The work for which Thomas Bewick became known as a master was wood engraving. While much of the day-to-day work in a general engraving enterprise such as that of the Beilby-Bewick partnership involved engraving on metal for various purposes, as well as engraving on glass, a considerable amount of work involved the process of printing from engraved copper plates. Wood engraving accounted for a relatively small proportion of the daily work load of the shop, and this was also the case after 1800 when Bewick operated the shop on his own. There were presses for copperplate engraving in the shop, but wood engravings had to be proofed by hand or printed elsewhere in Newcastle.
Both copperplate engraving and etching are intaglio methods of fine printmaking. In intaglio printmaking, lines are engraved with metal gravers or etched into a copper plate with the use of acid. The plate is then inked and wiped clean, leaving ink in the incised lines. The plate is printed with great pressure, usually through a set of rollers, so that the dampened paper will absorb all the ink from the lines in the plate.
In relief printmaking methods such as that of the woodcut and wood engraving, the printing technique is like that of a rubber stamp: only the raised areas are inked, and this is printed by hand or by using a press whereby the ink block is pressed onto the paper with relatively light pressure (as compared to intaglio printmaking).
The technique of cutting a wood block for printing is very ancient. But in the Western artistic tradition, the woodcut was often used to produce illustrations for books after the invention of the printing press. Various knives and chisels were used to cut into a plank of wood, cut along the grain, like a board. It seems that wood engraving developed during the late Sixteenth century when boxwood, cut across the grain, was used in the printing trade. The harder wood allowed for the use of the tools of the metal engraver, and greater detail was possible then what could be achieved in a woodcut.
The blocks used in a wood engraving were generally cut to the same height as printing type so that an engraved block could be printed at the same time as a text from the type. The hardness of boxwood could also sustain thousands of impressions without wear: something that was not possible with plank woodcuts and copper plates.
The wood engraving technique made possible the printing of Bewick's books in relatively large editions, with the illustrations appearing alongside the text, rather than in a series of separate "plates" as was usually the case with books illustrated with engravings from copper plates. Pennant's books on natural history, published during Bewick's lifetime, and with which he was familiar, were illustrated with copper-plate engravings.
Wood engraving, as practiced by Bewick was white-line engraving. Essentially, this is a dark-to-light technique whereby the white areas are cut away. Any black line on the print is essentially the impression the raised line in between two incised lines. The greater naturalism of a subject drawn in terms of light and dark was really the essence of Bewick's engraving. He did not have to resort to the use of cross-hatching in imitation of drawing.
One of the refinements employed by Bewick in his wood engraving technique was that of 'lowering' areas of the block so that, upon printing, the 'lowered' areas printed more lightly, resulting in the achievement of greater illusion of atmospheric perspective and depth, and a more varied and interesting image.
A large number of transfer drawings are to be found in the collections of the British Museum in London and the Natural History of Society of Northumbria in Newcastle upon Tyne. These show very clearly that in the case of drawings an engravings executed by Bewick, a mere outline was often the only element of a drawing transferred to a block. Bewick's skill as an engraver was such that he could produce effects of fur and feather at will, as well as a fairly detailed landscape background without the benefit of the transfer of such detail to the block itself.
The detailed drawings that do exist show Bewick's deft draftsmanship and, occasionally, his subtle and sparing use of colour, but it is though his wood engravings that Bewick really distinguished himself, and achieved such fame during his life-time, and continued praise and recognition since then. His mastery of the medium has rarely been equalled and never surpassed.
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