Linton- Life in the Collections
William Abercrombie (with the support of William Harcourt Hooper):
2) A Scrapbook on Wood Engraving.
This voluminous scrapbook on xylography, affectionately compiled and carefully lettered, contains Linton’s articles Art in Engraving on Wood (Atlantic Monthly, June 1879), Engraving on Wood (Scribners, July 1879), and his book Some Practical Hints on Wood-Engraving (91 pages, Boston, 1879). Of the embedded letters, a rather meaningless one originates from Linton, the rest comes from William Harncourt Hooper, a xylographer, who was twenty-two years younger. He too had worked for the London Illustrated London News and also for some of the Pre-Raffaelites and Punch cartoonists. But first and foremost he is known as the artisan who engraved the designs for William Morris´ Kelmscott Press. The Morris track finally led to the identity of the author of the scrapbook William Abercrombie, a stockbroker from Manchester and a noted patron and collector of Morris and Rossetti.
The scrapbook mainly consists of a chronological documentation of Linton’s dispute with the engravers of the New School on the role of the artisan in times of photographic reproduction. As all these essays where short, with reproductions of referential images, Abercrombie made an effort to illustrate them in a way that makes the arguments much more transparent and traceable. He added seventy engravings by Thomas Bewick and his disciples - often with comments by Ruskin and Linton -, also examples by Linton and his disciple, the novelist and engraver Mary Hallock Foote, and some members of the New School, as well as a fine selection of facsimiles and original cuts after Dürer and Holbein.
Yet it is not merely the subject and its careful editing that makes this book so interesting, but the fact that nineteen years later, Abercrombie confronted the person, who had executed all the engravings for the Kelmscott “Chaucer”, the most famous product of the Morris press, with Linton’s polemics against the degrading mode of the facsimile cut. Statements by Walter Crane, Arthur Mackmurdo and Emery Walker, who was Morris’ typographical advisor, document that Linton was held in high esteem in the Arts & Crafts circles as a scholar of the history of typography and as a veteran of the socialist movement. During his last stay in London in 1889 - two years before the foundation of the Kelmscott Press - Linton held a lecture at the Society of Arts, in which he reinforced his attacks against the mechanical practice of the facsimile mode of engraving and of photoxylography, which in his view had “degraded and deteriorated” the position of the artisans to mere machines. With his defence of the artisan’s individuality in times of “soulless” mechanisation, he took the words right out of the mouth of an audience mouth which mainly consisted of Arts and Crafties. But the criticism he spread was not only directed againt the hyperrealism of photoxylography, but also against the “purist” views of the Aesthetic Movement that adored the medieval woodcut like a fetish. To them it must have been a sheer provocation that Linton dated back the spoiled tradition of the mechanical facsimile technique to the early days of Dürer and Holbein: “The earliest of the plank- blocks, on which, before the invention of the moveable types, both picture and lettering were cut, were very rude. Any boy could cut such. When the purists go into ecstasies over the noble engraving-work for Dürer’s drawings, they do but ignorantly rave and imagine a vain thing. The designs are noble and the drawing; but the engraving is only mechanism, not always skilled mechanism.” (Some Hints of Wood Engraving)
Abercrombie, the admirer and collector of Morris, could easily recognize Linton’s characterisations as a substantial attack on the fundaments of the “purist” ideology of the Kelmscott Press. Not only were the drawings of Burne-Jones for the Kelmscott “Chaucer” executed as facsimile-engravings, but also transferred on the blocks as photographic reproductions. By confronting the person who had executed these engravings and asking him to contribute to his private documentation, he laid his fingers exactly into these wounds. As Abercrombie was an important customer of his bookplates and dies, Hooper took pains to reply generously by inserting comments, proofs and a letter. Therein he reinforced the same objections against Linton, with which the defenders of the New school had already responded.
Hooper listed all noted artists and illustrators for whom he had worked and came to the conclusion: “They all approved of my treatment, like Burne Jones. They said that I kept the character and feeling of their work. I hold that the engraver should sacrifice his own individuality and reproduce the artist. Linton’s work has his own individuality throughout and the artist does not appear with sufficient difference to be recognized apart. I wonder how he sees white line and nothing else in Bewick and black line only in Dürer. Why does he class such work as the `Annunciation´ and the `Gardener´ as all carpenter’s jobs, the last so far better than the first; the same with Holbein; some of the `Dance of Death´ cuts are so much better than others and all are so delicate that Linton when I last saw him came to the conclusion that they were cut on metal! (...) I could write much in dispute of Mr. Linton’s white line theory but the work is enough to express my view of the matter.” (W.H. Hooper, London 3rd April 99)
The statement of Hooper reveals that in the manufacturing process of the Kelmscott Press no equal status of the artist and the craftsman was aspired. It was based on subordination and the sacrifice of individuality, a view that Linton used to decry as a slavish attitude. But such a mode of production was not only opposed to Linton’s convictions, but definitely also against those principles which the spiritus rector of Arts & Craft, John Ruskin, had formulated in his tract on the True Functions of the Workman in Art. To him, allowing the inferior workman to operate independently had been of essential importance and was decisive for the artistic quality of a product. According to Ruskin, “change or variety is as much a necessity to the human heart and brain in buildings as in books.” Morris had granted creative scope only to Burne Jones, not to Hooper. His ideal of a medieval workshop didn’t involve a mode of co-operation was based on the autonomy and individuality of the participating forces. The enormous output of the Kelmscott Press – fifty-three different works in seven years – was traded off for the prize of a stencilled uniformity and could only be achieved by adopting production conditions of an advanced level of industrialisation.
Hooper’s share in this posthumous debate marks a rare and authentic vote within a clash of two opposite views on mechanisation and division of labour, representing also diverse socialist views of two different generations: Linton, the middle-class artisan, as an exponent of the old, stubborn and often idiosyncratic rural radicalism of ‘48 with its emphasis on liberty and individuality versus the upper-class intellectual Morris, as a representative of a fashionable version of an organised, urban socialism with the romantic ideal of a Ubiquitarian, fraternal community.