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Wood Block Prints Made Early Pictures

When John Foster, American born printer of Boston, cut the likeness of the Reverend Richard Mather on a short wood plank in 1670 and printed three pictures from it, he made the first known wood block and prints in the New World.

But carved wood blocks were anciently used in India to print her round playing cards and her cottons. China printed with engraved wood blocks eleven centuries B.C. And in the sacred Caves of a Thousand Buddhas in Chinese Turkestan, Sir Aurel Stein in 1907 found block prints dated 868 A.D., now in the British Museum. China made many one-color prints for religious mementos from the six hundreds on. She printed books with story and pictures and tried out movable wood type four centuries before Gutenberg printed his Bible.

Rome engraved wood blocks for pictures, according to Pliny, and used them to stamp important papers and to brand slaves. Persia printed with carved wood blocks on medieval illumined manuscripts. Venice, and Italy's other trading cities contacting the art rich East, carved wood blocks for pictures, playing cards and cloth; also for initial letters which scribes then elaborated on the vellum manuscripts for Church and nobles.

Wood Block Prints in Northern Europe

About the time America was discovered European artists were carving Bible scenes on wood blocks and printing them on sheets of paper. Some of these prints had color brushed on them. Priests honored generous parishioners with them or scattered them in religious procession on saints' days. Traveling monks left them as "guest presents." Pilgrims got them as mementos at famous shrines. They were the treasured pictures of the poor.

Northern Europe's first known print is Germany's St. Christopher, dated 1423, found in a convent at Buxheim pasted in the cover of a manuscript. Albert Durer's saints, people, horses and landscapes, using larger wood blocks, and wider lines to give bolder blacks and whites, produced prints that helped the rise of the common man.

Rembrandt developed his lights and darks. Holbein drew his Dance of Death series so powerfully that engravers said "Death lives, and the living seem already dead." The Netherlands made her Bible of the Poor, and other block books, a picture and printed story to the page, each page cut from a solid block of wood then printed on paper.

Coster cut separate letters (movable type) from tree bark to amuse his grand children; or Gutenberg got the idea; or it came over the ancient trail from China. Anyway, movable type let letters be used over, saved cutting labor, and gave us the Gutenberg Bible, Nuremberg newspaper, and endless prints and books.

Italy, France, Spain and England Made Wood Cuts

The twins, Alexander and Isabella Cunio, made medieval Italian prints portraying the deeds of Alexander the Great. Myriad religious prints in richly decorative lines followed. Leading artists, including Raphael, designed for wood blocks. The Dream of Polipbilo with its pictures and printed story carries Italy's most beautiful wood engravings. Italy also developed chiaroscuro (light and dark tones), made playing cards, and color prints imitating water color paintings.

In France, Jean Cousin and Bernard Solomon carved blocks for the widely cherished Books of the Hours with their fanciful designs, elegance of line, and elaborate borders. Jean Papillon cut his delicate pictures with fine knives made from clock springs and wrote his History of Engraving. Recently Auguste Lepere carved his Notre Dame Le Soir, wonderful in lights, darks, distances and textures.

England's Caxton printed Game and Playe of Chesse. Thomas Bewick changed the kind of wood block, printed in "white line" and made his British Quadrupeds and British Birds. Edmund Evans immortalized Kate Greenaway with his colored wood cuts, and Sir John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland illustrations are inimitable.

American Wood Engravings

Early block prints in America were mostly labels for cloth, perfume or soap, handbills, bills of fare, and playing cards. A few book cuts and frontispieces started a demand for "books with pictures."

Dr. Alexander Anderson cut many blocks in white line, as in his Returning From The Boar Hunt. J. H. Hall engraved A Manual Of The Ornithology Of United States And Canada In 1832. John Adams and J. G. Chapman with their 1600 cuts for Harper Brothers Illustrated Bible in 1843 really got American block prints off to a start. And Henry Marsh's Insect Life prints are famous for delicacy and tone gradation.

Illustrated newspapers such as the New York Mirror promoted wood prints. Leading magazines, such as Harper's, Scribner's, the Aldine Press, Godey's Ladies' Book, Our Young Folks, and House Beautiful, used choice prints. Timothy Cole's series of Italian Masters was printed in The Century.

Professor Powell's Explorations Of The Colorado River are art and history prints. So are Appleton's Picturesque America prints from Harley, Morse, Bogert, Landridge, Karst, Orr, Slader, Richardson, Halliwell, Annin, and others.

Gift books used many wood block prints. Dr. Holland's Bitter Sweet was illustrated by E. J. Whitney. Lowell's Vision Of Sir Launfal was engraved by Anthony. W. J. Linton engraved Katrina. And Midsummer Night's Dream had Bobbet's tinted engravings.

James McNeill Whistler designed The Major's Daughter, engraved by Dalziel Brothers. Joseph Pennell's unsurpassed prints include Deck Hand On The Mark Twain. Frank French made In The Enemy Country; Elbridge Kingsley did A Morning; G. D. Putnam made his A Waterfall By Moonlight; Henry Wolf his The Start Viva; and F. Jungling carved Bellow's The Parsonage.

Wood Block Printing Technique

Generally wood block pictures were designed on paper then pasted on a cherry or pear wood plank and cut with the grain, or they were drawn directly on the wood. After photography's invention the design was photographed on the wood, leaving the drawing for collectors.

The lines were left standing and the wood between gouged out. The lines were then inked black (or color) by brush, printer's ball, or roller. Dampened paper, laid on the inked block a sheet at a time, was rubbed till the paper "took" the picture. Prints were made till the edges of the lines wore down. This was the "black line" (raised) method.

When the printing press came prints were made by its pressure instead of by hand rubbing. Many test prints were made to adjust black, white and gray tones to suit the artist. These test prints or proofs too were collectors' pieces.

Chiaroscuro used two or more blocks, printing first the shadows and outlines, then the lighter parts, getting gradation of tones in whites, grays and blacks. It gave richness of coloring, depth, and atmosphere. Thinness or thickness of the ink, amount of pressure, and time in the press further affected color tones. Pads under certain spots added pressure and increased color. Cutting down the printing surface decreased pressure and lightened color. Width of lines and closeness of lines also controlled color.

The "white line" method popularized by Thomas Bewick used a cross grain slice of boxwood mounted on a block to fit into a printing form. The lines were gouged out and the block top inked so the depressed and uninked lines printed white in the inked surface.

Everything in wood blocks is done by line. A magnifying glass shows how the masters changed the width, length, frequency, direction and character of their lines to give shape of muscles or figure, textures of hair or skin, of leaves or grass, of sea, land and sky, adding density or transparency, depth and distance at need to make their figures and their landscapes real.

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