An Exhibition of Original Wood-Engravings
A CHARMING exhibition is now open at the Dutch Gallery in Brook Street. It brings together the work done in original wood-engraving by Messrs. Ricketts and Shannon and their associates, Messrs. Sturge Moore, Reginald Savage and Lucien Pissaro. With these are hung one or two of Mr. Nicholson’s. now famous prints, and, by way of retrospective homage, engravings executed by J. E. Millet, or by his brother under his supervision ; but the exhibition is practically one of the “Vale” or “Dial” artists. To complete it are wanting the remarkable designs of Mr. Ricketts for “The Sphinx,” and a number of other designs known only to the small public that possesses “The Dial.”
Doubtless Mr. Ricketts and Mr. Shannon themselves would find it difficult to parcel out between them the credit due to one or the other for invention and critical science in the work they have carried on with so honourable an ambition and independence of popular taste. It would certainly be difficult for a third person to arrive at anything but a rough distribution; and we may be content to recognise how fruitful has been the close partnership. They have gone their way; their brains have not been used up by the impresario; their talent has quietly ripened in a favouring seclusion, and, young still, they have engraved their place securely in the third generation of the pre-Raphaelite line.
Their first ripe work was the “Daphnis and Chloe,” of 1893, a work modelled on the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” of 1499. That book had already inspired Burne-Jones and Morris, the partners of a generation earlier. Burne-Jones executed a lovely series of drawings illustrating the story of “Cupid and Psyche,” and Morris alone, or with the help of others, made woodcuts from them. For some reason the result did not satisfy him, and only one or two sets of prints are known to exist in the hands of private collectors. One of these I have had the good fortune to see, and cannot but wish that, if the wood blocks are destroyed or it is impossible to reverse Morris’s decision, a set may some day find its way into a national collection, for these designs are among the freshest and most charming of their author’s inventions. A set of tracings from them used to be in the Ruskin School at Oxford, and is doubtless there still. Nothing further came of this tentative, beyond a frontispiece or two, till the Kelmscott Press was founded, and then, as before, Sir Edward’s drawings had to pass through the hands of an interpreter, or rather of two, since they were re-drawn for the engraver. The illustrators of “Daphnis and Chloe” had mastered the craft, and executed their own designs, a thing rare even in the early days of wood-cutting, and rare in wood-engraving till quite modern times.
We used to hear a good deal of talk at the time of the publication of this book of the affectation of going back upon an ancient manner, and the originality of copying photogravure effects in wood-engraving was contrasted with the weakness of cribbing from the past. When a past style is so living that in our day the old plant can put forth new buds, nay more, reach, its flower, we need hardly stop to discuss the general question. No one, I think, who has compared the “Daphnis and Chloe” with its prototype will deny that this has happened. In the conception of bare lines composing architecture or architectural landscape, broken across by human figures and touched with sparse precious detail, there is nothing in the original to match “The Vintagers” or “Topmost Apple” of Mr. Shannon, or the “Venus and Anchises” and “Marriage of Daphnis and Chloe” of Mr. Ricketts. These designs appear to me in taking up an admirable convention to inform it with a majesty and romance that in the original pages was only suggested. Mr. Ricketts’ later work in “Hero and Leander,” “Cupid and Psyche,” and some of his books seems to me less perfectly balanced, more strained, form sacrificed in the effort at gesture and intense expression, or swept into decorative curves. The discussion of his type and books I must leave for another time, since it demands a detailed treatment. I will only raise one point for the moment, taking the title of the catalogue as a text. This, giving the name of the exhibition and its address, is printed like the old colophons in one block without a break, and not only is it difficult at a glance to pick out and read these two statements, but the arrangement requires minor dislocations. The word “engraving” is divided between two lines ; “Hanover” ends one line, and “Square” begins another. I contend that lucidity would be the gainer by a different arrangement, and decoration need not in the least suffer.
So far I have been reviewing old work. The surprise of the exhibition is the revival of another variety of the art, that of the so-called chiaroscuro or camaieu printing from more blocks than one. The wonder is that this beautiful invention had so short a life in Germany and Italy, and that since Ugo da Carpi and Andrea Andreani used it to interpret other men’s designs it has slept almost without revival, and attracted no original talent. Still stranger is it that, the first steps having been taken towards colour printing from wood blocks, Europe let the idea drop, and it was left to the Japanese to carry the process to superb results. In England, so far as I know, only one man, John Baptist Jackson, revived the method in his renderings of Venetian pictures, and the nearest analogue was the effect produced in lithography by the use of lithotint.
Mr. Shannon takes up this neglected autumnal art of the Renaissance and gives it by his handling a new, spring-like charm. Before his series of roundels one might imagine time reversed, and this method revealed to some designer earlier than its discovery. In such evening of Time’s iniquities there is many a chance for the man who comes after, and looking at those idylls we fancy a Greek painter come to life in the fifteenth century, with the secret of chiaroscuro printing disclosed, so beautiful is the treatment of the circle- shape, so like an April of antiquity the air. The daintiness with which these pieces, as well as the rest of the prints, are mounted and framed adds to their grace.
Another of the exhibitors takes us back to an English source. Blake’s illustration to Thornton’s “Pastorals” are astonishing even in his work—little landscape cuts that convey the essence of a scene and its awe upon the spirit by an inspiration of ren- dering; Calvert caught something of the inspiration on its gentler side, and it is as a pupil of Calvert that Mr. T.S. Moore apears in a series of little compositions here. They suggest a brooding mind, much at leisure, following fanciful by-tracks, and content to be under- stood by a few sympathetic friends who have the clue. The “Death of the Dragon” is in another vein, a portentous upboiling of the elements in coils and explosions of vapour. An unattached imagination is the nearest phrase by which I can define the effect produced on my mind. Mr. Savage, too, is as one vastly agitated, passing through the Vale, but is is hard to say yet what the excitement will finally brew. Mr. Lucien Pissaro completes the group. From his essays, it is believed, sprang the work of Lepère and other Frenchmen in colour printing. His own compositions are pretty, child-like little pieces. Along with the original works are hung one of two admirable interpretations of Mr. Legros’ drawings by Mr. Ricketts.
I will just mention here, in case the fact should have escaped the notice of any of my readers, that the famous paintings by Fragonard, formerly at Grasse, are on view at Messrs. Agnew’s. An account of them is given by Mr. Claude Phillips in the catalogue, and has been supplemented in one particular by a letter from Lady Dilke in the “Athenæum.” These pictures have never before been seen in public, and all students of French art should pay them a visit.
An exhibition which has been very widely advertised may, on the contrary, be safely passed over. This is the collection of drawings made by Mr. William Hyde to illustrate one of Mr. George Meredith’s volumes and a book on London. They are simply illustrations of the ordinary type. D. S. M.
“An Exhibition of Original Wood-Engravings.” Rev. of The Dial, The Saturday Review, vol. 86, no. 2250, 10 Dec. 1898, pp. 778-779. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://beta.1890s.ca/dial-review-the-saturday-review-dec-1898/