Wood Engraving for “Tintern Abbey,” Part 1

I’m working this week on Resingrave, a synthetic compound that emulates the effect of engraving done on the end-grain of boxwood, a la Thomas Bewick, the great English wood engraver from the late 18th century. English boxwood is now scarce and expensive, so here in North America it is common to substitute end grain maple. (More on that later).

I’ve been fretting for some months now as to what I would do for the illustrations in Greyweather’s upcoming edition of Tintern Abbey. Illustrations done in the manner of Thomas Bewick would certainly be ideal, but probably well beyond any skill I have developed though working with linoleum cuts. Perhaps something more interpretive, less literal?

Click on the icons to see the remarkable skill of Bewick (from his own hand, or perhaps from his shop of apprentices):

It is really unbelievable what could be cut by hand!

So, it turns out Wordsworth grew up in similar rustic environs to Bewick, and that the poet even praised the engraver in the same book of poems in which Tintern Abbey was published, saying:

Oh now that the genius of Bewick were mine / And the skill which he learn’d on the banks of the Tyne / Then the Muses might deal with me just as they chose / For I’d take my last leave both of verse and prose.

What feats would I work with my magical hand! / Book-learning and books should be banish’d the land / And for hunger and thirst and such troublesome calls / Every ale-house should then have a feast on its walls.

I could not agree more. Well, perhaps all that book banishing business I could do without, but the rest…. sure. It did settle the question as to the manner of illustrating the book. After the manner of Thomas Bewick, then.

Easier said than done. Bewick’s work sits comfortably in the public domain, so I briefly considered finding existing period prints and rendering them into magnesium plates…. a few high res scans and voila! But where’s the fun in that? So began my first serious foray at wood engraving.

I have made attempts before, with varying degrees of success. This time I used the gravers on a piece of resingrave , the white surface treated with India ink. I created a rough drawing directly on the block from a variety of sources, including Bewick and 2oth century illustrators such as Buckland-Wright and Canada’s own home grown cutters, like Wesley Bates, Alan Stein and George Walker. Mostly Bewick though, spending a long time studying the way he did his bushes, trees, leaves, shore lines etc.

A cliff on the left, a ruined arch on the right, the bucolic Wye River in the middle.

After the first tentative cuts, I liked where it was going, but I was still making the illustration up on the fly more or less, and as time went on, the white watercolour pencil would wear off, leaving room for even more interpretation.

The broad ferns and foliage originally planned at the bottom morphed into tree roots, but I had already started a work on the bottom of a cliff face.

From stone to wood, then, as the cliff face morphed into a tree. I loved the striking look of the white leaves on the black background, but Bewick never worked like that. He used tone, and a lot of black line work, especially around the top of the drawing.

And as far as I had gotten yesterday:

I had pulled out a copy of Kubla Khan yesterday, and realized this design resembles somewhat the linocut I did for that book, seven years ago now. Weird.

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3 Comments on “Wood Engraving for “Tintern Abbey,” Part 1”

  1. Pat Heffernan Says:

    Fantastic. I love the work. I don’t put too much stock in the resemblance. Very nice work.

  2. Robin Ellins Says:

    Very nice work Larry! Can’t wait to see it in person…


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