Posted by: Melissa A. Hubbard | May 17, 2011

Thomas Bewick’s Wood Engravings

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle, by Thomas Bewick

SCRC has recently acquired a copy of the Cherryburn Press edition of prints by Thomas Bewick. Bewick is known for pioneering the technique of wood engraving in the late 18th century. Prior to that, there were two basic methods used to create printed images. The oldest is woodcutting, which involves carving a design out of the plank side of the block of wood. The design, which is elevated above the rest of the woodblock, is then inked and pressed onto paper to create an image. This was a convenient method of illustration, because the woodblocks could be printed alongside type to create a printed sheet containing both text and image. The intaglio method of illustration involves cutting a design into a sheet of metal. The design is recessed below the plane of the sheet, and ink flows into the lines. Pressing paper onto the sheet with sufficient force causes the ink to be absorbed by the paper, creating the image. Intaglio methods such as engraving required the use of fine metalworking tools, and allowed illustrators to create more detailed and nuanced images than could be produced by woodcutting. However, intaglio plates had to be printed separately from text.

Bewick apprenticed as a metal plate engraver, and soon developed an innovative technique that combined some of the best qualities of woodcuts and metal plate engravings. He used a burin, the engraver’s tool, to carve designs out of the hard end grain side of a woodblock. Because he was using a finer tool and a harder surface than those of a typical woodcut, he was able to produce more detailed designs in wood. Like traditional woodcutting, this was a relief process, meaning that wood engravings could be printed along with text. This new technique also added to the aesthetic options available to illustrators, as wood engravings look distinctly different from woodcuts or metal plate engravings.


Vignette, by Thomas Bewick

Wood engravings were quickly embraced for use as vignettes, which are small illustrations or designs placed in books, usually at the beginning or end of chapters. Bewick himself created many vignettes, but he is best known for his wood-engraved illustrations of birds, originally published in his own ornithological work, History of British Birds.

The Cherryburn Press edition of Bewick prints recently acquired by SCRC contains a selection of 100 Bewick wood engravings, printed from the original blocks in 1970. Although Bewick carved the blocks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this edition shows even and detailed impressions, demonstrating the longevity of engravings on end grain wood. By contrast, traditional woodcuts tend to warp and lose detail over time. The blocks used for this edition are housed in the Newberry Library in Chicago. SCRC’s copy of A Portfolio of Thomas Bewick Wood Engravings is available for viewing and research in the Morris Library reading room. Two prints from the portfolio are currently on display in the Hall of Presidents and Chancellors as part of the exhibit “Bringing Light Out of Darkness: A History of Woodblock Printing.”


Turkey, by Thomas Bewick


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