Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

William James Linton:

82) The Masters of Wood Engraving,

Hamden / London, 1889

Two signed and numbered copies in the collection. One of them, No. 1 / 100, had been in the possession of Eliza Lynn Linton. According to the inscription, the book was later donated by Mrs. Lynn Linton to her biographer George Somes Layard.

The literary scholar Arthur Henry Bullen on the genesis of this large folio, which is considered as representing Linton’s main achievement in terms of printing: “In the summer of 1890, Mr. Linton issued the magnum opus on which he has been so long engaged, The Masters of Wood-Engraving, folio, the sole authoritative treatise on that art. He spent 1883 and part of 1884 in London, writing in the Print Room of the British Museum. The Trustees allowed him to take photographs of choice engravings; and he had some two hundred photographs taken, of the same size as the originals. Returning with his notes and photographs to New Haven, he began to write his book. When the scheme and plan of his work had been arranged, when the whole book was ready in rough MS., and a great portion had been fairly written, he began printing. He had a press, three sets of photographs, paper enough for three copies, and type enough for three pages, short royal folio. So he set three pages; worked off pages 2 and 3, distributed them, and then set up page 4 to complete the sheet, with page I for the other side of the sheet. The composition and printing of the 229 folio pages was the work of his own hands. Add to this that he mounted all the photographs himself, in two out of the three copies. For more than two years he was hard at work writing, printing, and mounting photographs.” Many of the reproductions of the xylographic images were printed on India paper from electrotypes of the original blocks. The three copies he had produced on his private press served as the model for the 100 elephant folio and 500 small paper copies which were printed at the Chiswick Press. 


This time the medium itself was the message. Rarely before had craftwork been presented in such a sumptuous conditioning. A comparable pompous getup was usually left to the presentation of fine arts or at most to a general survey of a luxurious kind of handicraft, but never to promote specific artisans. And this was, as the title already indicated, exactly Linton’s intention: to highlight certain engravers and to equate them in their rank with some of the most established artists in history. Whereas former art historians had treated formschneider like Hieronymus Andreae or Hans Lützelburger as subordinates of an Albrecht Dürer or a Hans Holbein worth neglecting, Linton took pains to find out biographical details in order to give them individual shaping.


Part I: Knife-Work

The Masters of Wood Engraving was Linton’s concluding effort to write a history from below, this time in art historical respects. Graphic reproduction, especially press charts, meant to him not simply a means for the distribution of decorative and picturesque products, but a means to subvert and to corrode authoritarian structures and to promote the democratisation of society. He discusses the revolutionary potential of popular graphics using the example of its function during the Protestant Revolt and contrasts its republican signature to the absolutist grounding of classic fine art: “While the Papacy adorned the seat of power with the choiciest treasures of the Renaissance, and the rich maturity of Italian art, formed upon an antique ideal, was subservient to its commands, the unsightly wood-cuts and the copper-engravings of Germany attacked and undermined its exalted position: appealing as it did everywhere, even in the public streets, to the hearts of hundreds of thousands, and especially to the poor ignorant minds to which writings and books were as yet sealed treasures.” It is obvious that William M. Ivins´ theories on the communicative modes of prints benefited not only from Linton’s discussions on graphic structures, but also from his rudimentary examination of the societal role of prints.


Part II: Graver-Work




Bewick-School - Robert Branston - Orrin Smith


Moritz Klinkicht -  W.J. Linton

His favourite master of the woodcut era was Hieronymus Andreae or Jerome of Nurnberg, who had executed the enormous Triumphal Arch woodcut for Maximilian I, consisting of 192 blocks. From Albert von Zahn´s Jahrbücher für Kunstwissenschaft he had learned that Andreae was “a restless man, constantly in opposition to the Council, and considerably mixed up with the religious and political troubles of the time.” The fact that he had been involved in the peasants’ rebellion, and was convicted and banished because of “sinful words” made him a perfect role model for Linton. But also refined woodblock cutters like Andreae or Lützelburger, who were held in high esteem by earlier art-historians such as Adam von Bartsch, would from Linton´s point of view not go beyond the limitations of their medium. Linton was the first historian to distinguish relief printing techniques clearly and to classify them into the realms of wood-cut and wood-engraving. The former is treated in the first part of the folio under the term knife-work, the latter was labelled graver-work. According to Linton, the gap between these variations of relief printing was huge. Whereas knife-work would confine the activity of the artisan to pure rendering, the white line technique of graverwork would disclose the possibility of creative translation. This creative space was utilized only by very few engravers and only for a very short period. Pre-eminent among the few was Luke Clennell, “our most consummate workman,” or “the genius of the group of Bewick’s Scholars. Bewick had no vigour or line like this: the painter’s large mind informs the graver here.” Next to him was Charlton Nesbit, whose “painter’s boldness” equalled him to Clennell.

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Luke Clennell - Thomas Bewick (Waiting for Death)