W is for Woodcut

Woodcut printing is a technique that pre-dates the printed book; used for printing playing cards and religious prints, for example, as well as for block books. To create a woodcut image, the artist either drew directly onto a wooden block, or onto paper which was then pasted to the block. This image would then be carved in relief – so that the area to be inked stood out, whilst the white spaces in the finished image were carved into the block.

Whilst the very earliest of books were largely printed without any illustration or decoration – perhaps leaving spaces on the printed page to allow for these to be added by hand – printers quickly realised that woodcut printing offered a simple means to add decorative features and illustrations to texts. Crucially, the fact that woodcut printing was, like movable type, a relief technique, meant that images and text could be set and printed together, on the same sheet of paper. By contrast, intaglio printing techniques – which involve an image being incised into a surface – required a different kind of press (a rolling press) in order to produce an image. As a result, if illustrations produced using intaglio techniques were to accompany text on the same page, the sheet would have to be printed twice – once for text and once for image. This was a timely and a costly process.

Woodcuts, then, were the preferred method of producing images for early printed books. Earlier in the series we introduced the most highly-illustrated book of the 15th century – the Nuremberg Chronicles – with its 1809 woodcut images, produced using 645 woodblocks. Since woodblocks were durable, it was not uncommon to reuse images – sometimes even in a different work entirely.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is an excellent example of the close marriage of text and image that woodcut printing enabled.

Whilst the earliest woodcut images in books were generally fairly simple, outline images, designed to allow for colouring by hand, by the end of the 15th century the art of woodcut illustration in books had advanced such that the most sophisticated productions displayed considerable artistry, including the use of chiaroscuro effects to produce tones. Still, in terms of the quality of the finished image, woodcut was not able to compete with intaglio methods of printing. It was for this reason that copperplate printing eventually overtook woodcut as the preferred method of illustrating books, by around the middle of the 16th century. Because of the difficulties in printing text alongside copperplate images, it became common for illustrations to take up entire pages, which were then inserted in place before binding. As a result, books generally contained fewer illustrations and decorations than they had during the golden age of the woodcut.

The use of woodcut printing was just one of the techniques revived by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. The 87 wood-cut illustrations in this, the Kelscott Chaucer, are by William Harcourt Hooper, after drawings by Edward Burne-Jones.

References and further reading:

Hind, Arthur Mayger, An introduction to a history of woodcut, with a detailed survey of work done in the 15th century, 1935

MacLean, Robert, Book illustration: the woodcut2012

Suarez, Michael F. and H.R. Woudhuysen eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2010.

K is for Kelmscott

The first of the private presses, and one of the most famous, was the Kelmscott Press, which was founded by a key figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris (1834-1896), in 1891.

The Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to preserve traditional craftsmanship against what its proponents saw as the insidious growth of new technologies and mass production during the 19th century. They considered the industrialisation of the arts and crafts to be responsible for a decline in design and quality, and thereby in working and living conditions, with damaging detrimental effects on moral and social health. In book production these ideas led to the founding of ‘private presses’ – usually defined as printing presses that aimed at craftsmanship and artistry rather than profit, advocating a return to the materials and techniques used in early book production. The Kelmscott books were produced in a “quasi-medieval” style, drawing on Morris’s admiration for the design and craftsmanship of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books – in particular the work of 15th century Italian printers. Care was taken over all aspects of the book’s production – with Morris designing his own types, sourcing ink from Germany and paper handmade (in a 15th century Italian style) in Kent, and paying meticulous attention to all aspects of design. For many, the results of this painstaking craftsmanship are amongst the most beautiful books ever created.

“The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” (1896) is arguably the greatest accomplishment of the Kelmscott Press, with 87 woodcut illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones.

From “A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press…”, the last book to be printed at the press, in 1898.

Again replicating 15th century craftsmanship, many of the Kelmscott books are bound in stiff parchment, with silk fore-edge ties.

The Kelmscott Press, which closed in 1898, two years after Morris’s death, produced over 50 works, all in limited editions of on average around 300 copies. The University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives is very lucky to hold a complete set of the Kelmscott publications. They were bequeathed to the University by William Noble (1838-1912), who as well as being Treasurer of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, was an avid collector of illustrated, finely printed and limited editions of English books of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The colophon to Morris’s reprinting of William Caxton’s 1481 translation of “The History of Reynard the Foxe”. Morris’s edition had a print run of 300 copies.

Further reading: Peterson, William S. The Kelmscott Press: a history of William Morris’s typographical adventure (1991).

Morris, William. “A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press: together with a short description of the press by S.C. Cockerell, & an annotated list of the books printed thereat” (1898).