George Streynsham Master.

The Century, Volume 19 online

. (page 144 of 160)
Online LibraryGeorge Streynsham MasterThe Century, Volume 19 → online text (page 144 of 160)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

his books an engraving on wood
which shows us the construction
of the printing-press of 1520.
From this and other sources we
learn that the firame-work of this
press was made of heavy beams
of wood; the great screw was
of wood ; the platen, or pressing
surface, was of wood; the bed,
or surface on which types and
wood-cuts were fixed to receive
impression, was sometimes of
stone, but oftener of wood. No
doubt the wood selected was
hard, well seasoned, neatly joint-
ed and fitted, but the strain of
continued pressure, working from
the inside outward, 11s well as
the tendency of the wood to
shrink, warp and crack, soon
made the best constructed press
shackly. It was with reason
that Moxon, who wrote in 1683,
denounced the presses of his
predecessors as " make-shift, slovenly con-

The press was large and strongly built,
but it took all of a man's strength to work
it. In the cut before us, the pressman, with
fairly-braced feet, is pulling at the bar with
both arms. The screw has a large thread
which presses directly on the platen, re-
lieved a little by the collar and rods, but
not steadied in its descent by any counter-
poise or spring. Nor is there any combina-
tioa of levers to ease the pull at the bar,

which was a " dead pull," harder at the end
than at the beginning. Much of the force
exerted was lost. The stout braces over the
cross-beam at the top of the press show
us that this beam would spring and lose the
pressure if it were not strongly braced. The
surface covered by the downward pressure
of the platen was very small — ^but little
larger than that of two pages of Scribner's
Magazine, Presses were » made to suit
the sizes of paper in common use, and these


sizes ranged fi-om 14 by 20 to 16 by 21 inches.
It was commercially impracticable to make
paper of larger size by the old methods of
paper-making. Although the early papers
were about only one-fourth the dimensions
of the papers now used in book printing,
they were too large to be printed on one
side by one impression. Four distinct im-
pressions had to be given to the printing on
both sides of a sheet 16 by 21 inches.
The method was as follows. The pressman
pulled down the bar when one-half of a

Digitized by V^jOOQ IC



white sheet was under the platen ; then, re-
leasing the pressure, he drew the other half
under the platen and pulled again. To
print the reverse side, the operation just
described had to be repeated. It was a
tedious method, but the only one known to
printers. The resistance offered by a printing
surface of about ten by fourteen inches was
all the press would bear. A larger surface
would overtax the pressman and break the
press. The printer had to be content with
the printing of one folio page, or of two
octavo pages, at one impression. It was
important, too, that the printing surface

Inking. Work at Press. T]rpo<uting.

From an undated book, about 1560.

should not contain types or cuts of unu-
sual blackness or resistance. A wood-cut
with solid black background, of the full
size of the platen, litde as that size was,
could not have been properly printed. The
press was not strong Enough. There w^as,
then, a good mechanical reason why en-
gravers and printers preferred small cuts
and outline cuts, and disliked those that
had black backgrounds or dark shadows.

The difficulty of inking the cuts by the
methods then in use should also be con-
sidered. The above illustration shows that
two men were needed to work the press —
one to pull or print, and one to ink. The
pressman who does the inking holds in each
hand an inking-ball — a stuffed cushion of
leather on which glutinous printing-ink was
evenly distributed by rocking the curved
sides against each other in every direction.
This done, with these balls he beat the face
of the types or cuts on the press, until they
were properly covered with a thin film of
ink. When the cuts were in coarse outline,
and the surrounding types were of black
Gothic face, the task of inking was light,
for types and cuts required about the same
amount of ink. When the types were of a
qjht Roman or Italic &ce, and the cuts were

black, or blackish gray in tone, it was then
necessary to put more ink on the cuts acd
less on the types. This was not easy. It
called for a discriminating eye ; on one |>ait
of the form a dainty touch ; on another, vigor-
ous and persistent beating. For a very fine
cut, the inking of the form took almost as
much time as the inking and wiping of a

There was another difficulty. Much of
the paper made in the sixteenth century was
unsuitable for wood-cuts. By far the larger
portion was made of linen stock, hard and
rough as to surface; laid, or showing the
marks of the wires upon which the pulp had
been crushed; of ragged edges, unsized, and
very sensitive to dampness ; uneven in thick-
ness, usually thin in the center and thick at
the edges. The method of making wove
paper, or paper entirely free from ridges, had
not then been discovered. These ridges did
not seriously interfere with the getting of
fair impressions from types ; but they must
have been a great annoyance to the press-
man who tried to get a sharp impression
from the more delicate lines of a fine wood-
cut« If he adjusted his impression so that
the engraved lines just touched the tops of
the ridges, then the paper in the hollows
would not meet the line; the print would
show broken or ragged lines. If he forced
impression, making the engraved linfes touch
every part of the paper, then these lines
would be jammed in the paper, and would
consequently appear thick and muddy in the
print. To avoid this fault, some of the Ital-
ian and French printers of this period had
paper made for them on closer fitting wires
• of great fineness— •so close that the laid
marks can be seen only when the leaf is
held against the light This improvement
made the true Venetian paper " light, slen-
der and subtil," as Fuller describes it; but
at its best it could not take as clean an im-
pression as modem wove and calendered
paper. Vellum was sometin^es used by the
eminent printers of Paris, especially for choice
copies of the books of "Hours." When
the vellum was in proper condition, it would
receive impression admirably; but it was
then, as it is now, the most treacherous of
printing surfaces. Of two skins that looked
alike and seemed equal in every particular,
one would take a fine impression, while the
other, imperfectly cleansed of lime or grease,
would reject the ink in spots, making a
cloudy, grimy print

The paper selected was, in most cases, too
rough and hard to be forcibly impressed

Digitized by V^jOOQ IC



From a Print by Jost AmnMn, Z5&4.

against the delicate lines of fine wood-cuts.
It was the usage everywhere to soften the
paper by a careful dampening. When the
paper was sized it was not weakened by this
dampening, which really lightened the
labor of the pressman. But unsized paper
was only about half the price of the sized,
and the inducement to use it was great.
The unsized paper was dampened with diffi-
culty; it greedily sucked up water, and,
when fully wet, became flabby and unman-
ageaole. Under the searching pressure of
the woolen blanket, which was always put
between the paper to be printed and the
pressing surface, this flabby paper was forced
around the finer lines of the cut, making
them much thicker than was intended.

In spite of these imperfections good
press-work was done. Books were printed
at Paris, Lyons and Venice containing
wood-cuts which show that they had been
made ready by pressmen expert in overlay-
ing (or the art of varying the pressure upon
the light and dark portions of cuts, by
•means of properly affixed bits of paper,
so that each portion gets what pressure
it needs and no more) and in other refine-
ments of press-work erroneously rated as
new inventions. But this fair rendering
of wood-cuts was exceptional. It was a
fight against odds, which could not be long
kept up. The press was too weak for vig-

orous blacks and the paper too rough for
fine lines. To give the full measure of
blackness to one part of the cut and proper
deUcacy to another, could be done only by
a pressman who had unusual skill and
patience, and, above all, an intelligent sym-
pathy with the purpose of the artist.
Pressmen of this character were never
abundant. It is not to be wondered at that
early master printers tired of wood-cuts.
The chances of failure or loss were many ;
the reputation or profit to be gained by an
occasional success was slight.

The difficulties encountered by the
printers must have been understood by the
engravers, for we see — at least among the
engravers of Paris — that they altered their
style to suit the weakness of the press.
Strong contrasts of black and white like
those of the borders of the books of** Hours "
and the trade-marks of some publishers,
were rarely attempted after 1550. In
giving up the style of white hnes on a black
background, engravers gave up the style
which was easiest to them — the style which
many art critics say is the most natural and
the most effective. Engravers did not give it
up willingly. They tried to conceal the
damages done to their cuts from badly dis-
tributed ink, and the dinginess made through
too weak impression, by dotting the black


Digitized by




From a book of 158B.

backgrounds with littie pin-holes of white
after the manih^e cribUe of the copper-plate
engravers. The attempt was not successful ;
the dotted groundwork soon went out of
fashion. Engravers everywhere fell back on
the older style of cutting, in which the design
was shown by oudines, by coarse shadings
and monotonous tints. This made the cut
easy for the printer. The cut that had few
exposed light lines, and no full blacks, and
few blackish grays, was as easily inked and
printed as types. But this full surrender
to the weakness of the early press of that
strong contrast of light and shade which is
the greatest merit of engraving on wood,
nearly ruined the art. The print in flat

and monotonous gray made- so inefiective
an illustration that designers of good repu-
tation refused to draw for engraving on
wood. Compared with a print from cop-
per, the print from wood was a travesty
of the artist's design. It is difficult to im-
agine meaner illustrations than the spiridess,
grimy, gray wood-cuts of the books of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The
device of Plantin is a fair illustration of this
debased style. This meanly engraved cut
was the device of the " first printer to the
king and the king of printers," as is tersely
stated in his epitaph. Truly a sorry per-
formance for a printing-house that made
types in silver matrices, — a house that







Fac-simile of a copper-plate head-band in La CaiUe's *' Histoire de r Imprlmerie." Pari*. i«e9» (A cut too fine to be eqcmred 1
wood at the close of the seventeenth century.)

Digitized by V^jOOQ IC



printed the great " Antwerp Polyglot," and
that afterward enlisted the services of the
great designers Rubens and Teniers, Van
Dyck and Jordaens, and the most famous
Flemish engravers on copper. The art had
sunk so low that typographic printers refused
to use it in their own books, even in in-
stances where its use seemed imperative.
Copper-plate fac-similes of early types, as
well as copper-plate vignettes, head-bands
and tail-pieces are comifion in books on
typography published during the seven-
teenth and eighteenth centuries.

The honor of restoring the neglected art
to its rightful position is conceded without
question to Thomas Bewick of Newcastle,
England. The wood-cuts of his first im-
portant work, Gay's " Fables," 1779, ^^^^
inferior to those that followed — " Select Fa-

make his own tools and learn from his own
blunders. When he became a man he
worked for himself more than for others.
He planned the books that made him fa-
mous, choosing his subjects, making tnost
of his drawings with his own hand, and
working on them in his own time and way.
In every important matter he struck out
his own path. Paying litde regard to
usage, he made lines, textures and tints to
suit his own'notiona of art or propriety.

All these notions were governed by the
lessons he had learned from the mechanical
drudgeries of his apprenticeship^that good
art is based on good mechanics ; that a good
print does not depend on good engraving
only; that careful attention to every con-
tributing aid, from the selection of the
wood to the printing of the block, is of

Fac-dmile. From Bewick's ** British Birds."

bles" (1784), "Quadrupeds" (1790), and
" British Birds " (1797 and 1804)— but they
showed the hand of a master, and theu:
merits were recognized by educated artists
as well as by the inartistic public for whose
benefit they had been designed. Bewick's
success was largely due to his hard, narrow
education. Apprenticed to the ** general
engraver " of a small town, he was taught
more of mechanics than of art — taught to
engrave on copper, to polish and cut door-
plates and seals, to ornament gun-locks,
brass and silver-ware. He was not taught
engraving in relief by a professional engrav-
er on wood, and, consequently, escaped
the mortification in later years of having to
unlearn the false style of engraving then in
fashion. While a boy he took to engraving
on wood of his own inclination, having to

importance. Much of this attention to de-
tail was of choice, and some of necessity.
Working at a distance from the haunts of
artists and skillful craftsmen, he had to do
with his own hands what in a larger city
he might have had done for him. Doing
all his own work, it was thoroughly done.
How much he discovered and how much
he learned from other engravers during his
brief residence in London in 1776 cannot
be stated. Some have said that Bewick
was the first engraver who cut on the end
or upright fiber of the wood, instead of on
the flat side of the plank, as had been tlie
custom for three centuries. This is not
credible, for the advantages of cutting on
columnar fibers had been described in 1766
by Papillon, an eminent French engraver.
Others say Bewick was the first to lower the

Digitized by




surface of his blocks on those parts where
great grayness or delicacy was desired.
This claim cannot be allowed, for traces of
lowering the surface are noticeable in many
of the wood-cuts of the first Lyons edition of
Holbein's " Dance of Death." This valuable
improvement did not really originate with
Bewick, but with his fellow apprentice, Bul-
mer, the printer, who afterward became
equally famous as the founder of the Shak-

Bewick** cuts were printed 00 a preM like this.

spere press. Equally untenable is the
assertion that Bewick was the first who
used overlays in printing, for the marks
of the unequal pressure made by over-
lays are to be found in many prints of
the sixteenth centuiy. It is possible that
Bewick rediscovered these processes, for all
of them are simple, and would have been
suggested to an engraver who studied the
theory of his art, and liked the work for the
work's sake. It may be admitted, how-
ever, that Bewick was the first engraver of
eminence who used these processes thor-
oughly and persistently, making a success
which compelled their adoption by others.

Bewick's good sense is shown in the sim-
plicity of his style. When he began to cut,
engravers on wood were imitating as well
as they could the mannerisms of copper-
plate. They rated that the best wood-cut
which had the finest cutting and cross-
hatching, and the least of plain black and
white. Bewick had the wit to see that the
true field of engraving of wood was not in
monotonous tints, but in clearness of form
and decided contrasts of light and shade.
He always made use of the simplest meth-
ods, never putting in two lines where one

would serve, never attempting novelties iu
lines and textures for the purpose of shov-
ing his skill. He fairly shows his subjeo,
but never puts himself and his methods
offensively before it

All of Bewick's cuts were printed in the
old two-pull wooden hand-press, by means
of leather inking-balls. That he had some
trouble in getting them properly printed in
his town, appears fi-om Hodgson, the printa
of his workk, sending to London for
an expert pressman. He knew the
weakness of the press, and made cuts
of small size only. He knew the tend-
ency of the press to flatten or dull the
contrasts he desired, and he labored
to prevent this mischief. The care
he took in lowering the svniaxx of
blocks where delicacy was needed
seems almost incredible. The good
printing of his cuts was due more to
this careful provision than to the skiD
of the pressman. He never shuffled
off" on the printer any work that he
could do himself. In this point he
deviated widely fi*om established
usage. Papillon tells us that the
engravers of his time concealed the
defects of their cutting by an artfiiJ
method of taking proofs — a method
unhappily not yet obsolete — which
caused the inexpert purchaser of the cut
to believe that a line delicately gray in
the proof, but really harsh and black in
the wood, could be made to appear thin
and gray in the print. From this decep-
tion Bewick was entirely free. He never
required the pressman to smooth over work
he had neglected. He did all the work
his subject required — did it manfully and
resolutely, regardless of time or trouble,

Bewick's success compelled a respect for
engraving on wood which it had never
received in England. Wood-cuts came in
fashion. Bewick's pupils and imitators found
abundant employment Some were his
equals in mechanical skill, but not one of
theYn seems to have had his knowledge of
the limitations as well as of the capabilities
of the revived art. Most of them fell away
fi-om his simple style, and tried to imitate
copper-plate. Many of them tried to rival
the size as well as the style of large line
engravings. It is painful to look over
many of the large wood-cuts attempted in
England during the first quarter of this
century — for although the skill shown in
these cuts is often of the highest order, the
labor given to them was practically labor

Digitized by




lost. Not one in a dozen was ever properly
printed. For the press in most general use
at the beginning of this century was, in all
important features, the press used by Badius
in 1 5 20. Blaeu, an assistant to the astron-
omer, Tycho Brahe, in 1620 had made
some improvements in the minor mechan-
isms, but he left the press as he found it, no
stronger than it was before — a press of wood
barely equal to the task of printing by one

couragement to those wood-cutters who were
trying to imitate copper-plate engravers in
delicacy of line, and size and blackness of

Here it seems necessary to allude more
fully to a common error — to the notion that
a fine wood-cut, by reason of the fineness
of its lines and the firailty of its wood, can
be neatly printed only by a corresponding
delicacy and implied weakness of impression.


impression a type surface of 150 square
inches, and not at all strong enough to
print properly a black wood-cut of even
smaller dimensions. The popularizing of
engraving on wood, of which engravers and
publishers were dreaming, was even then
waiting for in\provements in the press.

The first real improvement in construction
came from France. Ambroise Firmin Didot,
of Paris, had made for him, during the last
ten years of the last century, a press with a
platen, or pressing surface, of iron, large
enough to print the full side of a sheet by one
impression. It was, perhaps, the fame of this
iron platen that stimulated Earl Stanhope,
an eccentric English inventor, to attempt
a press all of iron. In 1798 the Stanhope
iron press was presented to the trade — pre-
sented in the fullest sense, for the inventor
did not patent one of its many valuable feat-
ures. If this press had not been so soon
superseded by the steam printing machine,
the value of the gift would be more grate-
fuUjr remembered. For it was the first press
entirely of iron, and the only press, at the
beginning of this century, which promised
strength enough to warrant the engraving
of large and black wood-cuts. It gave en-

The facts really are that an ordinary wood-
cut calls for twice as much impression as a
similar surface of types ; while a wood-cut
with black background, or very fiill of black-
ish grays, may need ten times as much. An
inequality of impression must be made, not
only on cuts of different degrees of black-
ness, but in the different shades of the same
cut For the blacker shades there must be
strong, for the lighter tints very little, im-
pression. To do its work properly, the
press must have great strength, and with this
strength provisions for variations in adjust-
ment which will enable the pressman to put
as much or as little pressure as he pleases
on any part of a cut. There must be a
hand of iron under the glove of velvet.

The Stanhope press was strong, but it was
soon overtaxed. Soon after it had been
fairly introduced, William Harvey, an emi-
nent engraver of London, sent to this press
an engraved block of the "Assassination of
Dentatus," a block eleven and one-half by
fifteen inches, cut in close imitation of the
then admired copper-plate style — probably
the largest, certainly the most labored, block
that had then been cut in England. Har-
vey's dismay was great when he learned that

Digitized by




this block, over which he had worked for
three years, was too large and too black to
be fairly printed on this strong press of iron.
Fortunately for the engraver, the printer of
the block was induced to try it on the Colum-
bian press, invented a short time before by
Clymer, of Philadelphia. The Columbian
was a huge iron press with strong leverage,
and with the added advantage of a heavy
counterpoise ; but at the outset it was not
more successful than the Stanhope. By
lengthening the lever of the new press and
getting two men to pull together on the bar,
some satisfactory prints were taken. The
success was brief. The press proved too
strong for the block, which broke under the
pressure before the proposed edition had
been completed, putting an end, for a time
at least, to this invasion in the field of lin^

This accident, coupled with the knowl-
edge that wood-cuts of small size often suf-
fered serious damage by wear on press,
induced many printers to avail themselves
of the advantages promised by the new
art of stereotype, which, after much experi-
mentation, had been made practically use-
ful by Earl Stanhope. It was soon found
that however useful stereotype might be for
types it was not a good process for wood-
cuts. Engravers were not satisfied with
the want of faithfulness in casts taken fi-om
plaster. Printers were not satisfied with the
unavoidable softness of stereotype metal —
with the quick wearing down of a stereo-
typed, cut, its thickening of lines and con-
fusion of tints under the kindest usage. It
was agreed by all parties that, as a rule,
stereotype was more of a hindrance than a
help in wood-cut press-work. Printers fell
back in the old rut, and continued to print
wood-cuts from the wood.

They did this unwillingly, for the newly
invented art of lithography was encroach-
ing on their own field. Instead of compet-
ing successfully with line engravers in the
producrion of large prints, type-printers had
to give up to the lithographer the full-page
illustrations of many books.

Here is a paradox. Although the wood-
cut printers failed for want of a stronger
press, the presses of their rivals were not as
strongly built as the Stanhope and Colum-

Online LibraryGeorge Streynsham MasterThe Century, Volume 19 → online text (page 144 of 160)