Art or Craft. William James Linton vs. William Morris. A posthumous dispute.

The MePri Collection holds a wondrous scrapbook on wood engraving, affectionately  combined and carefully lettered. The object was offered by a seller of autographs and announced as follows: “An autographed letter by William James Linton signed, to William Abercrombie, discussing his books, saying there is no large paper copy of the Hints. [on Wood-Engraving]. Tipped into a composite volume compiled by Abercrombie, containing 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 pp., Boston, 1879).”

The central letter by Linton included no matter of interest, only some phrases of courtesy. But two open questions remained: Who was this William Abercrombie, whose identity was unknown to the seller, and most notably: who was the author of the interleafed comments and of another letter, whose signature reads like WJTStooper ?

After decoding and combining several hints, it turned out that the person behind the strange signature has to be William Harncourt Hooper, a xylographer, who was 22 years younger than Linton. 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 scrapbook, which William Abercrombie started to compile in 1880, mainly consists of a chronological documentation of a discussion on the role of the artisan in times of photographic reproduction that took place in some of the leading American art journals. It was a fervid and long lasting controversy that was aroused by a biting polemic in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine in June 1879, which William James Linton had fired against the so-called New School of American Wood Engraving. Linton by this time had an eminent reputation in the American press as being Europe’s foremost wood-engraver. So his attack against this grouping, who stood out with their elaborate techniques of photographic realism, was of specific importance. It caused a huge surge of indignation in the feature pages. Even more than the Ruskin-Whistler affair two years earlier, this controversy was of major significance, as it stirred up a discussion on the specific quality and identity of American art. The informal school of engravers, which Linton had criticized, was due to become a national institution, that won prizes at world fairs and other international shows. The Morris track finally revealed the identity of the author of the scrapbook. He was a stockbroker from Manchester, a noted collector and patron and the father of Lascalles Abercrombie,one of the leading British poets of the early 20th century.  Lascalles brother Patrick, who was to become a famous town planner and architect, recollects that the drawing room of his parent’s house was furnished with hangings of Morris and watercolours by Rossetti.

An example of the mode of engraving of the New School by Timothy Cole

Beside this article, Abercromie included an unsigned editorial response from the Scribener’s Magazine in July 1879 entitled ‘Engraving on Wood’ with a counterattack on Linton’s expressive mode of engraving and closed with Linton’s treatise  ‘Some practical hints on Wood Engraving’ (Boston, 1879), in which he responded to his critics spaciously and confirmed his charges against the New School and its major exponent, Timothy Cole.

As all these essays where short in reproductions of referential images, Abercrombie was busy 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  – as well as examples by Linton and his disciple, the novelist and engraver Mary Hallock Foote and by several members of the New School, as well as a fine selection of facsimiles and original cuts after Dürer and Holbein.

The Abercrombie – Scrapbook. (32 images)

Yet it is not merely the subject and its careful editing that makes this scrapbook 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.

As an engraver and poet who ran his own press, as a scholar of the history of typography and as a veteran of the socialist movement, Linton was a highly respected person in the Arts & Crafts circles, who had served as an example. Statements by Walter Crane, by Arthur Mackmurdo and by Emery Walker, who was Morris’ typographic advisor, document that. Moreover, before he emigrated he was treasured by the Pre-Raffaelites  as “the best engraver living now” (Rossetti, 1857). But on the other hand, there had always been a lot of reservations against the quirky artist-Chartist that could be summed up by Thomas Carlyle’s  description of Linton as a “windy character”. And indeed, a wider difference than between Linton’s artistic preferences for mockeries, fakes and exuberant expressiveness and the grave solemnity and solidity of the Rossetti and Morris movement is barely conceivable.

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. The only technique which could guarantee the artistic quality of a printed image was the white line mode, a technique that traces back to Thomas Bewick and his pupils. “White-line” means a kind of reverse process, in which the tonality of the original is translated into an autonomic linear texture  – or plainer, in Linton’s own words: “to draw with the graver”.

A Plate of  Blake´s Jerusalem as an example of  the white line – technique (excerpt from: Linton´s Some Practical Hints on Wood-Engraving. 1879)

With his defence of the artisan’s individuality in times of “soulless” mechanisation, he took the words right out of an audience’s mouth  which mainly consisted of Arts and Crafties. But the criticism he had spread in a number of articles and books was not only directed against the photorealism of the American School, but also against the “purist” views of the Aesthetic Movement that adored medieval woodcut like a fetish. To them, it must have been an outright provocation that Linton dated back the spoiled tradition of the mechanical facsimile technique to the early days of Dürer and Holbein. “The cutter of Dürer´s drawings had only mechanically to outline the spaces between the line,” he stated in his article in the “Atlantic Monthly”, and in his following tract “Hints on Wood-Engraving” the  attack against the Pre-Raffaelites’ point of view was even more detailed: “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.”  He admits that cuts of  such quality as Dürer’s “Greater Passion” or Holbein’s “Dance of Death” are very skilful and elaborate. But “if there is a distinction between the artist and the mechanic, we can but at last place the producers of such workmanship at the head of the mechanical class certainly, but not higher.“

Abercrombie, the admirer and collector of Morris, could easily recognize Linton’s specifications 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 to the blocks as photographic reproductions.


A plate of William Morris´ Kelmscott- Chaucer, engraved by Hooper, as an example of the black line – facsimile technique.

By confronting the person who had executed these engravings, and asking him to contribute to his private documentation, he put his fingers exactly on these wounds. As Abercrombie was an important customer of his bookplates and dyes, 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 answered: that Linton, with his individual style of engraving, always comes to the fore instead of serving the artist. For Hooper, subordination and the sacrifice of individuality were to be the main virtues of an artisan; a view that Linton used to decry as a slavish attitude.

W.H. Hooper: Example of an engraver´s working mask

The statement of Hooper, which is cited below, reveals nothing other than that in the manufacturing process of the Kelmscott Press no equal status of the artist and the craftsman was aspired. It may be the case that Morris’ ideal of a medieval workshop didn’t allow a concept of cooperation based on the autonomy and individuality of the participating forces, a concept that Linton had tried out in the illustration work for “Bob Thin” (1840 – 45). On the other hand, the enormous output of the Kelsmcott Press – 53 different works in seven years – was definitely a trade-off against stencilled uniformity that could not to be justified by the medieval example and that could only be achieved by adopting production preconditions of an advanced level of industrialisation.

Hooper’s share in this posthumous debate – Linton and Morris both died a few years earlier –  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 middleclass artisan, as an exponent of the old stubborn and often idiosyncratic  rural radicalism of ‘48 with his stress on liberty and individuality versus the upper-class intellectual Morris as a representative of a fashionable version of an organized, urban socialism with the romantic ideal of a ubiquitarian, fraternal community.


Example of the division of labor in the workshop of Joseph Swain:  the upper half of the plate was engraved by W. H. Hooper, the lower one by a colleague named Staub.




“This little book is a collection of papers on Wood Engraving comprising:

1. an article by W.J. Linton entitled `Art in Engraving on Wood´ from the Atlantic Monthly Magazine June 1879. This is an attack on the new School of Wood engraving as exhibited in the American Magazines of the day.

2.  A reply to the above paper from Scribener´s Magazine July 1879 entitled “Engraving on Wood”.

3. A treatise by W.J. Linton (Boston, Lee & Sheperd 1879) called “ Some practical hints on Wood Engraving”

To illustrate these papers I have added 70  original woodcuts by Thomas Bewick, Clennell, John Thompson, Nesbit, Branston, Dalziel, W.J. Linton, T. Cole and the men of the new school. There are also a few facsimiles after Holbein, Dürer etc. and also an autographed letter from W.J. Linton.”

Ashton upon Mersey 1880.                               W. Abercrombie


Letter by W.H. Hooper

5. Hammersmith Terrace, London W.                                                 3rd April 99

I am greatly obliged for the loan of your book and am glad to be able to help you a little by contributing a proof or two. Leech and Tenniel are not represented so I send trifles to show some of their better work; Tenniel is very slight but it may serve in absence of better. Leech was greatly pleased with what I was allowed to do for seven years until his death. I cut his heads and principal parts of his drawings.
Same with Leighton, Fred. Walker and Millais etc.  1 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 send one of my Leighton’s, not by any means the best but enough to show the `quality´, obtained by my treatment. This work is too hard and formal to give the delicacy of Leighton’s drawing. Fred. Walker’s drawing is a ‘facsimile’, he was greatly pleased with it as he was with all work I did for him, it is not a difficult task to engrave but I found others fail when I was managing Swain’s business. 2
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.
I admire the way in which Cole has produced his portraits but it is the great advance made by the Printer and not the cutting which is notable in American work; if my work had been printed with such ink and such care as is taken across the water it would have given a different result.
An American artist showed me proofs of his pencil drawings which were extraordinary at first sight but I soon found out that the ink with which they were printed was made of plumbago !!! It’s a bit tricky, that none of their ink is really black.

With many thanks. Yours truly.


1)  Frederick Walker (1840 -75), painter of compassionate rural scenes, which  influenced the social realism of the “Graphic” artists.

2) Joseph Swain (1820 – 1909) ran the  most successful wood-engraving company next to the Dalziel Brothers. He worked for the Punch magazine, for Arthur Boyd Houghton and for many of the Pre-Raffaelites. Van Gogh considered him the best of all xylographers.



Interleaved comment by Hooper on Bewick:

“Bewick learnt to engrave on metal so his touch was less free than he had learnt on wood only; the habitual manner in which the wood engraver learns his tool of chips and shreds would break the point on metal; that is why he never could cut cross hatching which requires a little turn of  the graver as it leaves the space.” (followed by a descriptive sketch)


The Cornell University Library provides a digital version of Linton’s  article on
“Art Engraving on Wood”
, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1879.



By Jeff Cooper

William (known by his family as Murray) was born on 6 May 1838.  His father, David Abercrombie, originally from Perth in Scotland was a ‘very strict’, strong-minded Scots Congregationalist with whom it was difficult to be intimate.  He was born with the name David Crombie (or Crambie) on 15 April 1801. He later changed his name to Abercrombie, probably when he went from Perth to live in Bradford, about 1833 following the cholera outbreak in Perth in 1832-33.  David had worked for his father Nicol (1742-1828) in his textile manufacturing business while in Perth, and he set up as a draper on reaching Bradford.  By 1845 he was a successful ‘stuff merchant’, a wholesale dealer in woollen and worsted cloth, under the name of D. Abercrombie & Co., with a warehouse in Leeds Road, Bradford.  Probably in 1861 three of his sons, including William took over the company, changing the company’s name to Abercrombie Brothers.

In January 1862, after four years of quietly courting her, William, then nearly 24 years old, became engaged to 19 year old Sarah Anne ‘Saranne’ Heron.  She was the daughter of a bank manager from Huddersfield, and known to be a ‘broad-minded woman of strong character, with a keen sense of humour’.  William seems to have kept his engagement secret from his father until July 7, 1862, when he could hold out no longer.  Surprisingly, David was delighted to hear that they intended to get married, despite his strong disagreement with Saranne about religion.  As soon as the engagement became official, Saranne began to put pressure on William to conform, both to go to Anglican church with her on Sundays and to become baptised in the Church of England.  William often accompanied her to church, but he resisted the baptism until 27 November 1866 when the ceremony was carried out at St. Jude’s in Manningham, Bradford.  On Saranne’s twenty-first birthday, 10 February 1863 they were married.  Nearly two years later he became a freemason, and for the twenty years following their marriage Saranne produced eleven children, 9 of whom survived childhood.

The stuff merchant business, in the meantime, had been going from strength to strength.  The death of their father in June 1869 had taken away their guide and mentor, but they remained under the watchful eye of their mother Elizabeth.  However, William was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of support he was getting from his brothers and decided to change his life completely.  In 1873 he sold his part of the family business and moved into the world of share and stock broking in Bradford: he described himself as a “share-broker” of Fairmount, Bradford in Feb 1874.  On the 9 May 1874 his mother died and the family fragmented, with William, Saranne and their five children moving to the other side of the Pennines shortly afterwards, to a house called Greenbank in Sale near Manchester.  William rented premises in St. Anne’s Square in Manchester, and registered with the Manchester Stock Exchange, probably in July 1874 (he wasn’t a full member, free of sureties, by 3 May 1876).   He became a business partner with his brother-in-law and friend Frederick Rodolph Fielder (27 July 1837-8 May 1876), who died two years later.

In 1879, after five years in Greenbank, they moved to a larger house a short distance away known as the Manor House, adjoining Carrington Moss in Ashton-upon-Mersey.  The Manor House had a garden containing a bit of woodland and a thatched woodman’s hut made of logs, and, as his son Pat recalled, ‘The interior of the house was spacious and beautifully decorated, with the influence of William Morris being apparent in the wallpapers and furniture, with de Morgan tiles around the fireplaces, and full of Victorian vases and bowls’.

The Manor House interior, c. 1887

Whilst living in Sale and Ashton the family didn’t go to their local church, but travelled over two miles to St. John the Divine in Brooklands Road in Baguley, which had been designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  All the children born in Sale and Ashton were baptised in this church, and William became closely associated with it, being a sidesman in 1875 and 1876, and a churchwarden in 1877.   So although they lived a couple of miles from Baguley, it was to there, with its church, its space and large houses, that William was attracted.

In the 1880s there was a rumour, correct as it turned out, that a sewage farm was to be built on Carrington Moss.  William took this as a sign that he must move to Baguley.  He had seen a house that appealed to him in Leicester, and appointed the architects of that house, Goddard and Paget, to design a similar one for him.  In August 1887 he bought a four-acre plot of land on Brooklands Road, just along the road from the church.  Brooklands Road at this time was very quiet, it being a private road with a toll-bar at one end.  William accepted the final plans for the house in October 1887, and from then until they moved in the house was built and the grounds landscaped, to include a large pond on which the family could go boating.  The house was named Lynngarth, and it became the family’s home in 1889 and for the next 14 years.

Over the years William had developed well-defined artistic and literary tastes, which is apparent from the interior of his houses.  Whilst still living in Bradford he went on a business trip to Paris in December 1871, hoping to buy paintings, engravings, and jewellery for his house and family.  He remarked that he had never seen ‘so many beautiful & artistic things in my life.  From what I have seen of the buildings, they go beyond anything I have ever seen for beauty of effects, that is in modern works….  The great peculiarity about the shops for sale of works of art is the number of nude female figures.  Some of them are very daring indeed.’

It was probably shortly after this time that he became a fervent Ruskinian, starting a collection of three large scrap books of Ruskiniana (now part of the Ruskin Library collection in Lancaster University) and acquiring all of his works.  He was also one of the contributors to the costs incurred by Ruskin on losing his libel case with Whistler in 1878, and contributed to other funds to assist and support Ruskin.  He was a founder member of the Ruskin Society (Society of the Rose) in 1879, a member of the Manchester Literary Club, and he corresponded and mixed freely with others of similar interests.  At some point in the 1890s William also followed in Ruskin’s (and Mrs Oliphant’s!) footsteps by going to Florence and Venice with his wife, where he revelled in the magnificent art and architecture

He liked to read aloud to the family, both novels and poetry, in particular Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and others.  He collected a large library, and was also a dedicated collector of cuttings from journals and newspapers as well as letters and photographs he was able to acquire about his favourite authors.  Almost all his books (including his collection of Kelmscott Press books) contained his bookplate of which he was inordinately proud.  It had been designed and cut on wood in 1899 by his friend and William Morris’s engraver, William H. Hooper.

William Abercrombie, c. 1890

The interior of Lynngarth was described by his son Pat (who became a well-known architect and town planner) in his unpublished autobiography, ‘… the house was something we were very proud of and indeed as a living place it was well planned, extremely comfortable and the rooms varied and well proportioned, being then looked upon as unduly low: the internal woodwork was in that curious but not unpleasing style of that period, a sort of refined Jacobean, most of it white painted…. It must have been one of the earliest [houses] to be lit with electricity…. [and] there was also an original but not very successful [central] heating scheme with coils of pipes under the floors and hot air inlets.’

The interior design was handled largely by J. Aldam Heaton (a Ruskinian whom William had almost certainly got to know in Bradford), and to some extent by Arthur Mackmurdo, a friend and fellow Ruskinian who often stayed with the Abercrombies.  William Morris was the main influence, and some of his ‘less pronounced’ wallpapers were used throughout the house, with his friend William de Morgan’s tiles around some of the fireplaces.  The furniture, mainly designed or brought in by Heaton, was supplemented by a sideboard by Philip Webb and other pieces.  There was panelling bought in Paris, tapestries, Persian carpets, silk brocade linings, de Morgan bowls, and Imari vases and plates.  Following Ruskin’s advice, William bought fine copies of great paintings by Turner, Rossetti, and others.  Other pictures on the walls included a complete set of photographs of the original etchings of Turner’s ‘Liber Studiorum’, in frames designed by Ruskin, drawings and paintings by de Wint, Varley, and Samuel Palmer, as well as framed copies of Arundel prints.  The house was also full of books of English literature, in particular fiction, of which William was particularly fond.

Lynngarth: staircase hall, c. 1892

He was also an enthusiastic, creative and successful gardener.  The garden of the house was extensive, containing a wide variety of plants, which William and his two gardeners made magnificent all the year round.  William kept copious records of the plants there.  Some thought he had potential to be writer, but for him gardening acted as a substitute for other forms of creativity.

In October 1902 it was recognised that William was having severe financial problems: it was estimated that the stock broker business of Fielder and Abercrombie owed over £137,396 to creditors.  William’s financial collapse had apparently been caused by the South African war.  It seems that William was a ‘pro-Boer’ (despite the fact that two of his sons were fighting and another son was a doctor over there), and this may have had an influence on the people who would have used him as a broker; certainly the drop in commissions after the war started seems to indicate this, as the average number of commissions up to 1899 was 6,000 a year, and after 1899 was 3,600 a year.

There was an estimated shortfall, after realisation of the assets, of about £12,000, but he was confident that he could secure this shortfall from his family and friends.  The biggest tragedy for the family was that on 18 June 1903, Lynngarth, the house that William had had built, and where the family had lived for 14 years, was put up for auction in the evening.  Few people attended, and the reserve price of £4,000 was not reached.  William’s optimism about his own and Saranne’s future was beginning to fade, but two months later his son-in-law Tom Storey (of the Storeys of Lancaster) agreed to cover the cost of the house and other costs.  In the meantime he was asking friends and family for their financial support, all of whom responded, some with substantial sums, so that he was eventually able to pay off most of the creditors.  He resigned from the Manchester Stock Exchange on 5 September 1903, and his son David took over the business.  William began to clear the house of most of his books, some of which were auctioned at Sothebys in June 1903, and some were sent ‘for remembrance’ to his children.

With the financial collapse of William and the selling of Lynngarth, it was decided they should move to Liverpool.  At the beginning of March 1904 they moved to Victoria Terrace off Prince Alfred Road in Wavertree, with their sons Lascelles (later to become a poet, critic and academic) and Pat.  There couldn’t have been much greater contrast between Lynngarth, with its numerous spacious rooms and large garden, and Victoria Terrace, a small terrace house among the estates three miles from the centre of Liverpool.  Both William and Saranne showed enormous resilience in adapting to the situation, making the house comfortable and the garden burst into colour (William moved some of his plants from Lynngarth to the new house).  However, Lascelles and Pat did have their disagreements with their parents, in particular because of William’s attitude to pre-19th century literature, which he considered ‘brutish’.  William, not wanting to sit with such books, butchered them by removing some offending passages.

William, Saranne, Pat and Lascelles had lived in their small, inconvenient home for nearly a year and a half before they moved, in early August 1905, to a better neighbourhood and larger house, Greenbank Road, Higher Tranmere, in Birkenhead, on the other side of the Mersey. It was described two years later by William’s grand-daughter when she went there for the first time: ‘This house is enchanting,- the blue dining room with a side-board holding shelves of De Morgan tiles & old plates.  The study with a blue ceiling, a piano, fine pictures and … treasures, a cross between a farm-house kitchen & an alchemist’s laboratory, bare boards and quaint oak chairs, walls lined with dusty books & every ancient & ingenious instrument….  The drawing-room has warm-blue walls, old gilt looking-glasses, a spinet, that divine “Feast of Peleus” that used to hang on the Lynngarth staircase, a long tea-caddy of light tortoise shell, and a divine Chinese bowl … very pale and cold and delicate in colour, blues & lilacs predominate.  Lemon & white chrysanthemums bloom bravely in the tiny front garden, a lavabo of Italian pottery faces the front door, where vivid green ferns grow in moss and trail on the red wall.’

On 5 August 1908, William’s son Pat married and moved to a new home, Pear Tree Cottage in Prenton in the Wirral.  William decided to help Pat improve the house, particularly the garden.  After working hard on the house he became ill, and on 26 August had to go to bed.  He was unable to keep any food down, and was diagnosed as having colitis.  The following day a nurse was employed to look after him, but no one was especially perturbed.  On 27 August he deteriorated considerably in the night, suddenly collapsing.  His son Lascelles went for the doctor early in the morning, but could not raise him until about 7.00 a.m.  William died at a quarter to nine in the morning of Friday, 28 August from blood poisoning, with only Lascelles at his bedside.  He was buried about a week later at Whitford Church in North Wales, close to where his widowed daughter Ursula lived. 

Jeff Cooper


William’s bookplate