I’ll be writing a bit more about Marie Hartley MBE, her life and work in a future post but in the meantime, I’ve been busily making prints from her exquisite wood engraving blocks to create an archive for the Dales Countryside Museum. For those that are not familiar with wood engraving, it is a form of relief printing in the same family as linocut and woodcut. The principle is pretty simple, parts of the surface of the block are removed with special tools and what is left behind (the raised or relief surface) has ink applied to it and that ink is transferred to paper using pressure which can be from a press or from a hand tool such as a wooden spoon or print baren. Wood engraving differs from wood cut in that the endgrain of slow growing wood is used instead of the longitudinal plank of the wood. The wood is highly polished to create a very smooth surface and fine metal tools, with wonderful names such as ‘spitsticker’, ‘scorper’ & ‘tint tool’, are used to scrape away tiny amounts of the wood surface to create the design. The surface area that is scraped/cut away won’t print and will form the white parts of the design. The design also prints as a mirror-image so it is important to reverse sketches on the block first to avoid a ‘back-to-front’ print. Wood engravers often use a leather sand bag for resting the wood on as this enables them to tilt and turn the block whilst cutting. I think Marie Hartley must have used a magnifier for at least some of her designs as one block that I printed had the word ‘Ingleton’ written in reverse on a finger post and the letters could not have been more than 2mm high!! She created the wood engravings for the three Dales books in the 1930s when she herself would have been in her late twenties and early thirties. I don’t know what her eyesight was like but mine certainly wouldn’t be good enough to do that kind of work without help from a magnifier!
The best wood for this kind of printmaking is generally regarded to be Box wood, Buxus Sempervirens, but there are other woods in frequent use such as cherry, apple, holly & Lemonwood (which is not actually from the lemon tree but gets its name from the citrus smell that emanates from it when it is first cut). Larger blocks are often created by bonding smaller pieces of wood together. Care should be taken of the blocks so that they don’t get damp or too hot as this can warp them and bonded blocks can part company with each other. I’ve printed a few of Marie’s blocks which have acquired damage over the years and a few need a bit of restoration in order to get a flawless print but the Dales Countryside Museum have done a good job of storing them on their sides and keeping them in good condition. To think that some of them are almost 90 years old and yet still producing perfect prints is amazing. Each of Marie’s blocks has been given an accession number and has been catalogued to include any extra information such as if/where/when it was published.
I had always believed that the wooden blocks were used for printing the books and would have been clamped in with the letterpress type but on reading ‘Yorkshire Heritage’ (Marie’s memoir to Ella Pontefract) she talks about ‘electros’ being made of the blocks for printing purposes. Electrotyping is a process invented in the mid-1800s and there is a good description of it here. This process was developed to protect the master blocks as publishers would require literally thousands of prints to be made and the wood was vulnerable to damage. A metal printing block is made from a mould of the original wood engraving and it has all of the fine detail and is a perfect replica of the artist’s work. In this way, the original blocks could be retained as ‘masters’ and protected for future use.
To print the blocks, I have been using a lightweight and very smooth paper called Zerkall Extra Smooth which I have bought from John Purcell Paper. I tested lots of papers before selecting this one. There are so many different papers suitable for hand printing, including some beautiful lightweight Japanese ones, but I was looking for something that would be relatively robust for use in the museum and that would give the crispest details in case the museum decide to reproduce the prints at any stage. I am printing all of the blocks by hand and not on a press. This allows me to do the printing in the museum so that people can watch the process and it also allows me more flexibility because I can alter the pressure across the block to compensate for any small dents that have occurred over the years. I use a carbon black letterpress ink from Lawrence Art Supplies. It is a linseed-oil based ink and I am cleaning with a soft rag and Zest-It so that the blocks are ink-free after use but there are also no harmful fumes in the museum. You could use vegetable oil but it can leave a sticky residue. White spirit is awful stuff!
To apply pressure I am using two beautiful tools. The first is a burnisher made by Chris Daunt, a supplier of materials for wood engraving and a wood engraver himself, it is made from yew and has a piece of horn on the end. It is perfect for the tiny blocks. The second is a baren made by my step-dad who is a wood turner. I was bemoaning the fact that despite all the barens available, I find a wooden spoon to be the best tool for printing linocuts and he said he’d have a go at making me a wooden baren. Not only is it a beautiful object in its own right but it sits perfectly in the palm of your hand and is comfortable to use. Mine is made from laburnum wood which came from my sister’s garden. The prints have been perfect. He is now selling them via his etsy shop! Here are a couple photos of him making a baren for a customer.
Using the burnisher and baren, I carefully rub over the back of the paper in a circular motion taking care to cover the entire block. It is a bit of an art in itself and takes lots of practise to get just the right amount of ink and even pressure so that all of the detail prints perfectly. I’m using a cutting board as a registration board so that I can position the blocks centrally on the paper. They all vary in size and this way I can avoid making lots and lots of registration papers. I just count the squares, simple! I also use some uncut blocks placed around the inked block and these help when I lower the paper onto the wood engraving. They prevent the paper flopping about and the image smudging. It has been a steep learning curve but I now have a good rhythm going and not many ‘rejects’. I’ve also learned the hard way that I need to write the accession number of the block on the back of the paper before printing so that when I come to file the prints the following week, I know which blocks they come from! It is amazing how a small pack horse bridge can look very similar to ten other bridges when you are trying to identify it. Fortunately I also have all of Marie’s books so I can cross-reference them too!
So that is the process and I have four more public printing sessions to do. They are from 12-4pm on Sunday 14th April, Tuesdays 23rd & 30th April and, finally, Tuesday 7th May. Museum admission charges apply but you can come and see me print as part of that. The museum is a gem and well worth the entry fee. If I don’t get all of the blocks printed in the remaining sessions, I may well add an extra date and I’ll be sure to publicise it if I do.