July 10, 2012

Industrial Strength

        In their role as pre-photographic method of reproduction, relief block prints were often used for technical diagrams and other images having more to do with industry than art.  All the same, some of these images are really beautiful, perhaps because those who drew and carved them really were artists and made their work beautiful despite its utilitarian nature.  Or perhaps its simply because I have a taste for this sort
of thing and it pleases me.  Either way, I feature today three cool relief prints that were made for industrial purposes.
        First up is a wood engraving by John William Orr showing the details of the Great Eastern iron sailing steamship.  When she was launched in 1858 the Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, but this image was made in about 1855 for a broadside distributed to investors.  I suppose as an advertising piece it's no surprise that Orr tried to make it attractive.  He had to balance technical detail with glamour shot.
        Next is a diagram of a treadwheel for raising ore, which appears in De re metallica, a 1556 treatise about mining and refining minerals.  It was the definitive work on the subject for nearly two centuries.  In his preface, author Georgius Agricola says "I have hired illustrators to delineate their forms [of tools and machines], lest descriptions which are conveyed by words should either not be understood by men of our own times, or should cause difficulty to posterity."  The illustrations were so important to the whole book that even though Agricola apparently finished the manuscript in 1550 - and died in 1555 - publication was delayed until the woodcuts could be completed.  Despite their importance, however, we don't know for sure who carved them, and although one writer attributes the drawings to someone called Basilius Wefring, no credit is given in the book.  But whoever made this great woodcut, I like it.  I find the composition pleasing, with its curves balanced by angles.  I also love that the artist included the entirely gratuitous dog lying in the foreground gnawing a stick.  Although some other illustrations show dogs involved in mining work, such as carrying packs or pulling sledges, bonus dogs appear in a lot of other pictures in which they're clearly there just because the artist had fun depicting
them.  I always appreciate someone who puts a little extra effort into his work, as this artist clearly did.
        And finally, my favorite, the Milan Cathedral from Vitruvius's Architectura.  It's a perfect illustration of the idea that geometry sings the glory of God.  The artist, Cesar Cesariano, has managed to show both the incredibly detailed fiddliness of the decorations, and at the same time the pure simplicity of the underlying proportions.  I love that the image looks almost abstract, and yet still retains a sense of purpose so that it's more than mere doodlings of circles and lines.
        It's not easy bringing artistry to a technical commission, but I think these three relief prints prove that it is definitely possible!

[Pictures:  The Great Eastern, wood engraving by John William Orr, c.1855 (image from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971);
Figure 197, woodcut by Basilius Wefring (?) from De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola, 1556  (image from Project Gutenberg);
Facade and section of Milan Cathedral, woodcut by Cesar Cesariano from Architectura by Vitruvius, 1521 (image from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971).]

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