Woodblock printing: history, art, and science

On Friday 17th June 2016, the Centre for the Study of the Book hosted a workshop on the history, science and art of woodblock printing. Organized by Dr. Giles Bergel under a Katharine Pantzer Fellowship from the Bibliographical Society of America, the workshop focussed on English woodcutting and wood-engraving with particular reference to the so-called Charnley-Dodd collection of original wooden printers’ blocks assembled in Newcastle in the mid nineteenth century, used by several generations of Newcastle printers to print illustrations for ballads and chapbooks.

Science of woodblocks workshop 17 June 2016
Left to right: Nigel Tattersfield, Barry McKay, Graham Williams, Martin Kochany, Pip Wilcox, Joon Son Chung, Andrew Zisserman, Blair Hedges, Andrew Honey, Judith Siefring, Richard Lawrence, Elizabeth Savage, Martin Andrews, Paul Nash, Melanie Wood, May Sung. Not shown: Alexandra Franklin, Ben Higgins, Giles Bergel

Opening the proceedings, Dr. Bergel offered a brief history of the printers and their blocks, offprints of which can be seen in an 1858 catalogue  produced by Newcastle printer Emerson Charnley, and in an 1862 catalogue of the same set of blocks, with additions, issued by William Dodd.  The workshop was fortunate to have to hand the Bodleian’s copy of the Charnley catalogue, and even an original woodblock employed in the 1862 Dodd group in the possession of Graham Williams.

Charnley-Dodd woodblocks are also to be found in McGill University Library ; the British Museum ; and the Huntington Library. Dr. Mei-Ying Sung  next spoke on her work on cataloguing the large Armstrong Collection of woodblocks in the Huntington, including Charnley-Dodd blocks. A theme of the day, expressed also by Dr. Elizabeth Savage, Judith Siefring, Dr. Melanie Wood and others, was the necessity for collection histories and cataloguing standards for these printing materials, held in libraries, museums, working collections and elsewhere, that pose particular challenges for researchers and curators.

The workshop next heard from Barry McKay on the woodcutter only known by the initials ’RM’ on Charnley and other blocks employed to print chapbooks in Cumbria and elsewhere, some copied from stock blocks used over two centuries previously: the presentation testified to the power of combining bibliographical analysis of impressions, together with external evidence taken from book trade history.

There was a joint presentation from two members of Oxford’s Visual Geometry Group . Professor Andrew Zisserman explained the methods behind the ImageMatch tool , implemented by Visual Geometry alumnus Relja Arandjelovic in Bodleian Ballads Online. Joon Son Chung presented his award-winning ImageBrowse tool , the sorted output of ImageMatch clustered by block and under semantic ICONCLASS  keywords (the work of Dr. Alexandra Franklin for the original Bodleian Ballads Database). ImageBrowse provides powerful visualisations of woodblock degradation over time  as well as tools for comparing common, similar and neighbouring block-impressions. The work of Visual Geometry met with acclaim from all participants, as it has done throughout the bibliographical community.

Martin Kochany  from Hot Bed Press, Salford, presented a diagrammatic overview of the processes, objects and relationships under discussion, paying particular attention to methods of how blocks can be copied (in some cases, very accurately: see for example, the Bodleian’s early ballad collections ).

Woodcut diagram Kochany_sm
click on diagram to enlarge

Martin argued that printers will always find pragmatic solutions to the problem at hand, whether by ad-hoc block-repair, block copying or touching-up printed sheets by hand: ‘bodging’ is the norm. The matter of bodging engaged many of the other practitioners present, including Paul Nash, who presented a ‘dabbed’ type-metal cast of a woodblock made by him and Giles Bergel ; Richard Lawrence , Martin Andrews and Graham Williams, who presented some American woodblock-repair plugs (plugged holes can be seen in several Charnley blocks). Martin Kochany cautioned researchers trying to sequence apparently unique woodblocks to be aware of printers’ panoply of bodges, and to look for the contradictory or marginal cases that might define the norm.

The workshop briefly touched on the relationship between woodcut and wood-engraving. There was discussion of the tolerances of a woodblock used over a long working life, and how the development of wood-engraving was both a more robust and a more refined process, Nigel Tattersfield bringing his immense knowledge of the career and work of Thomas Bewick  to bear on the subject. Melanie Wood’s account of three linked collections at Newcastle University’s Robinson Library (the White , Burman-Alnwick  and Crawhall collections) also opened the discussion out from the Charnley-Dodd collection to a broader history of woodcutting and illustration design.

The workshop then concluded, but was immediately followed by a public lecture from workshop participant Professor Blair Hedges , who presented his work on the science of woodblock illustrations, with particular reference to species of woodworm  and to the cracking of blocks, or of carved lines, in relation to the woodgrain or to the thickness of the line. A response was given by Reading University lecturer  Martin Andrews : an appreciative and lively discussion chaired by Giles Bergel then ensued, engaging an audience of bibliographers, printing practitioners, book and print historians. The quality of the discussion vindicated the approach of the workshop in bringing together scientists, practitioners and historians, and testified in particular to the importance of Blair’s research. A drinks reception was held, fittingly, at the Bodleian’s Bibliographical Press.

Research continues, in the form of ongoing and new collaborations – in particular around dabbing and other block-reproduction methods, the application of Computer Vision technology to the study of printing, and the history of technique, materials and style in wood-engraving.

The workshop was funded by the Bibliographical Society of America and the English Physical Science and Research Council as part of the SEEBIBYTE project . It was supported by the Bodleian Libraries Centre for the Study of the Book.

from Giles Bergel

Woodblocks reception 18 June enh

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