A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 6

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Before we begin our brief history of wood-engraving in France it will be well to speak of the technical part of the new art in the fifteenth century. We have already stated that the engraving of the 'St. Christopher' and other large prints were cut with a knife on planks of apple or pear or other close-grained wood; but there has always been much doubt about the small book illustrations which appeared in various countries quite at the end of the century. The discovery, however, of some engraved blocks of metal solved the difficulty. In those days workers in metal were to be found in all large towns; the age of moulding and casting everything that could be cast had not then arrived: of course, coins and medals were made in the foundry; but handwork of the most perfect kind on metal was as common as wood-carving for the churches.

Experts have discovered twisted lines in some of the old prints; a line in a woodcut may easily be broken but it can hardly be bent, and it is now asserted that many of the woodcuts, including the beautiful initial letters in Fust and Schoeffer's 'Psalter,' were really engraved on metal. The view of London at the head of the first page of the Illustrated London News is, we are told, cut in brass; Mulready's well-known envelope, engraved on brass by the celebrated wood-engraver, John Thompson, may be seen in the South Kensington Museum; and scores of other examples of metalwork of this kind might be cited.

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(Published by Vostre)

And there is no doubt that the famous illustrations of the Missal, or 'Book of Hours,' issued in Paris between 1490 and 1520, were engraved on metal of some kind, perhaps on copper or some amalgam of tin and copper. There was a metal known as 'latten' in those days, and probably the engraving was done on some material of this kind, not too hard to cut, not too soft to wear away. It will be noticed that the groundwork of many borders in the French books is filled with little white dots, criblé it was called; these dots are, in the first place, to imitate similar work in the gold grounds of the borders of illustrated missals, and, in the second place, to save the labour of cutting away so much of the metal as would be required for a white ground. These dots were evidently [ 53 ] made by means of a sharp and finely-pointed tool driven by a blow into the metal. (See page 59.)

France was not early in the field with illustrated books, but she quickly made up for the delay by the excellence of her work, more especially in ornament. In 1488, Pierre Le Rouge, a printer and publisher, sent forth a book, 'La Mer des Histoires,' which contains many charming designs, from which beautiful wall-papers we know of have been borrowed; they are as well engraved as similar work at the present day, and only needed better 'over-laying' by the pressman, an art but little practised at that time. This book contains the first decorative work by wood-engraving we have met with, and shows the great excellence of art in France at this period. There is a good example, though much reduced in size, among the illustrations of Mr. William Morris's paper 'On the Woodcuts of Gothic Books,' that he read before a meeting of the Society of Arts in January 1892: it is printed in the Journal of the Society for February 12th.

Besides Le Rouge, there were in Paris at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries four celebrated printers, who were also publishers, whose books command our attention. Their names are Simon Vostre, Antoine Verard, Thielman Kerver, a German, and Guyot Marchant; they all published the 'Book of Hours,' illustrated and decorated by the best artists and engravers of their time. There was likewise a printer named Philippe Pigouchet, who was also an engraver on wood, and who began by cutting blocks for Simon Vostre, and afterwards turned publisher on his own account. An important point to notice in connection with the illustrations of French 'Books of Hours' at this time is that they are nearly all inspired by German artists and nearly all copied from illuminated MSS.

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THE DEATH OF THE VIRGIN (From a Missal published by Simon Vostre)

(From a Missal published by Simon Vostre)

[ 55 ] At the end of the fifteenth century the art of illumination was at its height in Paris. No one excelled the exquisite work of Jean Foucquet, servant to the King, and Jean Perreal, painter to Anne of Brittany. Manuscripts containing their miniature paintings command a large sum whenever they are offered for sale at the present day. These artists, it is said, gave their aid to the publishers of the 'Book of Hours' (Heures à l'usage de Rome), which had such an enormous sale that each publisher produced an edition for himself. Mr. Noel Humphreys asserts, in his 'History of the Art of Printing,' that no fewer than sixty editions were published between 1484 and 1494. In his 'Introduction to the Study and Collection of Ancient Prints,' Dr. Willshire says: 'Towards the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries some well-known French printers—Pigouchet, Jean Dupré, Antoine Verard, and Simon Vostre—published some beautiful "Books of Hours," ornamented with engravings having some peculiar characters. The chief of these were that the ground and often the dark portions of the print were finely criblé or dotted white, serving as a means of "killing black"—a practice then prevalent among French engravers; secondly, each page of text was surrounded by a border of little subjects engraved in the same manner, and often repeated at every third page.... Not unfrequently they were printed in brilliant ink on fine vellum, that they might compete with the illuminated MS. "Books of Hours" then in fashion. The prints decorating these books have been generally considered to be impressions from wood.' But Mr. Linton says they are from engraved blocks of metal; and every practical man will, we are sure, agree with the great living Master of Wood-engraving.

Our first illustration is from a 'Book of Hours,' or Missal, published by Simon Vostre in 1488. It represents 'The Death of the Virgin,' a subject that was always chosen by the illustrator of religious books in those days; in our account of wood-engraving in the next two centuries we shall frequently meet with it among the works of the great artists. [ 56 ]

THE PASSION OF OUR LORD (After a painting by Martin Schongauer. From a Missal by Simon Vostre)

(After a painting by Martin Schongauer. From a Missal by Simon Vostre)

[ 57 ] The Gothic framework of the cut is evidently borrowed from church ornament. The expression of the faces in the crowd of visitors is far in advance of anything we have seen hitherto in the German cuts; and the engraving, which was probably on metal, is evidently facsimile of the drawing and is remarkably well executed. The narrow border on the right of the cut is from an illuminated manuscript. In another of Vostre's Missals we find a copy of an engraving after the German painter, Martin Schongauer, 'Christ bearing the Cross,' enclosed in a French Renaissance frame. In the sky there is a good example of the criblé work of which we have spoken. The towers of Jerusalem in the background must have been evolved from the artist's inner consciousness: he certainly never saw the Holy City.

Antoine Verard also published many 'Livres d'Heures,'[1] very much like Vostre's. We are told that he frequently printed a few copies on the finest vellum and had them coloured in exact imitation of the illuminated Missals. One of Verard's patrons was the Duc d'Angoulême, a noted bibliophile, who commissioned him to print on vellum the romance of 'Tristan,' the 'Book of Consolation' of Boethius, the 'Ordinaire du Chrétien,' and the 'Heures en François,' all with illuminated borders and handsome bindings. For this great amount of work Verard received about 240l., then equivalent perhaps to 1,000l. of the present day. We give an outline copy of one of the pages of the romance of 'Tristan,' which will repay much attention both for the principal subject, the King's Banquet, and the tapestry on the wall, which ought to be coloured to be properly appreciated. This famous publisher issued also a huge chronicle in five folio volumes, the 'Miroir Historical,' profusely illustrated with good wood engravings; the first volume in 1495, the last in 1496. [ 58 ]

THE KING'S BANQUET (From the romance of 'Tristan,' published by Antoine Verard)

(From the romance of 'Tristan,' published by Antoine Verard)

Thielman Kerver, the German, also brought out many 'Books of Hours,' copying those issued by Simon Vostre in a most barefaced way; indeed, piracy of this kind was rampant all over Europe, and but little regarded. We give [ 59 ] a reduced copy of Kerver's book-mark; in the original it will be seen that the background is criblé, thus suggesting that it was cut on metal.



It was Guyot Marchant who produced, in 1485, the first edition of the 'Dance of Death,' which contained seventeen engravings on ten folio leaves, with the text printed in the old Gothic characters. This awe-inspiring but highly popular subject had been painted on the walls of many public buildings in Germany and France, and in past ages it had always been a great favourite with the lower classes (many of our readers will remember a version of it on the walls of the curious old wooden bridge at Lucerne, the designs of which have doubtless been handed down by tradition)—but [ 60 ] Marchant was the first who printed the story in a series of woodcuts, well drawn and admirably engraved, and he had his reward, for the work was reprinted over and over again. The Pope, the Emperor, the Bishop, the Duke and the Duchess are given with much spirit, and are evidently the work of a clever draughtsman, who might, however, have made his Death a little less hideous. But there was a great love of the horrible in those days.

A special chapter might well be devoted to the beautiful marks used by French printers. Guyot Marchant's mark represents leather-workers engaged at their trade, and above are a few musical notes. There are two varieties of this device. The mark of Jehan Du Pré is an elaborate piece of work, in which heraldry plays a conspicuous part, while that of Antoine Caillaut is pictorial. The Le Noirs used devices in which the heads of negroes figured prominently. The well-known mark of Badius Ascensius represents printers at work. Jehan Petit used several beautiful cuts, in which his mark forms part of an elaborate design.

  1. In a recent Catalogue, Mr. Quaritch offers no less than seven different editions of the illustrated 'Livre d'Heures' printed by Verard, at prices varying from 60l. to 200l.