Above is the half-title illustration from Kate Greenaway’s collection of children’s poetry Marigold Garden (London; New York: G. Routledge and sons, ). “Printed in Colours” by Edmund Evans, the book is full of excellent examples of color wood engraved illustrations. Sometimes referred to as chromoxylography (from the ancient Greek roots for “color-wood-writing”), color wood engraving was one of the most popular forms of color printing during the 19th Century. A variety of wood engraving, using an engraver’s burin to cut relief images against the grain of a hard wood block, color wood engraving employed multiple blocks to make color images: often employing one block per color.
Rare Books PZ8.3.G75 Mar3, title-page.
Yet examples of the actual blocks used for this once ubiquitous process are few and far between. Perhaps this is because contemporary printers didn’t value the blocks after their job was done (namely printing illustrations). Wood engraving blocks were often used or reused so much (for different editions of some work or even shared across different publications) that they wore down or broke over time; becoming utterly useless for printing. Others were simply discarded or re-purposed (probably burned) after a print job was completed so that they wouldn’t take up valuable space in a print shop.
But as historical artifacts, wood blocks (and other printing surfaces like lithographic stone or intaglio plates) can be extremely informative about the history of the book, revealing more about the process involved than the finished product (i.e. books) can show us. Cotsen is lucky enough to have the original color wood blocks for the half-title illustration of Marigold Garden. Besides being beautiful objects in their own right, the blocks elucidate aspects of the production of Marigold Garden that have up till now, been otherwise unknown or unrevealed.
Cotsen 32262. Each block measures only about 3 x 2 x 1 inches.
As primary sources the blocks illustrate the color wood engraving process. They give us a first hand glimpse into Evans’s methods and style showing, through comparison, how he designed and layered blocks in order build a multi colored image. With close scrutinization of both the blocks and the resulting illustration we can discern the block printing order with more certainty (from lightest to darkest): pink, yellow, orange, green, blue, and black (the “key block” for printing the line work). Notice too how the ink in the “pink” block has not only turned orange over time, but reveals the grain of the wood on the flat raised printing surface (see below).
Cotsen 32262. Here are the blocks and illustration paired for comparison. Notice how the image in the blocks is the reverse image for the finished product (converted during the printing process as the blocks are pressed onto the paper).
Close analysis of the wood blocks themselves, including areas other than the printing surface, reveals even more about the production of Marigold Garden. By looking at the backs of the blocks, we find the name “T. I. Lawrence” carved (with a burin) into the blocks themselves.
Cotsen 32262. Back of the “Blue” block. “T. I. Lawrence” is just visible across the bottom right of the block. It looks thick paper was once affixed to the back of the block. This may have been done by the printer to help the blocks reach “type height” in order to be flush with type used on the page. Or it may have been pasted on later in order to mount the blocks for presentation.
Using cutting edge research tools (a little bit of googling) I was able to discern the identity of T. I. Lawrence. From the website of Lawrence art supplies, I was able to discover a well informed (complete with sources) meticulous family history of Lawrences who have been art suppliers for seven generations. It turns out that Thomas John Lawrence Junior (1840-1887) was an engravers’ block manufacturer and most likely the wood block supplier for this work. With close analysis of the wood blocks themselves, I was able to add this missing link to the book production process.
Looking closely at the blocks also reveals more about their use. Printing blocks were subjected to a tremendous amount of pressure during the printing process. As a result, many would crack after continuous pressings. Notice above how the “green” block has a significant horizontal crack across the upper left side. Such cracks are sometimes visible in illustrations using well worn blocks. But, with a little attention, cracks could be repaired for continual use without blemishing the image. Savvy printers like Evans could extend the life of a wood block by inserting new wood joints and rejoining cracks and splits:
Cotsen 32262. The top left edge of the “green” block.
Cotsen’s six blocks for the half-title illustration reveal how much work and preparation is involved in creating just one small 3 x 2 inch image. Larger images would have required multiple wood blocks joined together (using end grain wood from young box wood trees meant that the size of engraving wood blocks was limited to a few inches), often employing several wood engravers working together to complete a single image. Can you imagine then how much more labor and time was required to make a larger image (or, indeed, the whole book)?
Rare Books PZ8.3.G75 Mar3, page 20. I count seven colors requiring seven blocks, how many do you see? This illustration also reveals one of the primary advantages of printing from wood blocks. Images and text could be printed together since wood blocks and printer’s type could fit together in the printer’s forme (unlike the popular rival to color wood engraving: the chromolithograph).
Wood blocks and other printing surfaces help tell the story of the labor and people involved in making books. They can also be used to help teach and illustrate the history of printing and illustration. With close consideration of these once disregarded pieces of manufacturing equipment we can learn so much more about the history of books and the process of their creation.
Heads up for a blog extravaganza! Next week, in celebration of banned books week, Cotsen will highlight a banned children’s book every day!