Joseph Swain was born in Oxford on 29 February 1820. His father was a printer and his grandfather the religious poet of the same name. The family moved to London in 1829 and in 1834 Joseph was prepared for entry into the printing trade as an artist or designer. Aged just 14, he was apprenticed to Nathaniel Whittock, a lithographic draughtsman and drawing-master who went on to publish a series of topographical views of Oxford, the capital and other cities.

Formerly a resident of the Swains’ home town, Whittock described himself as a ‘Teacher of drawing and perspective [and] lithographist [sic] to the University of Oxford’. Based in premises at16 Somers Place East, New Road, London, Whittock was a multi-skilled practitioner and an all-rounder well-placed to help the apprentice to gain skills in printing. drawing and the aesthetics of book-design. Swain does not record the quality of the training he received, but Whittock seems to have been genuinely committed to the notion of art-education, an approach suggested by his publication of popular instructional books such as The Decorative Painters’ and Glaziers’ Guide (1827) and The Art of Drawing and Colouring, from Nature, Birds, Beasts, Fishes, and Insects (1830). Swain learned from Whittock the techniques of lithography and steel and copper-plate etching, producing everything from elaborate albums to labels and business-cards. But his master did not provide the very type of engraving he was most interested in pursuing: engraving on wood.

His intention was always to be an engraver on box-wood and with that in mind he terminated his apprenticeship with Whittock and moved, in or around 1838, to the office of Thomas Williams. This was a large and flourishing business working in the manner of Thomas Bewick. Swain might have been an intern for Thomas’s brother, Samuel, who was both an artist and engraver, and it is significant that he engaged with a practitioner who only worked from the designs of others. Here Swain learned the skills of facsimile engraving, converting an artist’s composition into a printable surface.

Wood-engraving seems to have been his natural occupation and it is interesting to speculate on why he abandoned the old-fashioned techniques of lithography and etching. This may have been a rational assessment of future developments. By the end of the thirties engraving on wood was in the ascendant, and Swain seems to have realized that a lasting career could be made in this field. Later to acquire a reputation for his business-like and sometimes abrasive attitude, Swain positioned himself in an occupation that would service the vast demand for cheap images, employing thousands of workers until the rise of photographic techniques in the late seventies, when the craft went into decline.

There was certainly enough work for him to progress to the setting up of his own business. In 1842 he is recorded as running an engraving company at 18 Elder Street in Spitalfields, taking commissions from other, larger companies. The concern seems to have been reasonably successful – allowing him to marry and set up a family home – but his greatest step forward was in 1843 when he was sub-contracted by the engraver Jewitt to cut a block for John Leech, then chief cartoonist at Punch. Leech’s praise for the work alerted Bradbury and Evans, the publishers, to Swain’s qualities, and he was offered the post of manager of the engraving department.

Swain thus became the engraver in charge of all of Punch’s illustrations, an association that continued for the rest of the century. To deal more closely with the demands of the job, he moved his workshop into proximity with the Punch Office. Bradbury and Evans were based at 11 Bouverie Street, Holborn, and Swain (from 1858) at number 6; drawings were delivered into the hands of the editor at the main premises, and once approved assistants passed them through the door of the workshop, perhaps fifty feet away across the road.

Bouverie Street, the home of publishing until the twentieth century, had an atmosphere of shared purpose, with rolls of paper being hauled up to warehouse windows (Morris, 46) and the constant movement of deliveries and visiting writers and artists animating its narrow space. As late at 1951 it was described as the ‘Bouverie Village’ and in the 1840s it seemed the home of a cottage industry. This was the impression Swain created in his workshops in the early years of the business. In the first instance he only employed eight engravers to work under his supervision, with a democratic mix of masters, journeymen and apprentices being housed in a single large room (Groves, 17). There is no detailed description of the interior of the premises, although its character is suggested by Walter Crane’s account of the workshop run by Linton, Swain’s contemporary. Crane’s evocation gives a vivid sense of the tools and equipment that Swain’s engravers, in competition with Linton’s, would have used:

[The] office was a typical wood-engraver’s office of that time, a row of engravers at work at a fixed bench covered with green baize running the whole length of the room under the windows with eyeglass stands and rows of gravers. And for night work, a round table with a gas lamp in the centre, surrounded with a circle of large clear glass globes filled with water to magnify the light and concentrate it on the blocks upon which the engravers (or ‘peckers’ … as they were commonly called) worked, resting them upon small circular leather bags or cushions filled with sand, upon which they could easily be held and turned about by the left hand while being worked upon with the tool in the right. [Crane, 48]

Yet the impression of sharing, if it existed in Swain’s workshop, was short-lived. The single large room became the domain only of the journey-men and apprentices, the masters were re-housed downstairs to a room with ‘No Admittance’ written over the door and the manager withdrew to an upstairs office which he re-decorated in a luxurious style (Groves, 17). In the words of Anthony Burton, ‘hierarchy was asserted’ (Oxford DNB) in the industrial manner of large and powerful businesses. Though derived from the small-scale traditions of craft-work, engravers, like all producers of Victorian artefacts, were re-cast within the developing model of industrial practice, and Swain’s concern, like Linton’s and the Dalziels, was transformed into a factory of technicians making facsimiles on wood (Beegan, 59), managed by an overseer and with a proprietor in charge.

This hierarchical model serviced productivity, but it was also an expression of status and class. Swain’s division from his workers expressed his respectability as a self-made man and he may have needed to affirm his bourgeois credentials. Though popular, he seems to have lacked the polish of a gentleman, sometimes expressed himself in ‘somewhat unclassical speech’ (Engen, 45), and may have wanted to distance himself from the negative associations of being ‘in trade’. In so doing he ascended, as the Dalziels ascended, from artisanal to middle-class status; they too ensured that the workers were designated spaces other than their own. The Dalziels’ bourgeois aspirations were further expressed in terms of their publishing ventures, transforming themselves from tradesmen into refined patrons of the arts by commissioning the artists whose works they engraved and showcasing idiosyncratic productions such as the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery (1881; Cooke, 'Notable', 62–66). For Swain, by contrast, his status as a professional was articulated in terms of his engagement with ‘his’ artists, immersing himself in the culture of book illustration in ways that went well beyond his role as a technician.

His personal dealings with artists involved some training and a great deal of liaison work, as well as writing biographical accounts which appeared, most notably, in H. C. Ewart’s Toilers in Art (1891). In his capacity as the Punch engraver he mentored several of the magazine’s contributors, providing technical assistance to George Du Maurier, Richard Doyle, John Leech, Charles Bennett, Charles Keene and John Tenniel, as well as introducing new talent such as William Ralston (Layard, Brooks, 475). He engaged in the same sort of intricate relationships in his work for Once a Week, Good Words, The Cornhill Magazine and numerous other publications; generously, Bradbury and Evans did not limit the work he could procure elsewhere and the late fifities and sixties he is recorded at working from workshops other than the one in Bouverie Street.

‘Swain. Sc.’, his moniker, was the emblem of a collaborative effort – and was anything but a mere transcript of the artist’s work. Although production of the engraving involved an industrial process which divided the work into specialist tasks and was part of a factory system, the end result was synthetic, a pooling of talent and expertise that converged in the final product.

This working model, shared with other engravers, but taken to an extreme and intimate form in Swain’s company, was the hallmark of his long and successful career. Known for his efficiency and quality, able to process a drawing in 24 hours, and proud of the fact that in fifty years he never missed a deadline (Spielmann, 250), Swain continued working until the end of century, only finishing his association with Punch in 1890. In the latter part of his career the running of the business was passed to his eldest son, John Swain, but he remained an important figure and enjoyed a considerable reputation. Joseph Swain died at his Ealing home on 25 February 1909; an obituary in The Bookseller paid due homage to his achievements and his death was widely reported in the London and provincial papers. His estate was valued at £9,717 (London Daily, 8–9), a significant fortune at the time and a true reflection of his great success as a businessman.

Related material

Works Cited

Beegan, G. The Mass Image: a Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Cooke, Simon. Illustrated Periodicals of the 1860s. Pinner: PLA; London: The British Library; Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2010.

Cooke, Simon. ‘Notable Books: The Dalziels’ Bible Gallery’. The Private Library 5th Series 10:2 (Summer 2007): 59–85.

Crane, Walter. An Artist’s Reminiscences. London: Methuen, 1907.

Engen, Rodney. Richard Doyle. Stroud: The Catalpa Press, 1983.

Ewart, H. C. Toilers in Art. London: Isbister [1901].

‘A Famous Engraver.’ London Daily News. 24 March 1909: 8–9.

Groves, J. B. Rambling Recollections and Modern Thoughts by an Old Engraver. [n.d. MS., The Punch Library, London].

Punch. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1841–90.

Van Gogh, Vincent. Letter to Theo Van Gogh, 30 October 1877. Reproduced in

Last modified 12 August 2017