Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Big Book, Little Medium

I don’t always whine about the Anna Amalia Library’s collection being too Eurocentric. Yesterday (in my weekly screening of the New Books stacks), I came across a humungous folio size volume entitled “Interpretive Wood-Engraving: The Story of the Society of American Wood–Engravers” by one William H. Brandt (Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware, 2009).

What an epiphany for this once obsessive Brandywine Valley familiar. A really neglected chapter in our cultural history was this mini-efflorescence in the last two decades of the nineteenth century of a cadre of wood engravers, many German and British immigrants.

They mostly made famous paintings accessible to culturally mobile Americans who couldn’t afford the Grand Tour. Not that they totally ignored American artist. There’s Alsatian Henry Wolf’s 1885 "interpretation” of Eastman Johnson's ”The New England Peddler”, Union Army vet J.H.E. Whitney’s 1891 version of Andre Castaigne’s "The Post Office in San Francisco,” Walter Aikman’s 1887 version of a photograph “Scene in Hope Ranch”.

Timothy Cole, whose 1918 interpretation of John Singer Sargent’s "Woodrow Wilson," was born in England in 1852 and came to America with his family when he was five, was in Chicago during the great fire of 1871, where the family piano and violin were destroyed. They moved to New York and found work as a wood engraver. When he asked for better assignments, he was fired! He started selling his engravings to the American Tract Society. They caught the eye of the art editor of Scribner’s Monthly.

When that mag became The Century Magazine in 1881, he was commissioned to do two wood engravings in Europe a month for $250 each. It was an assignment he couldn’t always make, but his series of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, English masters made him famous in America as one of their greatest wood engravers. He got gold medals at the world fairs of Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1900, Buffalo in 1901 and St. Loius in 1904.

The National Academy of Design made him a full member in 1908, a rare honor for that minor genre. He was one of the 9 founders of the The Society of Wood-Engravers. And when he died in 1931, the Print Club of Philadelphia mounted a month long memorial exhibition complete with catalog and biography.

Woodcuts of course were the the first printmaking technique. By drawing on the plank side of a piece of fine grained wood and then cutting away all the wood between the marks of the wood was a drawing in relief. Ink was then applied and paper pressed against the relief surface. When the paper was pulled away, the resulting image was a replica of the drawing, i.e. a woodcut.

Master print makers like Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein were using this technique in the late 1400’s. Prior to the nineteenth century wood cuts were the preferred mode for printing illustration with type. Then the graver made the reappearance of the white line. Renewed, the wood medium drove out intaglio-engraving (on steel and copper).

The book is a labor of love. Bill Brandt’s day job is a scientist at Oregon State. He not only explains the whys and wherefores of the then newly ascendant medium which made illustrated journals possible, he tells you the history and present state of collecting these treasures. The enthusiasm of the amateurs who literally love their hobby of collecting ensures that their passion will survive the replacement of their genre by photographic reproduction.

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