Part 1: the country
The technique of using a graver very much like a copper engraver’s burin to engrave across the end grain of a wood block rather than cutting with a knife along the softer plank side was perfected by Thomas Bewick in the late eighteenth century. Whereas before illustrations of a high quality of precision and refinement had to be engraved on copper plates—which was expensive because the plates had to be printed separately from the text—wood engraved blocks were cut in relief, and thus could be fully integrated with the letter press text. The close grain of a very hard wood like box allows the engraver to cut very fine lines, and to create the optical illusion of light and dark tones.
Bright’s 1802 edition of Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy; a rural poem, provides a good example of the romantic style in wood engravings by Charlton Nesbit and John Anderson after illustrations by John Thurston:
Nesbit and Anderson were both accomplished apprentices to Thomas Bewick. This frontispiece shows how Thurston’s design, very likely drawn directly on the block, was reproduced by Nesbit in both black and white lines. Nesbit reproduced the black lines of Thurston’s drawing of the boy by carving away the white space in and out between every sketched stroke, while much of the design of the landscape and foliage is carried by “negative” or “white lines” incised into the block that do not take ink. This can be seen more clearly in Anderson’s headpiece to Spring (printed in landscape on a separate sheet of paper in the manner of a copper plate engraving—it is not!) and the vignette printed with the letterpress:
The Farmer’s Boy is also noteworthy as an example of what went into the making of a best seller for a new, rapidly growing reading public. Robert Bloomfield’s manuscript was “discovered” by the radical Whig Capel Lofft. Lofft’s editing of the text, copious notes, and influence on the design of the book through numerous editions was calculated to support his reformist agenda, and the publishers Vernor and Hood were determined to cash in on the current vogue for the picturesque and the “peasant poet.” First published in 1800, The Farmer’s Boy was an immediate success, far outselling the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Part 2: the city:
A completely different feeling is found in Bright’s 1833 edition of Horatio Smith’s Rejected Addresses: or, The New Theatrum Poetarum, with wood engravings by Thos. Williams after George Cruikshank. Here is Mr. Higginbottom waving his whizzing waterpipe for the salvation of Drury:
There is not a single incised white line in this virtuoso wood engraving. It looks like an etching made by Cruikshank himself. Thos. Williams has reproduced Cruikshank’s every suggestive pencil stroke in relief, in wood. The work, a popular parody of the leading poets of the day, was first published in 1812. This edition was the first to be illustrated. “Of Cruikshank,” one reviewer wrote, “we shall only say that George is himself again in the exquisite woodcuts, which are by themselves worth the price of the volume.”