Wood engraving must be one of the slowest ways of creating an image. It can take up to 6 weeks to complete one, even something the size of a postcard, so it doesn’t lend itself to tight deadlines, but at least after all that work an edition of prints can be made.
There is something entrancing about the process which attracted me when I first saw an engraver at work. Yvonne Skargon was invited to come and teach the Graphics students at the Royal College of Art on alternate Mondays, and after the first demonstration I wanted to have a go. We must have been given a small block to try on, and a couple of tools to borrow. Then we were sent away to think of an idea and have something to show her for the next visit.
I had experimented with linocuts, and I was already keen on pen drawing, so I enjoyed my first attempt. I was encouraged to visit the last surviving boxwood blockmaker, from what had once been a thriving Victorian industry, to buy some materials. The proprietor’s workshop was up a dark stair in the corner of a Dickensian courtyard in Bleeding Heart Yard in Clerkenwell, and I had been warned about his fierce reputation. He would only see people one at a time, he was likely to turn away any customers if he didn’t like the look of them, or if they complained about his prices. Each visitor would have to wait at the bottom of the stair until they were summoned, and I had been told that he didn’t like novices. I survived the initial suspicion once I’d mentioned my teacher’s name, and I must have passed the test as I came away with three or four tools which were shortened to fit my hand, and some wood.
The woodblocks were very beautiful and smooth, it seemed like desecration to cover them with ink and cut into them. Wood engraving is not a forgiving medium, the marks are incised into the surface of the wood, and once cut they cannot be reversed. The engraver has to get it right first time. It’s a form of relief printmaking, so the raised surface is inked with a roller, and the incisions create light marks on a dark background, the opposite to a pen drawing, so it often resembles a negative, especially in the early stages. As with all printmaking the design is created in reverse, a mirror image of the final print. A selection of fine tools cut different sizes and kinds of mark, so it’s possible to engrave a variety of textures. And cutting lines close together gives an impression of a range of grey tones when seen at a distance, whereas on close inspection it is just stark black and white. This wealth of possibilities enticed me to engrave more and more over the years, learning from the work of other artists as well as from my chosen subject matter. I remained friends with Yvonne for many years after leaving college, and I eventually inherited her printing press.
I have been engraving for 40 years now, at first mostly for book illustration, but for the last 15 years I have been taking part in Sussex Guild shows, and this has enabled me to concentrate on my own ideas rather than working on illustration commissions.
I hope to continue working in the field of wood engraving for many years to come.