Sandys the craftsman

Sandys is generally revered, in the words of John Russell Taylor, for his ‘brilliant draughtsmanship’ (p.44). Above all else, he was a craftsman whose designs reflect a stereotypically Victorian attitude to work, with nothing left to chance or uncertainty. In contrast to D. G. Rossetti, who regarded illustration as a second-rate activity conducted for ‘tin’ (pay), and was casual in his approach to drawing on wood, Sandys was engaged at every stage of the process. A perfectionist, he wanted his illustrations to be works of art that bore comparison with the best of contemporary painting while recreating the standards of Dürer and the Nuremberg School. His advice to George du Maurier is telling, who records how ‘Sandys told me never to let a block go out of my hands unless I was well satisfied that all that patience, time and model could for it had been done’ (Letters, p.86).

His illustrations reflect his detailed preparations in the form of sketches and studies. In order to produce illustrations that have the effect of paintings in black and white he worked on every aspect of the designs and their details. The central figures’ poses, grouping and costumes were all treated in the form of preparatory work, and so were the minor details; all of it was based on observation, in the manner of Pre-Raphaelitism, from the life. These images can be viewed in Betty Elzea’s catalogue, which demonstrates how carefully Sandys explored the possibilities before he decided on his final composition (pp.200–233). A sense of this is given in a sheet of drawings for Amor Mundi, showing variations on the stance of the fallen woman, the robes, and the man’s facial expressions.

However, it is important to remember that deciding on the final image is only the first stage in the preparation of an engraving on wood. Like all of his contemporaries, Sandys had a series of choices: he could hand the drawing on paper to the engravers to interpret it for him; following the invention of Thomas Bolton’s photographic transfer at the end of the fifties he could have the design ‘photographed onto the block’; or he could draw the image onto the block himself. Sandys sometimes chose to have his work transferred photographically, but his primary choice, as one might predict for a disciple of Dürer, was to draw onto the wood, so making his own craftsmanship into a key part of the production.

The process of drawing on wood was well-defined but arduous. The box-wood block was sent from the engravers (or publishers), already prepared with the printing surface painted in Chinese White. The artist then had to draw his design onto the block in reverse, using a series of hard pencils or painted lines in black or brown ink. The white would then be engraved by the engraver, removing all but the lines which would stand in relief; this would form the block from which electrotypes were made (Cooke, pp.166–175).

In itself the process was difficult to master and the artist’s initial response was a baffled one. Percy Bate provides an insight into how even the most self-confident of designers could be confused. ‘He told me’, Bate confides, how ‘when he received his first block’,

He know nothing of the correct way of preparing it; it was impossible to work on its smooth surface with pencil or pen, and he finally drew The Portent line by line with a brush and Indian ink and found the process so simple and the result so satisfactory that he thereafter employed the same method [qtd. Reproductions of Woodcuts, p.2].

Master the process Sandys certainly did, and at least one surviving block (of The Sailor’s Bride) displays the highest level of technical facility (Birmingham City Art Gallery, United Kingdom). However, his perfectionism and desire to manipulate had a negative side as well. Control and focus are good motivators when the work is self-directed, but is less of a virtue when team-work is involved and progress depends on careful management of others. Well-known as a difficult man, Sandys had significant problems when he handed the work to the engravers; he expertly prepared his blocks, but he was unwilling to enter into collaborations with the technicians who would have to convert them into the printing surface. Indeed, Sandys made impossible demands of his engravers, treated them as social and professional inferiors, and never acknowledged their significant contribution. On the contrary, he mainly found fault.

This combative, unhelpful approach particularly marred his relationship with the Dalziel Brothers, who were commissioned to engrave Until her death for Good Words (1862). Sandys starts off by issuing them with specific instructions as to how the block should be cut: “Will you when cutting the sky keep the straight lines in such order as will produce a clear tone of gradated blue heaven with white clouds on. I was fairly worked out with close working pressed so much for time … Please also keep my lines quite thick as they are throughout the block” (qtd.Cooke, p.180). This seems reasonable, but when he received the block and the proof taken from it he is far from satisfied, curtly noting how “It seems to me to have been cut by another hand and spoilt and you afterwards have done your best to make it tolerable. The tower if the church is smoking, nave and chancel lost. Poplars well well!” (181).

This alleged loss of detail is remedied in the form of more detailed instructions, but in the end he resigned himself to the fact that they could never come up with ‘Dürer’s work’ and (in his view) do justice to his original drawing. The written corrections were accompanied by sketches, and the proof (now in the Hartley Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), was ‘improved’ with touches of gouche. What is most remarkable is the fact that comparison of his remedial work and the printed design (made from an electrotype of the wood-block) reveals barely any differences. The Dalziels did a good job first time, but the artist would not acknowledge the quality of their work.

Sandys did approve Swain’s cutting of Danaë in the Brazen Chamber, but his attitude to his engravers was generally a negative one. Sandys was a demanding artist, and his singular vision was the product, on its journey from sketchbook to printed page, of some difficult professional relationships.

Last modified 15 July 2013