id-Victorian illustrations were mainly printed used the process of wood-engraving. The implications of this arrangement were two-fold. First and foremost, artists had to be proficient in drawing their designs, back to front, on the prepared surface of the block – a situation which prevailed at least until the mid-1860s, when photographic transfer was adopted. Secondly, and irrespective of how the design was transferred, the illustrators were entirely subject to the skill of the engravers who cut the blocks and produced an interpretation that may, or may not, have been a faithful account of the original design. Artists working in the idiom known as ‘The Sixties’ were constrained by this technical arrangement, and the working relationship between the illustrator and the ‘wood-pecker’ (as the engravers were known) was not always harmonious.
Many surviving letters of the period show that artist were frustrated by the quality of the proofs, often returning them to the cutters with strict instructions (written in pencil annotations around the margin) as to how they might be improved or enhanced. Frederick Sandys was particularly difficult to please – writing a series of sarcastic and hyper-critical messages to the Dalziel Brothers – and so was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who worked with the same firm in the preparation of two books, William Allingham’s> The Music Master (1855) and Tennyson’s Poems, known as the ‘Moxon Tennyson’ (1857).
Rossetti was a perfectionist, mistakenly believing that his drawings could be translated into prints with no mediation or change; well-known for his petulance and resentful of the process of collaboration, he could only find fault with the Dalziels’ work as they struggled with his designs, some of which lacked structure and were unsuitable for cutting. Rossetti’s attitude to the craftsmen is embodied in his famous doggerel, ‘Address to the Dalziel Brothers’, perhaps the only poem to be inspired by the prosaic task of cutting pieces of wood. However, the humour does not conceal his irritation as he was preparing work for the ‘Moxon Tennyson’:
O woodman spare that block
O gash not anyhow!
It took ten days by clock,
I’d fain protect it now.
Chorus – Wild laughter from the Dalziels’ workshop [qtd. Reid, p.41].
More telling still is the testimony of Edward Burne-Jones. In conversation with Robert Catterson-Smith, Jones reveals the agonies Rossetti suffered as he dealt with the Dalziels, notably in the preparation of St Cecilia, an illustration for Tennyson’s ‘The Palace of Art’:
Rossetti used to make a very careful pen and ink drawing – then turn it round in a glass and draw it on the block. Once or twice he was pleased with the cutting, but usually it meant 3 or 4 days of grumpiness. I would go round to him of a morning as I did very day for the first 2 or 3 years that I knew him and used to find him in the worst of tempers, He couldn’t get them to cut his line thick enough. The engravers would always cut it away and fine it off to nothing, thinking, the silly fools, that he couldn’t draw and they’d improve it for him and make it delicate – so lost all strength and depth of tone. And then he used to groan. He wanted a nice thick line and there was no room for him to draw it for them thicker than it had to be, as he would have done it if there had been. Besides the boxwood was hard to get a rich line upon [it] in the method of those days. Once they sent him a block a sixteenth of an inch too short. It was at the top, for this beautiful one [‘St Cecilia’, from the Moxon Tennyson] on the town wall – and while he was cursing about it someone who was by said could so little as that matter, on which he called out ‘Good God! What do you mean by that? I could get a whole city in there … [Burne-Jones Talking, pp.78-79].
Left: The Palace of Art [St. Cecilia]. Right: The Maids of Elfen Mere. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Rossetti responded to this frustration by producing what are perhaps the most detailed annotations of the period. The proof-image of St Cecilia is surrounded by a dense series of terse instructions and arrows pointing to the passages that need to be changed (The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK) and the handwriting, which becomes progressively more scribbled, reflects his irritation. The printed result, it has to be said, is indistinguishable from the uncorrected proof; Rossetti’s instructions made no difference and the whole process seems, in the end, to be a matter of exerting control, rather than the monitoring of quality.
Allingham, William. The Music Master. London: Routledge, 1855.
Burne-Jones Talking.Edited by Mary Lago. London: John Murray, 1982.
Reid, Forrest. The Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975.
Tennyson, Alfred. [Poems. London: Moxon, 1857.
Created 15 May 2015