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Engravings By a Woman's Hand

IT seems obvious enough to say that a wood engraving is an ink print made on paper from a wood block that has been engraved - its flat surface cut into with sharp steel tools. But then this description might also be applied to a ``woodcut,'' and the two methods are distinctly different.

Woodcutting has a much longer history. Although the wood cut, made with knives and gouges on a ``plank'' of wood, can be astonishingly fine and sharply precise - think of the minutiae of D"urer's woodcuts - wood engraving is, strictly speaking, a much more meticulous and intimate technique.

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Thomas Bewick, working in 18th-century Northumberland, England, virtually invented wood engraving, using the graver or burin of the metal engraver, but to engrave on ``end grain'' wood instead. ``End grain'' means the block is made of a piece (or joined pieces) of wood taken from a tree sawn across the girth of its trunk or branch rather than up and down its length. Boxwood is the preferred timber, very close and hard, though pear is sometimes used.

As frequently encountered in the book illustrations of the 19th century, wood engraving was a reproduction skill performed by trained craftsmen. Bewick himself, however, had been both the original artist and the engraver of his detailed engravings of birds and animals. But in the following century, wood engravers - virtually all of them men - very rarely were artists. They were practitioners of a trade widely employed by popular publishing houses, translating an artist's work into a medium adapted for tremendously long print runs.

But at the close of the 19th century new processes rapidly made such professional - and often remarkably skillful - wood engravers redundant. Photographic methods of reproduction - photogravure and collotype in particular - arrived on the scene.

Rather surprisingly, wood engraving itself did not die. In fact it began a new life in the hands of artist-craftsmen of a different class and with fresh ambitions. Reborn out of the ``arts and crafts movement'' - as fostered by such educational initiators as William Lethaby and teachers like Noel Rooke - wood engraving started to be taught in art schools in Britain. It was still often used for making book illustrations, but now for special editions, for the limited productions of private presses, for books in which images were quite as important as, or more important than, the written text itself.

Increasingly wood engravings, in spite of their smallness and continued restriction to black and white, have become self-sufficient prints, works of imagination and unique quality in their own right. Wood engraving is no longer the servant of the written word or the mere craft of illustration.

It has been taken so seriously, in fact, in the last 80 or 90 years that some of its devotees see it as a medium of art no less important than painting and sculpture. This is not, however, a generally held view; wood engraving (even more perhaps than other kinds of printmaking) still tends to be relegated by the art world to the status of a craft, like pottery or stained-glass making. Nevertheless it has developed vigorously in this century and has shown itself perfectly able to generate fresh strains and subspecies of the medium. And it unquestionably boasts among its ranks some highly original artists.

A book, published last year in Britain (Virago Press, London), written by Patricia Jaff'e makes a further - revealing - point about this band of 20th-century wood engravers: that a large number of the more outstanding ones are women.

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Her book, ``Women Engravers,'' concentrates mainly on what she calls ``pioneers.'' She discusses and illustrates such people as Gwen Raverat, Clare Leighton, Joan Hassall, Agnes Miller Parker, Gertrude Hermes, and Monica Poole, all British or British born. Although Jaff'e glances at some work in the United States and Australia, her book suggests that Britain is very much the home of wood engraving.

Of the three illustrations on our page, Gwen Raverat's ``The Fen'' of 1935 is the earliest. Actually Raverat did many of her engravings as book illustrations, but this larger print of the Cambridge (England) river banks she had known since childhood was engraved for its own sake. Patricia Jaff'e points out that ``the strength and originality'' of Raverat's ``painterly directness'' is the special value of her work.

``She took her burin and used it to express form impressionistically in terms of light.'' The language of wood engraving is found in the most vivid contrast: the blacker the black, the whiter the white, the more expressive the print. Raverat did not hesitate to exploit this. She used intermedi- ary gray areas sparingly, and ``The Fen'' is a study in brilliance: trunks and branches of the willows silhouetted, a network through which the brightness of sky and meadow shines.

If it is the white light in Raverat's work that stands out, in Clare Leighton's prolific output of illustrations and independent prints, it is the intense black shadows which predominate. Her finished prints still seem to be in the mysterious process of emerging from blank darkness, of forms shaping out of a void. The fields with shocks of wheat, one of her ``decorations'' for a 1940 edition of Thomas Hardy's delightful novel ``Under the Greenwood Tree,'' are characteristic of both Leighton's accurate and heartfelt observation of rural detail and of her vigorous stylization.

Wood engraving for Leighton (an American citizen since 1945) has gone beyond craft to visual language. It is a direct means of expression which allows her to capture essences with a singular directness. A writer herself, she has written some telling things about wood engraving. Jaff'e quotes her observation in 1932 that wood engraving was very much to the taste of the times: ``...with its severity of discipline it appeals to the modern artist, whose interest is primarily in strong organized shapes.''

Albert Garrett has written of Leighton's work: ``[It] is characterized by the large swinging curvatures which delineate her strong sense of volume. These long engraved lines were a new experience in wood engraving.'' He adds that her long lines - by no means, of course, the only kind of white mark she engraves out of the black shadows of the block - are ``relaxed'' rather than ``taut.'' There is, certainly, a freedom which comes from an economy of effort in her work; it balances the ``severity'' she referred to. The result has something of the combined rigor and ease of nature itself.

Leighton wrote admiringly of the Russian wood engravers of the 1930s, and what she said seems to contain an element of self-criticism, or at least a measure for her own engraving. She praised the Soviets for their ``aliveness,'' and compared it with the English failing of being ``too much dominated by craftsmanship'' and also with the German wood engravers (and she is probably thinking of the German expressionists of ``Die Brucke'' group earlier in the century). The Germans, she says, ``have little concern'' for craftsmanship, ``concentrating upon the emotion of their subject. The Russians seem able to combine the good executive development with an aliveness that the English lack.''

Highly refined, in a stylistic sense, is the work of Monica Poole. Her ``Piddock Architecture'' (1975) shows to an admirable degree the minute nuance and exactness of form and tone possible for a wood engraver of exceptional skill. It also illustrates potently the parallel between the interests of the carving sculptor and the wood engraver.

Jaff'e almost inevitably refers to the English sculptor Henry Moore as she writes about Poole. ``Piddock Architecture'' was made after ``a piece of chalkstone on her desk.'' She quite obviously relishes the natural process of boring and delving into the soft rock just as a bivalve mollusk does. She uses her graver in lieu of the sculptor's chisel, incisively, precisely; the final image is clear, exacting evidence of her bringing sharp steel tools to bear on the surface of hard boxwood.

These three prints, in quite different ways, all epitomize a statement made by Noel Rooke, teacher of wood engraving, in 1925. Patricia Jaff'e quotes it:

``A good print,'' he said in a lecture, ``is as unlike a drawing as anything can be. Good draughtsmanship is, if it were possible, even more necessary in making a print than in making a drawing.... It is a combination of apparently contrasted qualities, aloofness and vitality, which makes a good print unlike anything else in the world.''

`A sense of excitement in contemplating the pristine block must be, to some degree, a common experience for all engravers. A new block is like that tiny door for Alice in Wonderland: The engraver bends down and peers through into a scene which it seems almost impossible to achieve. The tools will pick and stroke little pieces out of the surface of that wood, the engraver enjoying - as the potter does - the intimacy of two hands working together on one design; the free hand is busy turning the block ... moving it onto the point of the tool if a long curve is wanted, or positioning it for a cut at a different angle. What are removed are those parts which will appear white in the finished print; the progression is from darkness towards light. Once one had begun, the sensation of something becoming brighter between one's hands is very real and absorbing.... The result is a print which could have been achieved in no other way....' - Patricia Jaff'e in ``Women Engravers,''

reprinted with permission of Virago Press

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