Thursday, September 24, 2009

Newspaper Wood-Engraving

The history of wood-engraving for reproduction in England properly begins with Thomas Bewick, whose bucolic wood engravings of birds, animals, cries of London, and illustrations to Aesop caught the fancy of the British public. Bewick’s influence on illustrated commercial art was to enormous. When Bewick died in 1828 many of his wood-blocks came into the possession of Jemmy Catnatch of Alnwick, in Northumberland. When Catnatch moved to London he began using the Bewick “cuts” over and over to illustrate his catchpenny broadsheets and children’s books. The wood-engraving process begun by the “father” of the wood-cut would last until mass reproduction of pen and ink drawings in newspapers and magazines first became possible in the 1880’s with the invention of the line process block, which used photography to transfer the artists’ pen drawing to a metal plate and on to the printing press.

Below is an explanation of the wood-block printing process from “The Pictorial Press its Origin and Progress” by Mason Jackson, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1885. This is not the entire chapter only the section dealing with the actual process. Some artists like Sir John Gilbert, R. A., drew directly on the block with no preliminaries.


  1. An amazing document. The amount of sheer hard work that went into one engraving boggles the mind, yet the Illustrated London News had page after page of them. It's scary to see the author's final example, where the main figures' heads are divided among several blocks. How could they ever have done it?

  2. The time and expense involved explains why the cheap publishers kept old blocks and used them over and over. Bill Blackbeard sent me some photocopies of the old penny dreadful Charley Wag and I was later to find that the copy in the Ono collection contained the same illustrations but different page nos. Blocks would be used until they were falling apart and when a firm went out of business the blocks were often sold along with the premises to a new publisher who used them in entirely different works.

    Since PD's never mentioned if it was a first edition this caused no end of frustration finding the original dating for a work.