Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 7, May 1967
By CAMPBELL SMITH
A woodcut is a surface print from the wood which has been cut with the grain. With a wood engraving the wood has been out across the grain; this allows a more delicate line to be cut into the surface.
The craft of printing from the wood is very old. The first known woodcut is an image of Buddha, dating from A.D. 868. In Europe crude woodcuts were used with moveable type in the 15th Century. But it was not until Holbein and Durer that the art of wood cutting developed. Holbein's "Dance of Death" 1522; are among the great works of art in any medium.
However wood engraving did not become an established craft until Thomas Berwick 1786-1842; from then on it became a popular medium, especially in the field of journalism and illustration. A great host of technically brilliant trade engravers arose. Many of the pictures from the illustrated London News of the Maori Wars, or Life on the Thames Goldfields were the work of these anonymous craftsmen. So great was their skill, and their lack of individuality, that large blocks would be cut up and handed to different tradesmen to work. When the blocks were re-assembled they appeared to be engraved by one hand. But Berwick's art had descended into a merely reproductive process.
With the rise of photography and cheaper methods of reproduction wood engravings were of little use. It was not until the introduction of Private Presses, like The Golden Cockrell in Great Britain in the 1920's that engraving again became popular. The work of men like Eric Gill, Robert Gibbings and Eric Ravillious helped to re-establish the craft as an art form in it's own right, allowing the artist an intimate medium of expression. In New Zealand it has remained a neglected craftand only the name of Mervyn Taylor can be linked with these overseas craftsmen.
In many ways an engraving is like a good poem - it should be a personal statement; the distillation of an experience or feeling, at times, tender, bitter, gay, satirical. A statement made by one human being to another.