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A History of Northumberland

Wood engraving

In a certain sense one might claim that the woodcut technique employed from the year 1400 to our present-day Tal R is fundamentally the same. There may, however, be one exception as far as wood engraving is concerned.

At any rate it can certainly be said to be a technical subspecies of the woodcut. Whereas ordinary woodcuts used sidegrain wood from softer types of wood, the art of wood engraving used end-grain wood cut across the trunk of very hard woods, typically boxwood. The block was planed and polished until it became as hard as marble. This entailed several things. For one thing, carvers could work with much greater precision and with much finer lines than in woodcuts, and furthermore the technique allowed for many more prints to be taken before the block became worn down. However, this also meant that blockcutters were called upon to use other tools than the ones commonly used for woodcuts. Here, block-cutters would use tools usually employed for engraving instead, and indeed they would work with the block as if it were a metal plate for an engraving. Wood engravings are often executed in a mixture of white line and the traditional black line techniques.

Englishman Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was the one who made the technique well known and widespread in Europe and the USA in the late 18th century. Wood engravings were particularly popular for book illustrations because they allowed for many printings, and Bewick became one of the finest illustrators of all. However, the crucial benefit of wood engravings was that they were printed as relief prints just like — and in the same print run as — the text of the books, and at the same time it offered the same scope for detail as engraving. Engraving was an intaglio printing technique, meaning that it was difficult and expensive to use in connection with book printing. Besides its important role in connection with book illustration, wood engraving also became the 19th century’s dominant method of reproduction in newspapers and journals. After the invention of the photograph, but before photographs could be reproduced by means of rastering, wood engravings were used to reproduce photographs, a fact which kept countless professional wood engravers in work. With the invention of the raster technique around 1900, the use of wood engravings within such media faded away. A few artists also worked with wood engraving as a vehicle for artistic expression. Some carved their blocks themselves, such as William Blake (1757-1828), whereas others, among these Gustave Doré (1823-83), hired professional wood engravers to carry out the task. The illustrations for his famous bible were created as wood engravings.

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