A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 7

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In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many of the finest churches in England were built by architects so celebrated that some of them were sent for to erect similar buildings in France. The beautiful carvings and highly decorated monuments still existing in our cathedrals prove that the art of sculpture in England was at that time little inferior to that of other countries. And in the British Museum and Bodleian Library, and many private collections, there is plentiful evidence that the miniature painters and illuminators were but little behind their brethren in Italy and France; even the binders, as we see by existing work, used excellent ornament in the decoration of the covers of their books. Why is it, then, that we find the art of wood-engraving, when it was flourishing in all the chief countries on the Continent, almost at its earliest state of infancy in England? This is a question very difficult to answer. Certainly our great printers, William Caxton, and his successors, Wynkyn de Worde and Richard Pynson, did not follow the example of the great typographers of Venice or the yet more-to-be-praised booksellers of Paris, who devoted so much energy and taste in the decoration of their books.

Of the few cuts printed in the fifteenth century, such as they are, we must say a few words. The earliest are all [ 62 ] small devotional pictures, representing Scriptural subjects, as 'The Image of Pity,' a figure of Christ on the Cross surrounded by emblems of the Passion; four or five only of these early cuts have been found.

William Caxton, the first English printer, who was born in the Weald of Kent about the year 1422, was apprenticed to Robert Large, a rich mercer of London, who was Lord Mayor in 1440. In the following year the master died and Caxton went to Bruges, where he prospered in business, and in 1462 was made Governor of a Company of English Merchants who traded in Flanders, then the foremost mercantile country in the world. In 1471 Caxton gave up commerce and attached himself to the court of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of Edward IV. At the request of the duchess, he then translated the Le Recueil des Histoires de Troye, written by Raoul Lefevre, and employed Colard Mansion of Bruges to produce it. This was the first book printed in the English language. In passing his book through the press Caxton learned the new art, and with type bought of Colard Mansion he set up the first printing-press in England, at the sign of 'The Red Pale' in the Almonry at Westminster, at the end of the year 1476. 'The Dictes and Sayings of Philosophers,' which appeared in 1477, is believed to be the first book printed in England; this was followed by 'The Morale Prouerbes of Cristyne,' and several other books, all without illustration. In 1478 he printed 'The Mirrour of the World,' the first book printed in England with cuts, one of which we give as an example; and the more famous 'Game and Playe of the Chesse,' from the second edition of which we have taken as a specimen 'The Knight,' which Caxton thus describes: 'The knyght ought to be maad al armed upon a hors in such wise that he have an helme on his heed and a spere in his right hond, and coverid with his shelde, a swerde and a mace on his left syde, clad with an halberke and plates tofore his breste, legge harnoys on his legges, spores on his heelis, on hys handes hys gauntelettes, hys hors wel broken and taught, and apte to bataylle, and coveryd with hys armes.' [ 63 ]

MUSIC (From Caxton's 'Mirrour of the World')

(From Caxton's 'Mirrour of the World')

(Orthography was not much regarded in those days.) This book is so rare and so keenly sought for that at the sale at Osterley Park in 1855 a perfect copy was bought for the enormous sum of 1,950l. In 1483 appeared 'The Golden Legende,' considered to be his magnum opus, on account of the beauty of the typography; and about 1490 'The Talis of Cauntyrburye' with 27 cuts representing individual pilgrims, and one with all the pilgrims seated round a large table. It is [ 64 ] said that Caxton printed ninety-nine different works, of which sixty-four survive either in perfect books or in fragments, which may be consulted at the British Museum. He produced the first printed edition of Chaucer, Lydgate, Gower, and Sir Thomas Malory's 'King Arthur.' He was an accomplished linguist, and translated and published Cicero's Orations 'De Senectute' and 'De Amicitia,' Virgil's 'Æneid' and many other classical works.

THE KNIGHT (From Caxton's 'Game and Playe of the Chesse')

(From Caxton's 'Game and Playe of the Chesse')

With one exception none of his books has a title-page, though some have prologues and colophons; and the pages are not numbered. They are all printed in the Gothic [ 65 ] character known as 'black letter,' and nearly all are in small folio size. Caxton, we are assured, received the patronage and friendship of all the great men of his time and was much esteemed throughout Europe; and from a miniature painting in a beautiful manuscript in the library of Lambeth Palace we know that Earl Rivers presented him with his first book in his hand to the King, Edward IV. It is supposed that he died at the end of 1491 in his sixty-ninth year.

WYNKYN DE WORDE'S MARK With Caxton's Initials

With Caxton's Initials

Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's pupil and successor, was a native of Lorraine. He probably came over with him from Bruges, and so attached was he to his master, and so highly did he esteem him, that in all the nine book-marks that De Worde used, he always included the initials W. C. The mark we have given is of rare occurrence, and is one of the best pieces of engraving of the time. Bibliographers have found four hundred books printed by him; among them is 'The Golden Legende,' with woodcuts (1493); a translation of 'Huon de Bordeaux,' from which Shakespeare borrowed the plot of his 'Midsummer Night's Dream'; and his best-known [ 66 ] work, often reprinted, 'Treatyses perteynynge to Hawkynge and Huntynge, and Fyshynge with an Angle,' by Dame Juliana Berners (1496), which contains many woodcuts, one of which, a man fishing, is very quaint (see engraving). A book which was 'imprynted at London in Flete Street in 1531,' called 'Pilgrymage of Perfeccyon, A devoute Treatyse in Englysshe,' is illustrated by three curiously folded woodcuts. De Worde was the first printer in England who used the Roman type. Several of his books have a woodcut on the title-page.

In his 'History of Wood-engraving,' Mr. Chatto gives his opinion about the cuts of this period:—'Although I am inclined to believe that within the fifteenth century there were no persons who practised wood-engraving in this country as a distinct profession, yet it by no means follows from such an admission that Caxton's and De Worde's cuts must have been engraved by foreign artists. The manner in which they are executed is so coarse that they might have been cut by any person who could handle a graver. Looking at them merely as specimens of wood-engraving, they are not generally superior to the practice-blocks cut by a modern wood-engraver's apprentice within the first month of his novitiate.'

Soon there were other printers in London. Richard Pynson began to publish books from his own press in Fleet Street. His first book illustrated with woodcuts appears to have been 'The Canterbury Tales,' printed before 1493. In the following year Pynson issued Lydgate's 'Falle of Princis' with numerous small woodcuts by a master-hand, which appear too good to be English.

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'FYSHYNGE WYTH AN ANGLE' (From 'The Book of St. Albans,' printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1496)

(From 'The Book of St. Albans,' printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1496)

For a 'Sarum Missal' of 1500, he used some beautifully engraved borders and ornaments, as well as a large cut of Archbishop Morton's coat of arms. Another of his important works was Lord Berners' translation of Syr John Froissart's 'Cronycles of Englande, Fraunce, Spayne, &c.' We give a [ 68 ] copy of Pynson's 'Mark,' but we fear both this and De Worde's were engraved on the Continent.



In 1498, Julian Notary established an office from which twenty-three books have been traced. Many of them have curious woodcuts, some of which seem to have descended to him from Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde. We find the decoration of the covers of Notary's works mentioned with approval in the early history of book-binding, which arrived at a much greater perfection than wood-engraving in this country at the close of the fifteenth century.