Simon Lawrence, the proprietor of the Fleece Press in Upper Denby near Wakefield (above), is the descendant of Victorian block makers. For over forty years, Mr. Lawrence has been printing handsome limited edition books by and about wood engravers with wood engraved illustrations. Mr. Lawrence is not only master printer of illustrations from antique wood blocks, but a discriminating collector of them as well. While searching E-Bay in 2010 he came across some very intriguing descriptions and contacted the consigner to see if there were more where they came from. It turned out that the then owner, a house clearance dealer, had discovered a cache of nearly 650 printing blocks in a house in Kingsbridge, Devon, but didn’t know anything beyond that about the blocks’ provenance. His plan was to sell them piecemeal. Rather than have the group dispersed and destroying its research potential, Lawrence decided to purchase the entire lot from the dealer.
What must have looked like a very risky proposition at the time has proven to be well worth it because the majority of the blocks were made to illustrate eighteenth-century children’s books. And not just any children’s books, but those of John Newbery, the most important publisher for children of the 1700s, his step-son Thomas Carnan, a notable children’s book publisher in his own right, and Carnan’s successor Philip Norbury in Brentford near London. There are also forty copper printing plates from the Norburys. The box below contains the block illustrating the first stanza of the accumulative nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built, which can be easily picked out because the image has been dusted with chalk. No earlier set of illustrations are known and they appeared in John Newbery’s Nurse Truelove’s New-Year’s-Gift (1750). The survival of so many wood blocks made for this particular publishing house is truly miraculous, and scholars will thank Simon Lawrence for recognizing their value.
The blocks and some forty copper plates has been acquired by the Cotsen Children’s Library, as a very welcome addition to its superb collection of juveniles published by the three generations of Newberys. The four blocks below illustrate four lots knocked down at Charly Chatter’s Lilliputian Auction (1773): Friar Bacon’s brazen head which could see into the future, a bottle, a book, and a mirror, each with magical properties. Of course, the forthcoming descriptive catalogue of the Newbery collection will illustrate samples of the blocks. As soon as the collection has been unpacked and rehoused, the individual blocks will be scanned so that work can begin on an on-line searchable database so that the blocks and the images they bear will be widely available to researchers.