A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 13



It redounds greatly to the glory of Thomas Bewick that the important advance in the art of wood-engraving which was due to his talents and his industry did not die with him. He left behind him several eminent successors, whose influence is felt to the present day.

His brother John, seven years younger than himself, was his first pupil, and to him we are indebted for the illustrations to a work called 'Emblems of Mortality,' 1789, copied from Holbein's 'Dance of Death,' the 'Looking-Glass for the Mind,' and 'Blossoms of Morality,' 1796. Of these, the cuts in the 'Looking-Glass for the Mind' are decidedly the best, and after examining them carefully we cannot but regret that the artist was taken away so young. His drawings are very unlike those of his elder brother, and are certainly more graceful—we give one as an example of their style. Two other books, 'Poems,' by Goldsmith and Parnell, 1795, and Somerville's 'Chase,' 1796, also contain some of his best work; they were printed in quarto by Bulmer, 'to display the excellence of modern printing and wood-engraving.' For the former of these, John Bewick made most of the drawings, in which he was assisted by the clever artist, Robert Johnson, a fellow-pupil, and nearly all were engraved by Thomas and John Bewick, and a few by another pupil, Charlton Nesbit. For 'The Chase,' John Bewick made all the drawings except one, and nearly all were engraved by his brother. For five or six years John Bewick lived in London, till ill-health compelled him to return to his native place, where he died in the same year in which Somerville's 'Chase' was published. He was buried in Ovingham churchyard, where a tablet is erected to his memory.

LITTLE ANTHONY. BY JOHN BEWICK From 'Looking-Glass for the Mind'
LITTLE ANTHONY. BY JOHN BEWICK From 'Looking-Glass for the Mind'

From 'Looking-Glass for the Mind'

Robert Elliot Bewick, the only son of Thomas Bewick, was trained to the business of wood-engraver, and at one time, over the window of the house in St. Nicholas' Churchyard, there was a board with an inscription 'Bewick and Son, engravers and copper-plate printers.' Robert suffered much from ill-health and turned his attention to drawing rather than engraving. He died in 1849, leaving fifty beautiful designs for a 'History of Fishes,' which he had long in contemplation as a companion volume to his father's works. These drawings, the gift of the last of Bewick's daughters, are now in the British Museum.

The most celebrated of Bewick's other pupils were Charlton Nesbit, born at Shalwell, near Gateshead, in 1775; Luke Clennell, born at Ulgham, a village near Morpeth, in 1781; and William Harvey, born near Newcastle in 1796. Nesbit engraved a few of the tail-pieces in the 'Land Birds,' and most of the head and tail pieces in the 'Poems' of Goldsmith and Parnell. He also engraved, from a drawing by Robert Johnson, a large block, 15 inches by 12 inches, of St. Nicholas Church, Newcastle, which at the time was considered a triumph of art. About the end of the century Nesbit migrated to London, where for many years he was employed by Rudolph Ackermann and other publishers in engraving the drawings of the artist, John Thurston, whose work was at that time very popular. In 1815 Nesbit returned to Shalwell, where he continued to reside till 1830, doing but little work besides the engraving of 'Rinaldo and Armida' for Savage's 'Hints on Decorative Printing,' after a design by Thurston. This is considered to be his best work. He then went back to London, and was chiefly engaged in engraving drawings by William Harvey for the second volume of Northcote's 'Fables.' He died at Queen's Elms in November 1838, aged 63. Mr. Chatto says: 'Nesbit is unquestionably the best wood-engraver that has proceeded from the great northern hive of art—the workshop of Thomas Bewick.'

The story of Luke Clennell's life is very sad. Like many other artists, he showed an early disposition to make sketches on his slate instead of 'doing sums,' and was often reproved; his uncle sympathised with him, and in 1797 apprenticed him to Thomas Bewick for the usual seven years, during which time he engraved many of the tail-pieces to the 'Water Birds' and learned to make water-colour drawings from nature. When his apprenticeship was over he assisted Bewick in the illustrations to a 'History of England,' published by Wallis and Scholey, in which Nisbet had also joined, but finding that Bewick was paid five pounds for each cut, while he received only two pounds, Clennell sent some specimens of his abilities to the publishers, who immediately offered him work in London, where he arrived in the autumn of 1804. Two years afterwards he received the gold palette of the Society of Arts for a wood-engraving of a battle-scene, and soon afterwards he was engaged on illustrations to new editions of Beattie's 'Minstrel,' 1807, and Falconer's 'Shipwreck,' 1808. About this time he married the eldest daughter of Charles Warren, a well-known line engraver, and became intimate with Abraham Raimbach and other artists whose friendship was of much service to him. His most important work as a wood-engraver was the 'Diploma of the Highland Society,' a large block 13½ inches by 10½ inches, of which we give a much-reduced copy. Benjamin West made the original design on paper, Clennell himself drew the Highlander and Fisherman on the wood, and gave Thurston fifteen pounds to fill in the circle with Britannia and her attendant groups. After he had worked on the block, which was of boxwood veneered upon beech, for about two months, the same fate befell it that had ruined Bewick's 'Chillingham Bull'; one evening, while he was at tea, the boxwood split with a loud report, and it is said poor Clennell threw the tea-things into the fire! This was the sad beginning of a long malady. Taking courage, however, he procured a block made of pieces of solid boxwood firmly clamped together, paid Thurston again for drawing the central groups, and, after much labour, produced his chef d'œuvre, for which he received 150 guineas from the Highland Society, and was further rewarded with the gold medal of the Society of Arts, May 30, 1809. This second block likewise met with an untimely fate; it was burnt in the fire at Bensley's printing-office. John Thompson afterwards engraved it in fac-simile. A copy of Clennell's original engraving, bequeathed by Mr. John Thompson, may be seen in the Art Library at South Kensington.


Engraved by Luke Clennell

Among the best wood-engravings by Clennell we may rank the illustrations designed by Stothard as head and tail pieces for a small edition of Rogers's 'Pleasures of Memory,' 1810. They were drawn in pen and ink, and engraved in facsimile with charming spirit and fidelity. After this time, Clennell, who could work beautifully in water-colours, gave up engraving and exhibited drawings and paintings at the Academy, the British Institution, and the Exhibition of Painters in Water-Colours at their room in Spring Gardens. In March 1815, the British Institution set aside 1,000 guineas for premiums for the best oil-paintings illustrating the career of Wellington. One of these premiums was awarded to Clennell for his 'Charge of the Life Guards at Waterloo,' a picture full of spirit, which was afterwards engraved. In 1814 the Earl of Bridgewater gave him a commission to paint 'The Banquet of the Allied Sovereigns in Guildhall.' He experienced great difficulty in obtaining sitters for the necessary portraits, and suffered so much from anxiety that, although in April 1817 he had nearly conquered all his troubles, he suddenly lost his reason. This so much affected his wife that she also became insane and soon died. By the advice of his friends poor Clennell was sent to live with a relation who resided near Newcastle, and there he lingered till February 1840, when he died, leaving three children, who were for a time supported in a great measure by the Committee of the Artists' Fund and by the profits of the engraving of the 'Charge of the Life Guards.'

William Harvey was apprenticed to Bewick in 1810 and was his favourite pupil. He frequently made drawings on the wood after the designs of Robert Johnson, and engraved many of the cuts in 'Bewick's Fables,' 1818. On New Year's Day 1815 Bewick presented him with a copy of his 'History of British Birds' in two volumes, which he always showed to his friends with much pride. In September 1817 Harvey came to London and, to improve his knowledge of drawing, took lessons of an excellent master—B. R. Haydon. While under his tuition Harvey copied his picture of the 'Assassination of Dentatus' on a large block, and engraved it with most elaborate care. This cut has always been greatly admired by the profession, who point to the variety of the lines of engraving in the right leg of Dentatus as being a triumph of their art. If we can find any fault with this celebrated work, it is that, to use Mr. Chatto's words, 'More has been attempted than can be efficiently represented by means of wood-engraving'—it is, in fact, too much like an attempt to rival copper-plate line-engraving.

About the year 1824 Harvey had so many commissions for designs for both copper-plates and woodcuts that he gave up entirely the practice of engraving, and devoted himself to drawings for the illustration of books. His first successes were his vignettes for Dr. Henderson's 'History of Ancient and Modern Wines,' 1824, the illustrations to Northcote's 'Fables,' 1828 and 1833, the 'Tower Menagerie,' 1828, 'Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society,' 1831, and 'The Children in the Wood' and a 'Story without an End,' 1832. But perhaps his most characteristic designs were the illustrations to Lane's 'Thousand and One Nights' in 1834-40; these are considered to be his best work. He was at this time at the height of his reputation, and for twenty-six years more he almost monopolised the illustration of books published in London. Merely to give a list of them would occupy too much space. During the latter years of his life, Harvey lived near the old church of Richmond, and there he died in 1866. He was one of the most courteous and amiable of men, and though his designs were 'mannered,' they were always pleasant to look at, and often very poetical.

There were other pupils of Bewick who obtained some little fame. Among them were John Anderson, a native of Scotland, who assisted Thurston in illustrating Bloomfield's 'Farmer's Boy,' published in 1800 by Vernor and Hood; John Jackson, who was born at Ovingham in 1801, and Ebenezer Landells, born at Newcastle in 1808. Jackson for some reason quarrelled with his master, came to London and worked for William Harvey, who was much employed about that time in making illustrations for the various works issued by Charles Knight, including the 'Penny Magazine,' Knight's 'Shakspere,' 'Pictorial Bible,' 'Pictorial Prayer-book,' and a hundred other books which appeared between 1828 and 1840—under the auspices of that enterprising publisher. Some of Jackson's best work will be found in the 'Tower Menagerie' and other illustrations of animals designed by Harvey. He will always be remembered for the share he took in the 'Treatise on Wood-Engraving,' for which Mr. Chatto wrote the text. This work was undertaken at the sole risk of Mr. Jackson, who engraved many of the three hundred illustrations. It is a very valuable book and, supplemented by Mr. Linton's 'Masters of Wood-Engraving,' tells pretty well all that is ever likely to be known of this fascinating art. Jackson died in London in the year 1848.

At the death of Bewick, Ebenezer Landells came to London, 1829, and soon found employment in engraving designs for the Illustrated London News, Punch, and other periodicals. His studio became quite a nursery of art, and many excellent draughtsmen—among them, Birket Foster—and engravers were educated under his superintendence. He died at Brompton in 1860, the last of Bewick's pupils.

Going back to the last century we find that we have omitted to speak of another self-taught wood-engraver, Robert Branston, who was born in 1778 at Lynn in Norfolk. When he was twenty-one years of age he settled in London and soon found employment in working for the publishers. He engraved the 'Cave of Despair' from a drawing by Thurston for Savage's 'Hints on Decorative Printing' in rivalry with Nesbit's 'Rinaldo and Armida'; this is considered to be his best work. He also assisted in engraving the cuts in Scholey's 'History of England,' Bloomfield's 'Wild Flowers,' 1806, and a series of 'Fables' after Thurston's designs which, though beautifully executed, were never published. He died at Brompton in 1827. Among his pupils were his son, Robert Branston the younger, who for many years produced excellent work.

HAYMAKING. BY W. MULREADY, R.A. Engraved by John Thompson
HAYMAKING. BY W. MULREADY, R.A. Engraved by John Thompson

Engraved by John Thompson

John Thompson, one of the princes of wood-engravers, was born in Manchester in 1785, came to London early in life, and, after practising for some years under Robert Branston the elder, soon gained great distinction in his art. Like all other wood-engravers of the period, he was employed chiefly in rendering the designs of Thurston. In 1818 he engraved the illustrations to a new edition of Butler's 'Hudibras,' and about the same time he was engaged by the Bank of England to produce a bank-note which could not be imitated. Then followed the illustrations to the 'Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green,' 1832, Shakespeare, 1836, and the 'Arabian Nights,' 1841, all after designs by William Harvey. He also engraved many of the beautiful cuts in the books of Natural History published by Van Voorst. In 1843 he produced the work for which he will for ever be celebrated, the illustrations to the 'Vicar of Wakefield' from the drawings by Mulready—one of the most charming books ever published. It would take too much time to enumerate even the best of the engravings he executed in his long life. We must not, however, forget to mention that he engraved in gun-metal Mulready's design for a postal envelope in 1839, and the figure of Britannia which is still printed on Bank of England notes. He presented his collection of valuable woodcuts to the Art Library at South Kensington, and died at Kensington in 1866, aged 81. His son, Thurston Thompton, was also an excellent engraver.

Among the other celebrated wood-engravers of the latter half of this century were John and Mary Byfield, who engraved the facsimile cuts of Holbein's 'Dance of Death' and 'Scenes from Old Testament History' for Pickering's editions of these celebrated works; W. H. Powis, some of whose best work may be seen in 'Solace of Song'; J. Orrin Smith, born in Colchester in 1800, who placed himself under the tuition of William Harvey, and became a very expert craftsman, and whose best work may be seen in Wordsworth's 'Greece,' 'The Solace of Song,' Lane's 'Arabian Nights,' and in 'Paul et Virginie,' published by Curmer of Paris—Orrin Smith died in 1843; Samuel Williams, also a native of Colchester, who designed on the wood most of the works which he engraved—he was famous for his country scenes, the best of which are in Thomson's 'Seasons' and Cowper's 'Poems,' published about 1840—he died in 1853 in his 65th year; W. T. Green and Thomas Bolton, both excellent reproducers of landscape, and especially of the drawings of Birket Foster; Charles Gray, and Samuel V. Slader, all of the first repute; Orlando Jewitt, celebrated both for his beautiful reproductions of architectural work, for Parker's 'Glossary,' and other important works; and, lately, we have lost J. Greenaway, brother of the famous artist, Kate Greenaway, and W. J. Palmer, both excellent men and engravers of the very first class.



Still with us, we can only mention in a few words the modern prince of wood-engravers, W. J. Linton, who has for many years resided in America; W. L. Thomas, the originator of The Graphic newspaper, and one of the ablest artists in water-colours in 'The Institute'; Edmund Evans and Horace Harral, who so successfully rendered Birket Foster's drawings some years ago; J. W. Whymper, the brothers Dalziel and James Cooper, the producers of thousands of good engravings, and a comparatively new man, W. Biscombe Gardner, who excels in portraiture.

In Germany, during the last half-century, wood-engraving met with much encouragement, and reverting to the earlier and purer style of the fifteenth century, many artists and engravers produced work of great merit: E. Kretzschmar, of Leipsic, the brothers A. and O. Vogel, F. Unzelmann and H. Müller, rendered the drawings of Adolf Menzel and Ludwig Richter with careful exactitude. In the atelier of Hugo Bürkner, of Dresden, the much-admired 'Death as a Friend,' by Rethel, was engraved by Jungtow, and 'Death as an Enemy' by Steinbrecher: and A. Gaber, recently deceased, faithfully reproduced the drawings of Overbeck, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Oscar Pletsch, and Moritz von Schwind. Of living engravers we may refer our readers to the excellent examples of skill to be seen in the 'Meisterwerke der Holzschneidekunst,' a monthly periodical of great merit; and especially to the works of Pfnorr of Darmstadt; Höfel of Vienna; Flegel and Weber of Leipsic; Mezger and Vieweg of Brunswick; H. Günter, Karl Oertel, Lüttge, and E. Krelb.

In France no great advance has been made, and most of the engravers have been contented to produce work a little above mediocrity. Several French publishers have given commissions to English engravers—Orrin Smith, Henry Linton, and others.

In America great strides have been made, and, in the estimation of many excellent judges, the best works ever done by wood-engravers have been presented to us in the pages of the illustrated magazines. These publications excite our wonder not only at the great energy which is thrown into them, apparently without regard to cost, but at the immense success which they have justly achieved. Some critics disapprove of the style to which we have just referred, and say it is in too close an imitation of steel engraving, but it seems hard to censure works which have given unbounded satisfaction to so many thousand lovers of art.


Owing to the invention of various mechanical processes, and the perfection to which photography has attained, the art of wood-engraving would seem to be in danger of becoming extinct. This is by no means the real case, for the brilliant band of wood-engravers which has arisen in America, of whom we have just spoken, still continue to give us excellent examples of their skill; and especially we may mention the inimitable copies of paintings by the Old Masters by Timothy Cole, whose rendering of Paul Potter's 'Young Bull' excites our warmest admiration.

In England, under the influence of Mr. William Morris and his followers, a revival of this interesting craft, as practised in the fifteenth century, has been set on foot in some of the Schools of Art—notably at Birmingham, where in 1893 the students issued a Book of Carols illustrated with original designs, some of which were cut by the students themselves. This revival of the earlier and purer methods of engraving, coupled with a careful study of the possibilities of the art, may be taken as a sign that by no means the last chapter on the history of engraving on wood has yet been written.

At present, much of the new process work which we find in such over-abundance in newspapers and magazines is slovenly to the last degree. On the other hand, now and then we see beautiful results—the best in the American magazines; let us hope that the facile cheapness of this new craft—art it cannot be called—will in good hands soon achieve something more worthy of our regard.