Monday, December 31, 2012

Roughly, eye shock 1800


[a] Victorian wood engravers at work.

Yesterday’s Papers. Today’s Views.
by Huib van Opstal

[1] strip search
We begin. In the semi-darkness of a small theatre a wall projection starts for a small international group of participants. There will be a show today of English strips of the 1800s. A forgotten type of strip on tabloid-sized pages, some already in colour, from London papers such as The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, The Illustrated Times, and more.

It’s January 2012. We’re in the Platinum matinée at the annual Angoulême Festival international de la bande dessinée, edition 39, near Bordeaux in France, with three presentations by Thierry Smolderen, Paul Karasik and Pete Maresca. Present also is Robert Beerbohm of the Platinum e-group (he’s its moderator, with Leonardo De Sá) — a group ‘discussing the earliest international origins of comic books and strips.’ The only reason our member Art Spiegelman isn’t present, is that he’s president of this year’s festival and needed elsewhere.

[b] The connecting bridge in la cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image, Angoulême 39, January 27, 2012.
Non-stop rapping in French and English with infectious enthusiasm, our host Thierry Smolderen presents page after page of these rare strips. Most from the ‘Victorian Age’ (as Great Britain named it after the long reign, 1837-1901, of its queen), an age the Platinum group has been studying since 1999. And now, this sudden watershed, this prime material. Strips from rarely mentioned pioneering papers, artists and engravers, many done via wood repro.

[c] Thierry Smolderen’s wondrous watershed, at the Angoulême 39 festival, January 28, 2012.
The excitement builds, viewers speak out loud. This is fun, drama, documentary — a tick — a tick — a tick by Smolderen’s hand — and impressive strips full of ideas and experiments roll by, and good eye shocks too. Blank pages of history never looked better.

In a flash it triggered a row of falling dominoes in my mind.

[2] restriction, revolution
Picture barrier — artist and patron — style dictates — labeling — drawn or painted — realist or humorous — print 1400-1900 — high-art low-art — artist and engraver — woodcut revival in the 1800s — technical revolutions — experiments in novel styles — picture rhyme — picturejournalism — photomechanics revolution.

The mixed blessings of the woodcut revival in the 1800s were well-known in Victorian times. An artist might draw his original art on paper, a repro man copied it onto woodblocks via tracing paper. Then other men did the actual cutting, engraving, proofing and printing.

[d] John Tenniel’s Alice illustration, 1865.
The luxuriously named ‘wood engraving’ was deemed to be in a different class than the ‘cheap cut’ in wood, but both could turn out simply brilliant or simply a dud; because both were all-dependent on manual skills. Especially towards the 1890s — on the eve of their craft’s demise — hand engravers proved they could reproduce anything in any style, via wood. 

Woodcutting or engraving could be done nigh invisibly (like most illustrations of John Tenniel for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, cut in 1865, his hand drawn lines and use of white space set the tone), or it could be done in the loudest engraved patterns (like the full-page illustrations of Gustave Doré for Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantès, cut in 1863, the halftone look of his engravers dominated). The art of Tenniel and Doré became famous via the works they illustrated. Both wanted to be painters first — but stayed illustrators for life, willy-nilly working together with their wood engravers.

[e] Gustave Doré’s Don Quichotte de la Manche illustration, 1863 (detail).
All changed and ended abruptly with the victory of the photomechanics revolution in the 1890s. The decisive decade, when wood repro methods and hand skills were finally superseded by a new photography-based, total printing process. Generally labelled ‘process printing’ or just ‘Process’ it was first used for line art as early as the 1880s and a little later for halftone art, in full-colour also.

The first skilled artists to taste the full freedom of working with photomechanics had a flying start in the 1890s. In England, illustrator Phil May (1864-1903) showed how lively and fresh a more simplified version of hatched pen-and-ink drawings could look in print.

In the US, photomechanics revitalized designers, illustrators, photographers and stripmakers, especially those working for newspapers that featured large colour pages since 1892. Finally their art could appear in print unchanged and within days — in a modern mass medium, in colour and poster-size too — with a direct control few visual creators had ever experienced before. A novel high; notably stimulating the stripmakers we discussed in the Platinum group.

[f] 2012 festival logo by Lewis Trondheim.
[3] a sense of wonder
So, back to our Saturday afternoon of 28 January 2012, at Angoulême 39. Today’s overall sensation is that Smolderen’s Victorian strip search catapults all this long lost proof back on radar again. Earlier glimpses I had were not so convincing. Today’s sense of wonder is: how could such joyful, skillful strips escape attention for so long? Why weren’t they noted in earlier histories?

Thierry Smolderen — ‘I scarcely believed my eyes when this material came to light’ — is a longtime strip historian from Belgium, who lives and teaches in the town of Angoulême in France, Europe’s center of strip and digital imagery study. He gathered a wide range of these strips after being tipped last year by an antiquarian in Hay-on-Wye in Wales — ‘world renowned for books and bookshops.’ His findings are inspirational and may help erase some bogus origin myths and smokescreens of earlier historians.

[4] wood repro trail
Doing research in printing history, only weeks after my stay in France, I compared the work of two British artist-writers, George du Maurier and his colleague Randolph Caldecott. It set me off on the wood repro trail. Both artists were lifelong captives of reproductional wood engraving. It made me find the original art for a Tom Noddy dream strip in Punch’s Almanack; a strip drawn in late 1891 by staff artist George du Maurier and reproduced via wood. And it made me republish the entire 4-page strip — titled Tom Noddy’s Christmas Nightmare, After Cold Mince-Pies for Supper.HERE.

On wood, photographically transferred artwork (a photo print of the art on the block) was available since the mid-1860s, lifting the 1/1 scale barrier. From then on original artwork on paper could be done in any size. Not that everybody started doing it right away; in isolated cases drawing directly on wood even continued till after the year 1900.

[g] Cuthbert Bede, B.A.’s The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman strip, 1851-52 (detail).
A masterclass in print comparison was given in America in 1943 in the largely visual How Prints Look by William M. Ivins, Jr. (1881-1961). See the book he built from 120 blown-up details of selected prints done via wood, metal and stone. In short texts, mostly captions, he pointed out ‘the basic simplicity of those processes.’ Ivins was the curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and some of the blow-ups in his book looked like vintage Pop Art, long before it was labelled as such. The Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) generation of artists might have used it as a manual, so close do many of Ivins Jr.’s blow-ups resemble later modern art.

Until the 1870s, making a block, plate or slab for printing, entailed that your art first had to be drawn onto a block of wood or a slab of stone, or engraved with sharp tools in a plate of copper or other metal. Metal engraving was the hardest to do, and the most expensive.

Woodcut or wood engraving remained the cheapest. It was a low-cost technique for use in large press runs; stigmatised because of its cheapish roots. Done by the right engravers and printers it could produce great results, although the artists themselves had mixed feelings about it. All original art drawn directly on wood was destroyed in the process, for instance, and the end results too often showed changed or damaged art. 

[h] Watts Phillips’ Plum-Pudding; A Dream of Christmas strip, 1852 (detail).
[5] line or halftone look
In the 1800s any style of drawing or painting could be reproduced via wood, in ‘line facsimile’ or in ‘tint’ manner, in line look or in halftone look.

When you wanted halftones in your drawing, you indicated the tone values, with a wash for instance. Your block-cutter then chose textures for them and engraved these in wood, in lines, fields, dots, stipples or scratches. Patterns of parallel hairlines were often used to suggest grey tones; when done with a ruling machine this resulted in a more mechanical look (a standard in scientific works and mail-order catalogues). While most lines of your original art were reproduced as exact as possible, new style elements might be added — any trick could be used. How the final product would look in print depended on the manner of production.

And that’s where the catch was: you had to find the right engravers.

You may compare it with finding the right inker for your pencilled originals, the right embellisher. But hand-engraving a pencilled or penned original on a woodblock was even more complicated than inking a pencilled original on drawing paper. To begin with, the complete cut had to be done in negative, in minute detail, in an even depth of line. For hatched or crosshatched original drawings, every tiny blank spot in between the many lines had to be chiseled away in exactly the right size, shape and direction. On a block so hard, you had to master special hand movements to push your tool. And in wood engraving any line was an avoided line, an uncut line. Your most perfect line was the never touched line.

[i] Charles H. Bennett’s Hob and Nobb strip, 1856 (detail).
The highly successful illustrations of French artist Gustave Doré (1832-83) were rendered by the best wood engravers, most often in halftone look. Doré produced caricature as well as realist work. Halftones and light-dark effects made much of his printed work resemble black-and-white photos. Especially when he did a full-page drawing, every corner of it was filled with tone. Like most of his 181 illustrations for London; a Pilgrimage, a long project of picturejournalism with London journalist Blanchard Jerrold, published as a monthly series in 1872, and then in book volume. Also doing strips, Doré became very popular in London, and worked there too. He died relatively early, at fifty-one, having been an illustrator for forty years; trained since he was eleven, he saw his first work published at the age of fifteen. Later, his printed work was widely sold by syndication and became synonymous with 1800s wood engraving.

However, engraving in halftone look is only half the story. ‘Line art’ artwork was done to perfection via wood repro too in the 1800s. Artwork in ‘line look’ was labelled ‘black line method’ by wood engravers, who sometimes mastered it to perfection. After 1890 the photomechanics revolution made line art the simplest repro method.

Trying to establish where ‘line’ becomes ‘halftone’ will land you in a twilight zone of substyles and sublabels. Hand drawn lines rarely have uniform thickness and are rarely straight. They show hand movements, and bend, curve, cross, swell, shrink or quiver.

In retrospect, the 1800s revival of the woodcut was still based on a medieval technique, and this showed. In 1800s wood engraving line art did not always result in exact copies of the originals. Beautiful or intoxicating as some of it was, a mass of Victorian line art looked like cut-up linework. Art in wrinkles, created by graving out the wood around it.

[6] eye shocks, phantom lines
Pull your head back, skip any microinspection, try looking at it as charmingly rough or crisp lines, and marvel at how good the printed artwork, in the pre-1900 Punch for instance, could be. Witness the guts and stamina of the illustrated press artists and their teams of wood repro men specialized in reproducing their art.

[j] London woodblock manufacturer Ed. Badoureau, self-promotion, 1886 (detail).
Sniffing the fragrance of boxwood, six days a week, and ever ready to do overtime, wood engravers in commercial workshops operated in utmost concentration in a virtual looking-glass world, because all their cuts would be printed mirrored. In endless repetition they were carving out minute details, their noses against the blocks, twisting and turning their blocks on leather sandbags, using shades, and magnifying glasses, card tricks and crystal balls that radiated light.

The crystal balls they used, were actually large water-filled flasks, placed in front of the engravers to magnify lamplight; there is one pictured in illustration [j].

Punch is the perfect example of what I label  ‘eye shock 1800.’ In early Punch pictures lines can be bluntly cut off or otherwise damaged. Distracting thin white grid lines of tiled woodblocks (first glued, later bolted) show through the drawings. Printing paper is near transparant. Black is wavery, and the paper’s text has been poorly typeset as well. Printwise the Victorian Punch was of bad quality, with ups and downs, depending on the year you look at.

For various reasons illustrator-writer George du Maurier was trapped in Punch and its Victorian wood repro restrictions for the length of his career. Whenever this one-eyed hypochondriac checked his latest Punch pages it could mean horror and delight in one. Delight that his drawing was cut and printed in such a short time span, looked so damned well and pleased almost everybody. Horror that his linework and hatchings — in pencil as well as in pen and ink — came back as a raw echo of the original, all because his lines had to be transformed into wooden ridges on the block, changing them into phantom lines. The cuts published as the official versions of his work would delight and haunt him at the same time.

While du Maurier’s work as artist-writer has been praised and politely criticized, his strips never received much attention, never made it into any ‘definitive history.’ Probably because he worked in several styles, and his Victorian type of strip did not sufficiently resemble later strip styles and never carried any ‘strip’ or other popular label.

[k] Charles Keene’s Private Gawky strip, 1863 (detail).
Fortunately, we have Leonee Ormond’s essential biography, titled George Du Maurier (1969, 547 pp.), but her book does not contain any mention of a du Maurier strip. It was only in 1990 that American strip historian David Kunzle drew attention to du Maurier’s Tom Tit family strip from 1866 and two later strips from 1869 — The Philosopher’s Revenge, about noisy neighbours (mostly done in split-screen images), and a weird animal tale, The Egg-Poacher. And there it stopped. Kunzle stated he had begun ‘to hate the 1880s and the ’90s’ and followed other preferences.

While cleverly marketed, the weekly paper Punch, and most of what’s in it, is more name-dropped than read. A mass of remarkable pictures and texts is now hidden in a mountain of bound volumes dating from 1841 to 2002, rarely leafed through or studied, rarely captioned with an author’s full name, and rarely shown. Reprinted Punch cartoons are always cut from their original page lay-outs, and nearly always in need of footnotes.

[7] strip format
The strip format was often disdained, not noticed as literature, not even filed or cared for. A two-headed freak of form and content that was mostly laughed at. For centuries it remained a stigmatized storytelling technique in search of a proper name. In the words of an English reviewer not identified by name in The Times Literary Supplement in 1953, American comic strips were labeled ‘A kind of literature to end literature … a kind of literature not to be read, only looked at.’ (The Times’ payment ledgers do identify the reviewer as George Mikes, b.1912, Hungarian-British journalist and humorous writer.)  

[l] Harry Furniss’ Old Evergreen and the Yule Log strip, 1877 (detail).
The rich history of the pre-1900 strip remains largely unmined for at least two reasons. First of all because of the rot caused by absurd restrictions set to its format — by historians and critics alike — and by labels like ‘funnies’ or ‘comic strip.’ Then also wood engraving details and large size strips aren’t easily reprinted either. The earlier pre-1900 strips, occasionally printed in extra-large or poster size, on weak paper, are now among the rarest collectible prints, as so many of them were thrashed after reading.

When I look at what has survived, I see great art, in realistic as well as humorous styles, no less in stature than other media in print. Unfortunately, art history is cut up into systems and segments, and likes or dislikes for the strip format cloud the issue.

Similarly as sensation fiction had been vilified before in the 1860s in the UK, and ‘dime novels’ in the 1880s in the US, a lot of flak was directed at the so-called ‘comics’ and ‘comic books’ of the twentieth century. American instances of this are a 1908 attack in the 4-page article Sounding the Doom of the “Comics” — read it HERE — and Fredric Wertham’s offensive in the 1940s and 50s.

In 1954, German-American psychiatrist Dr Wertham published a 13-page article under the title The curse of comic books, followed by a 424-page book titled Seduction of the Innocent; the influence of comic books on today’s youth. The subtitle for the 1955 British edition became ‘the influence of horror comics on today’s youth.’ What the Americans called ‘comic books’ the British labelled ‘horror comics.’ The US comic book format was not published as such in England, and the publishing of stories in strip format in the US and the UK had indeed taken different directions.

[m] George du Maurier’s The “Édition de Luxe” strip, 1882 (detail).
The labels for strip, and the building blocks of strip, still widely varied from country to country. As a native speaker of Dutch I was accustomed to plain labels like ‘stripverhaal’ or ‘beeldverhaal,’ similar to the German ‘Bildergeschichte’ (picture story) and ‘Bilderstreife’ (picture strip), our name for picture stories in the form of drawings in rows of strips. The French and Portuguese labels ‘bandes dessinées’ and ‘bandas desenhadas’ (drawn bands, drawn strips, also simply ‘BD’) did come close, but indicated drawings only. Other labels were ‘histórias aos uadradinhos’ in Portugal and ‘histórias em quadrinhos’ in Brazil (i.e. tales in little frames). In English, strip had the bad luck of being combined with the word comic into the dire ‘comic strip,’ shortened in its turn to ‘comics’ — a most confusing label.

Around the year 1900 the word ‘comic’ became used for any kind of strip. Other labels were ‘serials,’ ‘serial cartoons,’ ‘strip cartoons’ and ‘funnies.’ ‘Strip books,’ ’funny books’ or ‘comic books’ were magazines rather than books. Also found much later were wordplays like ‘illustories,’ ‘tragix,’ and ‘comix’ or ‘commix.’

It was different in the field of books for the children’s and young adults’ market. These books became better produced in the late 1800s, were printed on decent paper, bound in stiff covers, and simply labeled ‘picture book’ or ‘children’s book.’ These were proper books, quite unlike the so-called ‘strip book’ or ‘comic book,’ indicating a product printed on newspaper stock, not even bound but just cheaply stapled, and not a proper book by far.

Where strips were concerned, better paper and better binding began to be applied around 1900. This happened for instance from 1905 on in France with the Bécassine picture stories for children, by J.P. Pinchon and Caumery, a series of full-colour hardback books with its page layouts in strip design. The French simply called them albums. It set the later standard for French books with strips, called ‘albums de BD.’ 

Picture books for children are another story.

[n] A.C. Corbould’s A Midnigth Trip to Brighton strip, 1887 (detail).

[8] Caldecott magic
A famous Victorian strip is A Lovers’ Quarrel by Randolph Caldecott, a story that ran over four full-colour pages in the 1884 ‘Summer Number’ of The Graphic. Long ago I saw one page of it, reproduced not too well in the 1980 Penrose Annual, a showcase for the British printing industry, with no strip aspect mentioned whatsoever. This story by Randolph Caldecott (1846-86) was merely labeled a ‘series of colour plates.’ As far as I know, strip scholars ignored it. Thanks to historian Thierry Smolderen, in 2012 the complete A Lovers’ Quarrel was republished online HERE. In the years 1878 to 1885 Caldecott drew strips in stories of one, two or four pages for The Graphic’s Summer and Christmas specials. The fattest bestselling holiday numbers he was represented in were those of December 1881 and 1882, with press runs of more than 500,000 copies each.

For this type of coloured strip, in such high numbers, he had to send his artwork to the engravers of The Graphic six months in advance. Who printed them is unknown; the printing could have been done in Germany. Without having had the original printed issues in my hands I cannot say if they were printed in more than four colours, but Caldecott picture books were often done in much more than four colours or press runs, and all via wood.

[o] Randolph Caldecott’s A Lovers’ Quarrel strip, 1884. Reproduced via wood engraving and printed in multiple colours (detail).
Caldecott was good at drawing lively people and animals in motion, and seemed to publish anything he doodled and freely sketched, in loose seemingly carefree lines. He did a few cuts for Punch as well. In his self-written illustrated picture books for children — in colour, inspired by prints from Japan — he made great use of early full-colour possibilities via woodprint, on which his fame now largely rests. He traveled widely, and in a more realistic style excelled in picturejournalism, doing special reports for London periodicals. 

The older, less adventurous George du Maurier (1834-96), a Punch master of elegance in black-and-white art, praised Caldecott’s work; with his unfailing eye he correctly saw the more lively art of his twelve years younger colleague as ‘magic.’ Both men were fine draughtsmen who could do funny, as well as realistic art, and both pictured social and satirical aspects. Du Maurier’s most solid style harked back to the sturdy lines and full fields of cross-hatchings seen in late-medieval woodprints. A style he used to perfection to parody the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Caldecott’s style was more a quest for liveliness and a clean line, goals he often achieved. And he had no inhibitions whatsoever to publish his sketches done in pen and ink — ‘the fewer the lines, the less error committed.’ His varied artwork — largely done for weekly papers with an adult male and female audience — was reprinted in an extensive 1888 book set, but has rarely been seen since.

The marketing of his books — as ‘gift books’ and ‘picture books’ — produced steady sellers in a standardized format that earned him a good living. Coming from the banking business, Caldecott chose payment in royalties, with mixed feelings in the end. ‘I get a small royalty – a small, small royalty.’

[p] Reginald Cleaver’s An Unfortunate Huntress strip, 1899. Reproduced via photomechanics and printed in full-colour (detail).
Most of his books-with-pictures were tagged ‘picture book,’ a term mainly associated with children’s books, books that were a world apart from the cheap cuts in popular papers of the period. But whoever may have looked down upon such papers, not Caldecott himself. He loved them as much as he loved the high production values of The Graphic. Tragically, lifelong health problems limited his art career to a mere fourteen years. He had a wife, no children, and died young while staying in Florida, still only 39. His last drawings were made in 1886 — ‘Art is long: life isn’t.’

Although Randolph Caldecott was multi-talented, his work has long been exclusively claimed by ‘Children’s Literature’ campaigners who were not in the habit of using labels like ‘strip,’ ‘comic book’ or ‘journalism’. Read the still narrow criteria of the Caldecott Medal, since 1937-38 an award for American children’s book illustration, HERE.

Huib van Opstal

[ to be continued ]

Click up next paragraphs here:

[1-8] Roughly, eye shock 1800 

 [9] The text, the type, the visual

 [10] Cutting labels

[11] Punch’s best kept secret — Its cover





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