Wood Engraving

R.J. Beedham


THIS book is not a treatise upon the art of wood-engraving. It is simply a description of the tools and materials required by a beginner and the method of using them. It is not intended to assist anyone to become a commercial engraver, for that trade requires a long and specialized training. It is intended rather for those who have occasion or opportunity or inclination to make illustrations or ornaments for books and who are revolted by the degradation to which the art of formal drawing has been brought by photographic ‘process’ reproduction.

The ‘line’ block and the ‘half-tone’ have one clear claim to usefulness: viz, when an exact facsimile is required. It is doubtful, however, whether process reproduction would have been developed very far if its use had been confined to those occasions, and those only, when exact facsimile was of vital importance. Process reproduction owes its success to its commercial possibilities more than to its real merits, for, in spite of the frequently reiterated boast of those engaged in business that nothing can be a commercial success that does not ‘supply a want,’ by photographic reproduction a speed and cheapness have been obtained which have seduced both artists and the public. A ‘want’ has certainly been supplied, but it is a want of quantity rather than of quality, and, as in all cases where quantitative ideas are the motive force, quality has inevitably deteriorated so that book production has become a mere business and with no criterion save that of a commercial success.

It is of course impossible to stem the tide of commercial degradation until Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience take the place of Riches, Pleasure, and Laisser-faire as personal and national ideals. Such a change of heart cannot occur merely as the result of economic or social or philosophical propaganda; the matter is more fundamental than that. The modern world is founded upon a denial of absolute values, a denial of religion, a denial of God; upon such denials nothing can be built. Goodness becomes what the police will allow or can enforce. Beauty becomes what pleases the senses and Truth becomes what will pay.

Meanwhile it is possible for any individual that wills to do so to go out into the wilderness and to live and work in a manner more in harmony with the nature of man and the will of God. For it is in accord neither with the will of God nor the nature of man that any one should love himself more than his neighbour or his neighbour more than God. The present state of affairs is an unnatural and abnormal thing. It is a disease. And any one can by the grace of God cure at least himself and put his own affairs in order.

In the domain of art the remedy is the same as in any other. The thing good in itself must be found and loved. Relative values must give place to absolute, the lovely and lovable to the beautiful. ‘Does it pay?’ is not the question. Is it good in itself ? - That is the important thing. And the more you apply that standard to your own work and to that of others, the more you will find the necessity of personal responsibility.

But personal responsibility for work done is, from the point of view of commercial success, actually an evil! Make men responsible for their work and not merely for doing what they are told; make their own consciences their masters and the whole of our modern factory system will come tumbling down like a house of cards. For the factory system is a servile system in which personal responsibility is denied and of no factory article may you say: this is the work of such an one - he made it. In the matter of drawing and illustration and engraving, degradation is inevitable when one man draws, another touches up the drawing, another photographs, another touches up the negative, another prints it on the metal, another etches, another touches up the etching, another routs it, another mounts it, another proves it and another keeps the accounts and to crown all, another takes the profits. This excessive sub-division is inevitable where profit making is the motive power. It is, however, the artist and the workman who are to be blamed, not the man of business. (The man of business does his job very well. Certainly he has no right to be ruler, as he is at present, but it is our fault for allowing him to rule.) And as good men must precede good law, and not vice versa, so the individual must revolt against the evil system and not wait until the many are prepared to revolt with him.

Wood-engraving and wood-cutting have gone out of general use not because photographic process reproduction is better, or even because it is cheaper and quicker, but simply because larger profits can be made by employing many persons under a system of divided labour than by working in a small workshop and putting the quality of the work before the quantity of the output. The consumer or customer is flattered and his grosser appetites appealed to. The merchant does not ask himself what good thing he can supply but what he can supply at a good profit. The whole trouble is that the responsibility for the making of things is not in the hands of the workman but in those of the man of business - and this is hell.

The advantage of wood-engraving then is that it does away with several sets of middle men and places responsibility upon the shoulders of the workman. The workman who draws, engraves and prints his own blocks is master of the situation. He can blame nobody but himself if his work goes wrong. Whether it goes right or wrong depends upon his notions of right and wrong. The first thing is that he should be free to satisfy his own conscience and not be a mere tool in the hands of another. ‘Liber est causa sui, servus autem ordinatur ad alium’ (i.e. The freeman is responsible to himself—but for the slave someone else is responsible. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica).

Another advantage of wood-engraving is that it forces upon the workman some respect for the thing in itself and makes it impossible for him to place a merely relative value upon the art of drawing. Mere likeness to nature is much more easily achieved by drawing, whether in line or wash, upon paper. The graver and the wood both of them make their own demands and make mere imitation of nature almost impossible. The workman is compelled to consider his work primarily as an engraving and only secondarily as a representation. This is a good thing, for a work of art is primarily a thing of Beauty in itself and not a representation of something else, however beautiful that other thing may be. This the public does not understand. Hence the absurdity of allowing the public to be supplied by persons who are not workmen and who have no knowledge of the implications of good workmanship but are simply men of business out to supply whatever is most profitable to themselves.

He who would be an engraver must therefore start with a clear understanding that there is ‘no money in it'; though if he be patient and devoted he may make a living or a part of a living by it. Further, he must be prepared to start with the wood and the graver and his sense of what is beautiful in itself and not strain after effects. He should take it for granted that a zig-zag pattern such as a child would engrave is better than the most expert imitation of a sunset. In fact he must be prepared to begin at the beginning and to put the first things first.

E. G.
Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking