September 24, 2019

Printing Universal Knowledge

        I inherited from the respectable middle-class packrats among my ancestors a 10 volume set of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People (American Revised Edition) of 1885.  William and Robert Chambers founded their publishing company in 1819 in Edinburgh and became famous for a host of reference works including various iterations of their encyclopaedia.  These were illustrated, of course, with wood blocks and wood engravings, and this summer I was tickled to see a selection of those very blocks.
        Actually, I’m not sure whether any of the specific blocks on display when I saw them were used in my particular edition of the encyclopaedia; over the years Chambers published many books, and the displayed blocks weren’t labelled with what entry they had been used to illustrate, so I couldn’t easily check.  So today I am sharing a couple of the blocks I saw, and a couple of the blocks for which I did actually track down the printed page.  For the most part these images are not particularly beautiful.  Their intention is utilitarian illustration, not Art.  Nevertheless, the diagram of a factory and the facade of an Assyrian temple struck me for their interesting geometry.  Looking at the blocks in the dimly lit case, I couldn’t see finely engraved details, or make out the effect of shading done with cross-hatching, but I could appreciate the nice, bold geometric patterns.
        These bats are part of the National Museum of Scotland’s collection, but not currently on display.  However, I was able to see that they are the actual blocks used in my actual books, which is kind of cool.  It’s also always fun to be able see both a block and how it prints.  In this case, you can see that they’re the pretty standard Victorian wood engraving style: lots of little texture lines, but not a lot of variation in line width or use of solid blacks and whites (except for white backgrounds).

        Finally I’m including one last block that I did not see at the museum and have not found printed in my encyclopaedia.  I’ve posted it here because I really wish I could see what it looks like printed, because I think it would be a really cool one.  It depicts a “vivarium,” which has water like an aquarium and earth like a terrarium, all in one.  It has water creatures, plants, and flying insects, and I just love all the details.  I think it must be a bit of a fantasy because I can’t imagine butterflies and dragonflies could really live in that small a container, but it gives an impression of an entire world contained in a wonderfully Victorian neo-Gothic case.  In fact, I can’t help suspecting that this case is actually magic!

[Pictures: The plan of a factory, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1830-40’s;
An Assyrian temple, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1830-40’s;
Skeleton of Bat, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1860;
Bat in Repose, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1860;
Entry on Bat illustrated with wood block prints, Chambers’s Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People (American Revised Edition), 1885;
Vivarium, woodblock carved for W. & R. Chambers, c 1830-40’s (Images from National Museum of Scotland, and photo by AEGN).]


Sue Bursztynski said...

You’re right, those encyclopaedia illustrations are not that beautiful, though I imagine the artist was proud of them. But there are some wonderful illustrations from the past, whether it’s 19th century novels or 20th century children’s book art. Even the Ladybird books are just beginning to be appreciated now. I used to read and love the How And Why Wonder Books as a child. Their illoes would probably not be considered amazing art now, and yet... One of my books, Rolling Right Along, a history of the wheel, was illustrated very much like a How And Why book and it was very special to me!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Sue, I think illustrations from our childhood play in our minds almost more like music - so much of our feelings have to do with time, place, and circumstances with which we associate the images. Anyway, art is always going to be subjective. The critics can use big words 'til they're blue in the face, and you can appreciate all sorts of art for its skill, or innovation, or social aspects, but in the end it always just comes down to loving what we love!