Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

John Ruskin:

18) Ariadne Florentina - Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving with an Appendix. Given before the University of Oxford, in Michaelmas Term, 1872.

London 1872 / 1890

One should study these lectures, which Ruskin had held on the decline of the art of engraving at the University of Oxford before adjudicating upon the originality of Linton’s xylographic theories. Linton’s historiography of this craft and his polemics against the new trends of process engraving did not simply follow Ruskin’s considerations, as often supposed, but was over long passages antithetical to them. It was Ruskin’s merit to have established an aesthetics on the terms and base of Abbé Lamennais’ and Thomas Carlyle’s socio-political theses, especially on the former’s vision of a new culture, which would be conceived as a “holy work of social regeneration” from the workman’s present state of slavery. Linton’s translation of Lamennais´ De l´esclavage moderne (1840) may have contributed in no small measure to the shaping of Ruskin’s views.

Concerning the technique, Ruskin’s lecture on wood engraving is scarcely instructive as he confuses woodcut with wood engraving and hence erroneously takes simplification for the main virtue of the art and the economy of the thick line for its general law. When he discusses the limitations of the technique and its incapability to “take the place of a serene and accomplished line engraving,” he speaks in the first instance about the older mode of cutting along the grain of the wood. In his The Masters of Wood Engraving, Linton would stress the fundamental difference between these techniques by dividing them in a most distinctive way into the separate categories of knife work and graver-work. The former one, in his opinion, marks an inferior stage of imitative facsimile work, and even an example of an extremely skilful use of knife-work, as it is displayed in Holbein’s Dance of Death, which Ruskin takes for the crowning achievement of the technique, symbolizes for Linton a state of slavish accomplishment, where the artisan is forced only to imitate the artist’s prescriptions instead of translating them in a creative way.



Without having grasped the fundamental achievement of Thomas Bewick’ s white line manner, Ruskin agrees to the general acclaim of the engraver from Newcastle, whose work had been recommended to him by Thomas Carlyle. He retells the romantic Bewick legend of the untaught country boy, who “could draw a pig, but not an Aphrodite” and was nevertheless “Holbein’s equal,” an artisan of “magnificent artistic power” and “flawless virtue.” Linton was sceptical about this common tale of Bewick’s ethnic originality and ingenuity. Also in this respect he simply turned Ruskin’s judgement upside down by stressing the cooperative character of Bewick’s prints and preferring the artistic capabilities of some of his pupils to those of the master. Linton’s artisan perspective, which emphasized the communitarian aspects of graphic production, differed substantially from the views of the popular art historian, whose litanies about the decline of modern illustration were characterised by elitist bumptiousness: “These wood cuts, for Barnaby Rudge and the Cornhill Magazine, are favourably representative of the entire illustrative art industry of the modern press, - industry enslaved to the ghastly service of catching the last gleams in the glued eyes of the daily more bestial English mob, - railroad born and bred, which drags itself about the black world it has withered under its breath, in one eternal grind and shriek, - gobbling, -staring, - chattering, - giggling, - trampling out every vestige of national honour and domestic peace, wherever it sets the staggering hoof of it; incapable of reading, of hearing, of thinking, of looking, - capable only of greed for money, lust for food, pride of dress, and the prurient itch of momentary curiosity for the politics last announced by the newsmonger, and the religion last rolled by the chemist into electuary for the dead. In the miserably competitive labour of finding new stimulus for the appetite - daily more gross - of this tyrannous mob, we may count as lost, beyond any hope, the artists who are dull, docile, or distressed enough to submit to its demands.”

Whereas Ruskin evaluated wood engraving in the context of his condemnation of the entire business of illustration, Linton had welcomed the demands of the modern illustrated press as a stimulating challenge. Unlike Ruskin’s judgement, Linton´s criticism was not a general cultural-pessimistic one, but was targeted to certain modes of imitation and reproductive refinement. Ruskin’s criticism led to the stilted nostalgic facsimile manners of the arts & craft illustrations. Linton’s polemics provoked a lively discussion about the interdependency between manual reproductive graphics and the new technical media, a conflict of major significance that stimulated the early communication theories of William M. Ivins and Marshall McLuhan