When and what were the first ‘wide format’ prints in the world? Many would look towards the early 1990 and the Encad Novajet 1. Some would point to the Versatec and Raster Graphics electroststic large format devices of the 1980s, or even the Iris Graphics 44” printer from 1985, a proofer but much used as a fine art reproduction machine. Andy McCourt reckons we can go back 150 years earlier to the boxwood engravers!
At around 2.38 metres long when joined, was this the world's first 'wide format print?'
On Tuesday, 20th June, Wideformat online publisher Andy McCourt delivered a talk to a gathering of print veterans from The Penrith Museum of Print, the LIA and Australian Society of Old Friends. The subject was ‘The Boxwood Engravers of the mid-19th Century’ – the Museum had acquired a letterpress block piece of engraved wood and wanted to expand on its history.
In researching the topic, McCourt discovered that engraving on super-hard boxwood for printing, rose to prominence from the superb natural
history book engravings of Englishman Thomas Bewick, who rendered some of Sir Joseph Banks’ Australian sketches ready for illustrative publication as early as 1790, when voyaging with Captain Cook. One of his engravings was of a ‘NSW Wolf’ – dingo to you and me.
Wood cuts of course had been around for centuries but fine detail, sometimes photographic quality engravings were new, made possible by cross-grain cutting of boxwood trunks (Buxus Sempervirens), and the skill of men like Bewick.
Boxwood has been around for centuries and, known also as English box (the village of Box Hill, Surrey is named after it – as is Box Hill in Melbourne), is used for hedges and topiary thanks to its very tight, small leaf structure. Left to grow in the wild the trunks can reach six to (rarely) twelve inches in diameter. When cut across-the grain, the hardness and tight annular rings make for a perfect precision engraving block, rivalling steel and copper when in the right, skilled hands. Wood cutting for type and designs, however, goes allong the grain and ‘planks’ of it can be of considerable width and length from a variety of trees.
But, how would you get a detailed, larger, even wide format prints from such a small engraver’s block? The ingenious boxwood engravers of the Victorian era, devised a method of bolting several pieces of boxwood together ‘without a line, speck or flaw.’ Sometimes the assembled block would receive the sketch or, later, photographic image – then be disassembled so that several engravers could work on each piece before being re-assembled and bolted back up. The halftone process was not of sufficient quality until around 1895.
Enter the Illustrated London News
In 1842, a revolution in media arrived – every bit as impactful as the arrival of television, the internet or facebook! The world’s first fully-illustrated newspaper, The Illustrated London News. All of the illustrations were hand-engraved by artist-engravers of the highest possible skill, using instruments called ‘burens’ and magnifying glasses to render precise illustrations into boxwood, ready for locking up with type for pages of the ILN.
The ILN was no ordinary newspaper (it was weekly) – for decades newspapers were comprised of text only, often crammed in and difficult to read. The ILN was a people’s publication bringing visual replications of actual events – even war correspondent’s sketches and photographs, faithfully rendered as engravings. It also served to proclaim Britain’s then empire, and London as its hub.
The publishers (Ingram family) decided to commission a bold project – a panorama of the great metropolis that folded-out to and incredible 2.38 metres. It was to be given away to subscribers of the ILM. In order to create an original to be engraved, the ILM commissioned Frenchman Antoine Claude to ascend the 192ft high York Tower and take a series of Daguerreotypes ( an early photographic system invented in France) of London and the Thames, from Westminster to Grenwich and beyond.
After development, the daguerreotype plates of silvery metal were laid side by side in two rows one above the other to make a lay-out of the picture which was to be printed on paper for the ILN. An artist,using a pencil, had to draw the photographic detail onto the smooth surface of the biggest wood-block ever made. It was composed of sixty pieces of box-wood joined tightly together "without line, speck or flaw" and then sent to Ebenezer Landell's engraving firm where he and his staff of eighteen assistants worked day and night for sixteen weeks on the largest boxwood engraving ever executed, even to this day.
When published in 1845, the 2.38 meter long Panorama of London was a roaring success and sparked many other ‘bird’s eye’ views. Colour was added, either by hand or by overprinting tints.
The London Panorama has been digitised by the humanities department of the University of Exeter and is searchable. You can examine the detail and marvel at the precision and skills of those boxwood engravers on THIS LINK
Enter the Illustrated Sydney News!
Not to be outdone, the entrepreneurial Walter George Mason, with 2 friends of Sydney, started an Illustrated publication in 1853, along the lines of the ILN. He also commissioned a panorama or ‘bird’s eye view’ of the harbour, and many panoramas of important towns such as Newcastle, Maitland, Armidale. He employed the same boxwood engraving techniques as the ILN and many engravers moved from the UK and America to work here, including on the iconic Pituresque Australasian Atlas of 1886-88 – but that’s a separate story.
Wide format was here to stay and, because we have such a big country, has captured the imagination of artists ever since, not the least is Ken Duncan of Australia Wide renown. And more recently, Indigenous sand art created and photographed from drones by Lowell Hunter
So next time you roll out a print on your 1.6 metre wide inkjet printer, seconds after ripping the PDF; spare a thought for the pioneering boxwood engravers who laboured for sixteen weeks with 60 conjoined pieces of wood, to create the world’s first wide format panorama, on boxwood blocks, in 1845!
Andy McCourt, Publisher, www.wideformatonline.com