Monday, April 16, 2012

Wood engraving

A book came for me at the Shop last week, sort of an early birthday present to myself. Fleece Press's Bookplates and Labels by Leo Wyatt, presswork-wise a perfect book and quite a beautiful one thanks to the many vibrant reproductions of Wyatt's work immaculately printed from the original blocks.

Wyatt's work falls in the tradition of fellow British wood engraver and lettering artist Reynolds Stone, and to my eye when it comes to lettering in wood he was every bit Stone's equal. But he was reclusive and prone to episodes of crippling self-doubt, and thus did not enjoy the breadth of notoriety worthy of his supreme genius. Despite his own inexplicably low opinion of his work, he found an enthusiastic audience in the US among people of influence in the printing trade, like Harold Hugo and John Peckham, whose copy of Bookplates and Labels book I now am very proud to own. He did a lot of bookplates for the Boston Athenaeum, where I first encountered the book about four years ago in the early days of my interest in wood engraving. This book is something of a milestone for my collection, one that brings me full circle and also indicates a possible path forward to a new process for making letters. Doubtful I'll get very far down that path, but the view is compelling.

I knew before I arrived at the JSS that John Howard Benson had tried his amazingly gifted hand at wood engraving, at least enough to take with confidence the commission to provide the artwork for Henry Beston's Herbs and the Earth in 1935. There are a few framed bookplates and prints of his in the apartment which betray an abiding interest in the medium, but I wasn't sure if it was much more than an occasional hobby for JHB, as he was so busy teaching, designing layouts and moving carved stone out the door. Last week Nick opened up a flat file containing some of the family archives, which includes a large box full of JHB's wood engravings: christmas cards, bookplates, commercial pieces for local banks and historic homes, religious ephemera and a quite astonishing two-color version of his masterpiece Herreshoff Ice Boats. If he had limited himself to wood engraving he would still have earned a comfortable place alongside Thomas Nason and J. J. Lankes in the pantheon of New England engravers working in the mid-20th century.

The reflection of the sails is remarkable, capturing a state of water hidden in the wood. It reminds me, in spirit if not in detail, of Asa Cheffetz's Fish Pier (Portland, ME), technically one of the most virtuosic examples of the art I've ever seen.

Into this celebratory atmosphere walked John Benson, himself no stranger to the graver and boxwood or to Leo Wyatt, as the two were somehow personally acquainted. Together we pored over the Wyatt book to the soundtrack of John's eloquently profane appreciation for the man and his work. He came back later with an initial block he had engraved for his old mate John Hegnauer.

The next day he brought in his tools. I couldn't help asking where he got them. "Oh, they were my father's tools and he gave them to me." And there plunged into a chunk of styrofoam like so many miniature Swords in the Stone were JHB's spitstickers, scorpers and gouges. I'm not sure I would have been more impressed if he had produced the chisels used to carve Trajan's Column. He gave me a brief demonstration, complained of how dull the tips were and then was off, leaving the tools at the Shop for me to experiment with once I track down a block of endgrain. Nothing like jumping into the deep end with the master's tools to inspire confidence, no? Actually, no. But the opportunity is there. Might as well give it a shot.


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  2. Wyatt was also an exceedingly accomplished copper-plate and silver engraver.

  3. I knew Leo Wyatt (and his wife, Betsy) when I was a child. They lived in the house opposite. My mother still has a set of four of his alphabet prints that he gave us for Christmas one year, and a tiny Christmas tree, maybe half a foot high, that Leo had made for us with miniscule decorations and exquisite detail. I loved his work, and as a young child I used to think of him as a kind of grand fatherly figure.