final wood engraving to this drawing for the illustration 'The Boy Martyr' (pub. 1862). Sandys has completed most of the composition but some details, such as the smoking burner on the altar, have not been added. This is a trait found in several of the final pen-and-ink drawings by Sandys in the collection and it seems that he liked to make alterations to the design whilst working on the block.
This example is for the illustration ‘The Entombment’ by Brown, which appeared in a collection of German hymns entitled 'Lyra Germanica - the Christian Life' (pub. 1868). By this point, Brown had undertaken a number of designs for wood engraving. His growing confidence and greater understanding of the printed medium is highlighted by this highly worked line drawing; it is only on close inspection that it reveals itself as a drawing rather than a print. Producing finished drawings gave a good indication of what the final illustration would look like, but had the additional benefit of being saleable works of art. Brown sold this one for 12 pounds, the same amount of money as he was paid for the illustration.
In order to transfer his design onto the woodblock Sandys made tracings, many of which are held in the Birmingham collection. He only traced the basic outlines of the design, giving himself a rough guide, and added the detail directly onto the block.
Drawing on the Woodblock
Often artists pasted their pen-and-ink designs onto the woodblock. However, many, like Sandys, preferred draw directly onto the block. This is a rare example of an uncut woodblock. Sandys has drawn the design onto the block, but it was never engraved. Before an artist could begin drawing on a block it was coated in a thin layer of watercolour known as 'Chinese white.' This would allow them to see the lines they would be adding more clearly. Traces of this white layer can still be seen on this woodblock.
To draw on the block Sandys used a thin brush and ink. His first experience of wood engraving appears to have been quite confusing. He later told a friend ‘that his first box-wood block was a puzzle to him when he received it … he knew nothing of the correct method of preparing it; it was impossible to work on its smooth surface with either pencil or pen, and he finally drew the [design] line by line with a brush and Indian ink, and found the process so simple and the result so satisfactory that he always thereafter employed the same method.’ (Betty Elzea, 'Frederick Sandys 1828-1904: a Catalogue Raisonne,' 2001, p. 200)
Artists were required to draw the design onto the block in reverse so that it would be printed the right way round. The blocks used in wood engraving were made of boxwood, an exceptionally hard and durable wood. They were cut on the end grain which made them less likely to split and easier to carve as the engraver did not have to fight against the grain. You can see the end grain on this block. In fact it is possible to see two opposing grains which reveals that it is not made of a single block, but two joined together. The woodblocks used for engraving were generally small (rarely over five inches) and, if a larger image was required, the blocks were often bolted together as in this example. Here, the two blocks can clearly be seen by the split running down the middle of the design.
The name ‘C Wells’ and the word 'INVENTOR' have been etched onto the side of this block. This refers to Charles Wells, who invented a system for bolting blocks together in 1850. This allowed engravers to extend the size of the block, but also meant that they could be taken apart and shared between different engravers to speed up production. Wells was a life-long friend of Joseph Swain who ultimately engraved 'The Sailor’s Bride.'
During the engraving process the artist’s drawing was destroyed. This worried the Pre-Raphaelites, who valued their drawings-on-the-block as a works of art in their own right. They also wanted to be able to compare the original with the printed version, in order to check that the engraver had faithfully translated their design into wood. To get round this problem they turned to photography and once they had completed a drawing-on-the-block they took it to be photographed. The Birmingham collection has two photographs of drawings-on-the-block by Sandys. Above is a photograph of the woodblock for The Boy Martyr. Several differences can be found. Firstly, both the design and Sandys’ monogram are in reverse. Secondly, the grain of the wood can be seen, particularly on the wall by the martyr’s head. Lastly, there is no engraver’s signature, again indicating that this is a photograph of the drawing, not the wood engraving.
The lines on this woodblock for Joseph’s Coat reveal that it was made of 5 separate blocks. The Dalziels seem to have preferred to join their blocks together using a ‘groove and tenon joint.’ This involved making a groove on the two sides being joined together and inserting an additional piece of wood between them. This gave the join extra strength and the surface of the wood could be polished to make it appear seamless. Like the uncut woodblock for ‘The Sailor’s Bride,’ this block has the name C. Wells engraved on the side. This indicates that Wells produced woodblocks for both Swain and the Dalziel brothers, but that the Dalziels preferred the more traditional method of joining.
Once Brown had drawn his design for Joseph’s Coat on the woodblock, he passed it to the Dalziels for engraving. The wood engraver used a metal burin to cut away the wood that had not been drawn on. This produced the design in relief. The ink would stick to the raised sections, leaving what had been cut away blank. Previously wood engraving had been done using a knife, but this produced far coarser designs and allowed for little subtlety in shading. At the start of the nineteenth century, Thomas Bewick (b. 1753) pioneered the use of the metal burin, used primarily in metal engraving and etching, for wood engraving, allowing better quality images to be produced.
For most book illustrations and large-circulation periodicals a wax mould was taken from the woodblock and a metal electrotype (stereotype) version made which would be used for printing, thus prolonging the life of the wooden original.
Once the woodblock had been engraved a ‘proof’ was printed. This was a test print which would be sent to the artist for approval. Most often, proofs were printed by hand or with a small press on delicate India paper. The artists were able to amend the proofs by adding written comments or white watercolour. These would then be returned to the engraver who would have to alter the engraved woodblock before the proof printing was repeated.
Once Sandys had drawn his design for 'The Sailor's Bride' onto the block, it was given to W. H. Hooper to engrave. After the woodblock was complete, proofs were printed for Sandys to approve. However, he was not pleased with the results and demanded that his design be re-engraved by Hooper's employer, Joseph Swain. This is one of two proofs of the engraving by Hooper in the Birmingham collection (see also 1906P875.3). The collection also holds two of the final wood engravings by Swain (1906P875.1 and 1906P875.2). Comparing these with the proofs reveals the two engravers' different approaches to translating Sandys' design in wood: Hooper keeps the thin, more subtle lines drawn by Sandys, producing a greyer image in which the head of the grieving man is almost lost in shadow; Swain is bolder, including thicker lines, more flat blocks of white, thus creating a brighter image with a greater contrast of black and white.
This is the proof for the illustration 'The Boy Martyr,' which accompanied a poem of the same name by Walter Thornbury in 'Once a Week' (vol. 7, 22 November, 1862, p. 602). The poem described the story of a young Christian forced to fight in a gladitorial contest. Miraculously he wins, but refuses to give up his faith and is killed by lions, sent into the ring by the Emperor Nero. In the bottom left corner of the print Swain has added his name and ‘Sc.,’ the abbreviation for Sculpt, to signify that he engraved the design.
The published Illustrations
This is the final printed version of Sandys illustration 'The Sailor’s Bride,' engraved by Joseph Swain. This example has been cut from a page of 'Once a Week,' the periodical in which it was published. The start of the poem is printed on the other side. As can be seen from reading the final verse, Sandys used the poem as a springboard for his imagination, choosing to continue the story in his illustration by depicting the moments after the sailor sees his bride-to-be has died.
Unlike Sandys’ illustration 'The Boy Martyr,' the final wood engraving of 'The Etombment' was not a mirror image of the finished pen-and-ink design. By the late 1860s, engravers had begun to use photography to transfer the design onto the block. This made the use of tracings, and drawing directly onto the block, almost obsolete. The design for 'The Entombment' was originally commissioned by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. for one of the stained glass windows at Gatcombe Church on the Isle of Wight. The bold black lines used by Brown in the original stained glass cartoon translated easily into a wood engraving.
This resource has outlined the process involved in producing a wood engraving in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Despite its heyday in the 1860s, by the 1880s it was being superseded by other more mechanised processes, notably photo-engraving, which did not require the services of the highly skilled wood engraver. The Pre-Raphaelites were champions of wood engraving and they relished the high level of craftsmanship it involved. Through their serious dedication to producing high quality images, the status of illustration as a whole was raised. The works of two Pre-Raphaelite artists have been the focus of this exploration of the wood engraving process, but the examples shown are a fraction of the works by these artists on the website as a whole. Indeed, they represent an even smaller fraction of items related to Pre-Raphaelite illustration in the Birmingham collection and it is hoped that this resource is a springboard for further exploration of the subject, using the website.
Rodney Engen, 'Dictionary of Victorian Wood Engravers', Cambridge, Chadwyck-Healey Ltd., 1985
Paul Goldman, 'John Everett Millias: Illustrator and Narrator', exhibition catalogue, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 2004
Paul Goldman, 'Victorian Illustrated Books 1850-1870: the heyday of Wood-engraving', London, British Museum Press, 1994
Paul Goldman, 'Victorian Illustration: the Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians', Aldershot, Lund Humphries, 2004
Joanna Karlgaard “The Hartley Collection of Victorian Illustration.” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2007). 28 Jan 2009. http://www.jois.cf.ac.uk/articles.php?article=38
Laura MacCulloch, 'Forgotten Images: The Illustrations of Ford Madox Brown,' in 'Ford Madox Brown: the Unofficial Pre-Raphaelite', exhibition catalogue, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2008, pp. 32-38
Gregory R. Suriano, 'The British Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators', Newcastle, USA, and London, UK, Oak Knell Press and the British Library, 2005
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