Printing Marie’s Wood Engravings

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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 elm 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.

 

In the Footsteps of Marie Hartley MBE

Back at the beginning of 2018 I was contacted by Fiona Rosher, Museum Manager at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. The Museum was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the book ‘Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales’ which was written and illustrated by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby who founded the Museum. Within their archives was a collection of 130 wood engraving blocks created by Marie Hartley MBE and Fiona wanted to know if I would be interested in printing them so that they could have a set of prints for use within the museum. This sounded intriguing and what followed was a series of meetings with Fiona where we discussed the possibilities of the project. It soon expanded and developed into one that would culminate in an exhibition of my own work in the summer of 2020. We agreed that I would begin the project by printing the blocks in the museum so that visitors could watch and I could talk to them about their memories of Marie, their experience of the Yorkshire Dales and about printmaking. I would then carry out research about Marie Hartley which would take the form of reading all of her books written in collaboration with Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingleby and I would be given access to the archive of sketchbooks, notebooks and diaries that the museum owned. This would help to form a picture of the woman herself and help me to find an angle for my own work. I would then go out ‘into the field’ to draw, print and develop ideas for a series of brand new works. In other words, a dream of a job!

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Anyone that knows me will know that I work very hard to make a full-time living as an artist and I am often so embroiled in various exhibitions, shows, teaching workshops, running art groups and the accompanying admin that’s involved in doing those things that I often feel that there is very little time and headspace for making new work. It is one of the reasons that I disappear off to Ålgården Studios for a few weeks every year so that I can have uninterrupted time to develop my printmaking. With that in mind, we realised that I’d need some funding to allow me to take a bit of a step back from other commitments for a while and really make the most of this opportunity. Fiona was brilliant in campaigning for the project and we are so fortunate that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the Friends of the Dales Countryside Museum have provided the necessary support needed. In return, I am printing the blocks within the museum to allow the public to see the process, will be giving a talk to the FoDCM and will be running a number of printmaking workshops at the museum in 2020. I’m also updating the archive records for the wood engravings as I progress through the printing, making notes of any damage and any links to preparatory drawings that I discover in Marie’s sketchbooks.

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Most of the wood engravings that have been published were created for three books that Marie wrote with Ella Pontefract: Wensleydale, Swaledale & Wharfedale. I’ve decided that I will concentrate my own research on those areas of the Yorkshire Dales. I’m a keen fellrunner and my plan is to run some of the routes described in these books, get to know the places and then I will identify particular points of interest that I would like to return to for sketching and printing. I’ve got a tentative plan to take my campervan on some of my excursions and set up my portable press so I can actually print directly in the landscape. I like to feel that it would be in keeping with Marie and Ella’s explorations of Wensleydale carried out in their little caravan that they christened ‘The Green Plover’ (see a sketch of Marie’s now held at the Leeds University Art Collections by clicking here)

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I shall be writing regularly about the project and sharing snippets of research, images printed, anecdotes from the people that I meet and anything else that I find interesting. In the mean time, if you would like to see me printing some of the wood engravings, I will be at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes from 12-4pm on consecutive Tuesdays up to and including the 7th May 2019 (excluding Tuesday 16th April when I’ll be there on the previous Sunday 14th April, 12-4pm). Do come and see how exquisite Marie’s work is and I’d love to hear anecdotes from those that knew her and stories from your experiences of the Yorkshire Dales (please note, museum admission charges apply).