George du Maurier (1830–96) was one of the most accomplished illustrators of the period known as ‘The Sixties’. His best work appeared in periodicals such as Once a Week,The Leisure Hour, The Cornhill Magazine and London Society. Making their first appearance in 1861 and continuing into the eighties, his images were printed as electrotypes taken from wood-blocks. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The method of preparation is well-known, and could have taken several forms. By the middle of the sixties it was usually the practice that artists drew the original design on paper, which was then photographed onto the wood.’ This involved taking a photograph which was then developed onto the surface of a piece of box-wood which was coated with a photo-sensitive chemical. Other techniques involved pasting the drawing onto the block, or using the long-established practice in which the artist drew directly onto the block (which had been smoothed and painted in Chinese White); sometimes the designer used tracing paper to transfer the image from the paper to the wood, and this involved copying the outlines and direct manipulation, with details being added free-hand.

In each case, the block was passed to the engraver who excavated the hard box-wood and only left the lines standing in relief. Sometimes several blocks were bolted together in the manner invented by Charles Wells in 1860; this allowed several engravers to work on the composition at the same time. Once excavated, the block could be printed; although it was more usually the case that the carved surface was converted into a metal electrotype by taking a wax impression. Though the original blocks were used to print de-luxe editions, the wood collapsed under the pressure of the steam press, and almost all of the illustrations of the period were printed from electrotypes rather than the block. The principal engravers, notably the Dalziels, William Linton and Joseph Swain, were experts in this process.

A surprising number of engraved blocks have survived; for example, Simeon Solomon’s blocks produced in the eighteen sixties for the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery (1800–81) are intact (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, UK), and others can be found in The British Museum. The one shown here is the original block which was used for du Maurier’s Rather an Ordeal for the Rev. Mr Green, which appeared in London Society (August 1865, facing p. 123). This object typifies the process of the time: box wood, which is extremely hard, has been mounted on two pieces of softer wood (maple) which are bolted together; the engraved surface, cut by Thomas Robinson, shows traces of white paint; and the side of the block is signed by the artist, who also identifies the subject.

Last modified 1 March 2016