Cutting Edge Illustration

Interpretive Wood-Engraving: The Story of the Society of American Wood-Engravers.

By William Brandt

William H. Brandt, an emeritus botany professor at Oregon State University, has been a collector of wood engravings for thirty years. Enthusiasts who write about a subject often lack the critical engagement of professional scholars, and their views on its relative importance tend to be myopic. Brandt largely escapes this pitfall, fortunately, and although his enthusiasm is clear, his assertions and claims do not suffer for it.

Interpretive Wood Engraving focuses on the known members of the Society of American Wood-Engravers (SAWE), even though the records of the Society have not survived, and places them within the larger context of the golden age of wood engraving in publishing (1850-1900). Brandt has identified the names of twenty-nine members who belonged to the Society at its height (ca. 1890-95), and in section nine gives biographical sketches of each member along with an example of their work (plates 21-49). The total number of wood engravers in America peaked at over 500 in 1890; by 1905, wood engraving had lost its place as the premier form of illustration in publishing to the halftone process, which allowed photographs to be satisfactorily printed on paper along with type.

The first four sections detail the history of wood-engraving, the split between the Old and New Schools of engravers, the formation of the Society, and the competition between Scribner’s (later The Century) and Harper’s, and how it drove the engravers to innovation. Sections five through eight focus on specifics—the role of the Grolier Club in SAWE’s history, the portfolio the Society produced, a select bibliography of American wood-engraving, and an annotated list of exhibitions in which the Society members’ engravings have appeared (1881-2001). Brandt includes a section on collecting wood-engravings, offers a defense of the practice as an art and not merely a craft, and outlines four classes of material to collect (proofs on Japan or Indian paper, proofs on plain paper, and magazine and newspaper pages). The bibliography is awkward in its form— alphabetical by the abbreviated source citations in the text—and is confusing to read as a stand-alone section, but the index is excellent.

Brandt’s descriptions of engraving and printing processes (especially electrotyping) are good, but could have been fuller—there was certainly space to do so. He is more successful at conveying the scope of this powerful, and almost completely forgotten, movement in the history of American printmaking. Artists and printmakers who are currently working or experimenting with wood engravings will find a great deal of pertinent information and inspiration here.

It is a lavish, unwieldy book, with more than 80 illustrations (fifty of which are plates), and measuring just over one square foot (13 x 12 inches). The format does justice to the images, but the text sometimes falls behind, and often one feels that so much white space is rather extravagant. Only 600 numbered copies were printed (the first fifty were signed by the author). Obviously intended as a beautiful homage, this book has a place in any large collection of book history, the book arts, or illustration.

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