The Art of Illustration – Study Of Style

IT is advisable that the student should be familiar not only with the work that is being contemporaneously produced, so as to keep abreast of current taste, but should have a wide knowledge of the outstanding work of the past, so that tradition will not be over-thrown by the ignorance of it, nor by craze of fashion or prejudice, but only by improvements on it. It is always good for a young student to study the sources and progress of the evolution of a style rather than to accept it as having sprung up out of the earth full grown. He will then be less likely to be run away with or blown over by the ” latest thing,” but rather to be in advance of it, the newest generally consisting in a harking back to something that had passed out of common knowledge. There is no quotation more generally misapplied than that favourite, ” One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin,” which in England is given a curiously characteristic twist of sentimentality. The statement is not a complete and general one, but particular—” One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin, That all with one consent praise new born gawds, Though they are made and moulded of things past, And give to dust that is a little gilt, More laud than gilt o’er dusted. The present eye praises the present object ” ; and Shakespeare puts it into the mouth of the wise Ulysses. This vulgarity can only be avoided by knowledge, and without this knowledge a catchpenny and meretricious style may be adopted and found difficult to get out of, like a Cockney and H-less accent. It may not be generally realized that it is possible to draw in a Cockney and H-less manner. Unfortunately it is all too common.

Style dictated by the means employed

The formation of style is of the first importance. Style will be largely the outcome of the instrument employed ; and a good style will almost inevitably be dictated by the instrument itself in so far as appropriateness is concerned if the instrument is sympathetically handled. By this is meant a proper understanding of its limitations, which will lead to a proper respect for them and so prevent the artist from endeavouring to force past the natural barriers these limitations impose. For instance, it is easy to observe in the work of Albert Direr upon wood how he accepted the natural stroke of the quill pen as the basis of his style ; not sharpening it too finely, as this would have called for constant pressure to obtain the desired thickness, and calling for frequent refcutting—using it sideways for fine lines and the full breadth of the tip for broad ones, with all the varying breadths in between these extremes to be obtained on a curve without changing the inclination of the pen to the paper. This natural use of the pen, without cross hatching, being also the simplest for the wood-cutter to follow with the knife, yielded the best results the method was capable of, and was never improved upon for line drawing upon wood planks for the wood-cutter.

Ironic result of Bewick’s method not call for the same stringency of style. It was unnecessary to economise line with the same care and wise parsimony. Deservedly much as Bewick has been praised for his originality in exploiting the ” white line ” theory of engraving on wood, it is curious how barren its results have been until recently in the production of fine works in other hands than his own and those of his immediate followers. What had most effect on serious English art was not the white line theory, but the change from the plank block of soft wood to the end grain of hard box, and the use of the burin in place of the knife, which enabled the engraver to follow with much greater accuracy the finest line drawn by the artist upon the wood, and to imitate with the utmost minuteness the most intricate cross hatching he might care to employ, a minuteness quite outside the possibilities of the wood-cutter on the plank, with his knife.

It is true that a certain number of engravers did carry on the Bewick tradition and that artists worked with a view to translation by these methods. There is a curious little book, undated but published in 1854 or earlier—it is called Familiar Fables, by Miss Corner ; the illustrations are by Alfred Crowquill and James Northcote, Esqs. There are fifty carefully composed little elliptical drawings, surrounded by sloppy decoration in the worst taste of the period. The pictorial part of the design is by Northcote, I suppose, and the sloppiness is supplied by Crowquill ; but the chief interest lies in the masculine vigour of the engraving.

It is difficult to know exactly what method of collaboration existed between Northcote and the engraver, or rather engravers. How the drawings were made upon the wood there is little indication. Most probably a mixture of pencil and wash, with line predominant; but there is hardly more than one example of direct imitation of cross hatching ; and this is very simple. There are several signatures or monograms of engravers—one R. B. (or B. R.), I. Dodd, I. Jackson C. Nesbit, Bonner, T. Mosses, Pears (or Sears ?). There is a general similarity of treatment by all of these, and little to choose between them. Positive black and white are judiciously used, and form throughout is the basis of the direction of the line. A few conventional ” textures ” or ” touches ” are employed for the representation of rocks, foregrounds, and distant foliage, but the skies are not ruled ; and unpretentious as the engravings are, have considerable dignity and largeness, being handsome both in the design and the enfgraving. From the number of the engravers employed and from the uniformity of their methods, it is probable that they worked for a single employer of strong views, or that they had been apprentices in the school of Bewick, and that Northcote himself took pains in supervising the interpretation of his drawings.

It is a pity that, since there was so strong a school of engravers in existence, presumably as late as 1854, carrying on the vigorous tradition of Bewick, that these traditions were allowed to die out, even while wood engraving was a prosperous undertaking ; for long before it was killed by mechanical methods of reproduction it had become an almost entirely mechanical and inartistic ” job ” for which the engraver himself had lost respect, and was responsible to a large extent for the degradation of black and white even after its decay. It was in the years immediately following that there sprang up a set of artists who, in consequence of that other development in the direction of facsimile, made a period, fully covered by fifteen years, a glorious one in the annals of British Art.

Contemporary work was being done by Gavarni in ” Le Diable a Paris,” dated 1853. The ” Contes Drolatiques,” which had been first published in 1831, appeared with Dore’s illustrations in 1855; and a mass of work in a mixed manner, part facsimile, part translation of the artist’s work, who took his task in the most light-hearted manner in the world, Gavarni’s drawings probably suffering severely enough to induce him to take to lithography with relief, since all, or nearly all, his delicacy of handling is lost by the engraver, in whose hands he is made to appear hardly better than a second-rate hack, though the drawings, which appear to have been made with pencil sometimes touched with wash, doubtless shared, if they did not surpass, the delicacy of his lithographs. Dore did not lose so much, as his drawings appear to have been made largely in pen ; a less deceptive medium for the artist to work in, as it gives so much more nearly the effect of a print, for it depends entirely on thickness or thinness of line for its effect, while the pencil will frequently beguile the artist into endeavouring to obtain silvery effects of grey beyond the scope of the engraver and the press to render, no matter how much trouble or skill may be employed. Nevertheless it was in pencil that some of the finest artists worked for the engravers in our best period, but they stuck to the point of the pencil so that at every stroke a clean line was made, and did not use it as a smudging instrument. Where this Was done, no matter how delicate and silvery the charm of its effect upon the wood, the ” white line ” engraver, having become more or less of a hack, represented it, if he had the chance, by means of a mechanical ruler, not even troubling to cut it by hand. The little landscape views seen in the magazines of the time, drawn with no matter what feminine charm, were killed dead as a door-nail by the engraver—all look alike, so that it is hard to imagine what interest they can have had even for contemporaries. For us it has evaporated, and the engraver put in nothing of his own to replace it.

By an irony of fate, Bewick had this curious effect on British Art in the main, not by engendering the use of the white line, and so giving the engraver a language of his own and a chance of exercising his wit as an artist and a craftsman in interpretation, but by training him in the skilful use of the burin, made it possible for the artist, while exercising greater freedom himself upon the wood, to demand a closer slavery to the black line from the engraver than from the wood-cutter. This is to be seen in Menzel’s ” Frederick the Great,” where the transition is plainly shown from a certain independence of attitude upon the part of the engravers, who were inclined to give a summary para-phrase rather than the verbatim translation necessary to the work. Menzel appears to have fallen out with the system, and to have insisted upon a microscopic closeness of imitation. A sulky change ensues towards facsimile work, till then never equalled, and since never surpassed, upon the wood block, so close, indeed, that the camera itself has hardly achieved more. The varying thickness of the finest and most flexible pen stroke is eventually achieved by the engraver, so that it is difficult to realize that it has been necessary for the engraver to approach it from two sides ; that the black printed line is the result on his part, not of spontaneous ease, but of laborious care, and that in exact proportion to the apparent irresponsibility, tentativeness and fineness of the line, has the engravers’ task been the heavier. Menzel had no mercy on them: he made no concessions to the natural genius of the wood by adapting his drawing to what it or the engravers could most naturally yield him. His egoism was magnificent in this respect. They couldn’t interpret his work ; well then, that was their look out—they must copy it, and copy it they did. He never seems to have tried to adapt his style to the wood, but demanded from it the fineness of an etching, and got it in spite of everything. He was, in fact, from beginning to end a magnificent Philistine, more really of a scientist than an artist, interested more in facts and things than in thoughts or ideas. Yet it is largely to his dominance over the engravers, and the effect this produced generally upon them, that facsimile engraving came to the pitch it did, and so rendered the work of our men of the sixties safe from ruin by the inefficient engraver.