William Morris

The Woodcuts of Gothic Books

I shall presently have the pleasure of showing you in some kind of sequence a number of illustrations taken from books of the fifteenth and first years of the sixteenth centuries. But before I do so I wish to read to you a few remarks on the genesis and the quality of the kind of art represented by these examples, and the lessons which they teach us.

Since the earliest of those I have to show is probably not earlier in date than about 1420, and almost all are more than fifty years later than that, it is clear that they belong to the latest period of Medieval art, and one or two must formally be referred to the earliest days of the Renaissance, though in spirit that are still Gothic. In fact, it is curious to note the suddenness of the supplanting of the Gothic by the neo-classical style in some instances, especially in Germany: e.g., the later books published by the great Nuremberg printer, Koberger, in the fourteen-nineties, books like the Nuremberg Chronicle, and the Schatzbehalter, show no sign of the coming change, but ten years worn, and hey, presto, not a particle of Gothic ornament can be found in any German printed book, though, as I think, the figure-works of one great man, Albert Dürer, were Gothic in essence.

The most part of these books, in fact all of them in the earlier days (the exceptions being mainly certain splendidly ornamented French books, including the sumptuous Books of Hours), were meant for popular books: the great theological folios, the law books, the decretals, and such like of the earlier German printers, though miracles of typographical beauty, if ornamented at all, were ornamented by the illuminator, with the single exception of Gutenburg's splendid Psalter, which gives us at once the first and the best piece of ornamental colour-printing yet achieved. Again, the dainty and perfect volumes of the classics produced by the earlier Roman and Venetian printers disdained the help of wood blocks, though they were often beautifully illuminated, and it was not till after the days of Jenson, the Frenchman who brought the Roman letter to perfection, it was not till Italian typography began to decline, that illustration by reproducible methods became usual; and we know that these illustrated books were looked upon as inferior wares, and were sold far cheaper than the unadorned pages of the great printers. It must be noted in confirmation of the view that the woodcut books were cheap books, that in most cases they were vernacular editions of books already printed in Latin.

The work, then, which I am about to show you has first the disadvantage of the rudeness likely to disfigure cheap forms of art in a time that lacked the resource of slippery plausibility which helps out cheap art at the present day, and secondly, the disadvantage of belonging to the old age rather than youth or vigorous manhood of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, it is art, and not a mere trade `article'; and though it was produced by the dying Middle Ages, they were not yet dead when it was current, so that it yet retains much of the qualities of the more hopeful period; and in addition, the necessity of adapting the current design to a new material and method gave it a special life, which is full of interest and instruction for artists of all times who are able to keep their eyes open.

All organic art, all art that is genuinely growing, opposed to rhetorical, retrospective, or academical art, art which has no real growth in it, has two qualities in common: the epical and the ornamental; its two functions are the telling of a story and the adornment of a space or tangible object. The labour and ingenuity necessary for the production of anything that claims our attention as a work of art are wasted, if they are employed on anything else than these two aims. Medieval art, the result of a long unbroken series of tradition, is pre-eminent for its grasp of these two functions, which, indeed, interpenetrate then more than in any other period. Not only is all its special art obviously and simply beautiful as ornament, but its ornament also is vivified with forcible meaning, so that neither in one or the other does the life ever flag, or the sensuous pleasure of the eye ever lack. You have not got to say, Now you have your story, how are you going to embellish it? Nor, Now you have made your beauty, what are you going to do with it? For here are the two together, inseparably a part of each other. No doubt the force of tradition, which culminated in the Middle Ages, had much to do with this unity of epical design and ornament. It supplied deficiencies of individual by collective imagination (compare the constantly recurring phrases and lines in genuine epical or ballad poetry); it ensured the inheritance of deft craftsmanship and instinct for beauty in the succession of the generations of workmen; and it cultivated the appreciation of good work by the genuine public. Now-a-days artists work essentially for artists, and look on the ignorant layman with a contempt, which even the necessity of earning a livelihood cannot force them wholly to disguise. In the times of art, they had no one but artists to work for, since everyone was a potential artist.

Now, in such a period, when written literature was still divine, and almost miraculous to men, it was impossible that books should fail to have a due share in the epical-ornamental art of the time. Accordingly, the opportunities offered by the pages which contained the wisdom & knowledge of part & present times were cultivated to the utmost. The early Middle Ages, beginning with the wonderful calligraphy of the Irish MSS., were, above all times, the epoch of writing. The pages of almost all books, from the eighth to the fifteenth century, are beautiful, even without the addition of ornament. In those that are ornamented without pictures illustrative of the text, the eye is so pleasured, and the fancy so tickled by the beauty and exhaustless cheerful invention of the illuminator, that one scarcely ventures to ask that the tale embodied in the written characters should be further illustrated. But when this is done, and the book is full of pictures, which tell the written tale again with the most conscientious directness of design, and as to execution with great purity of outline and extreme delicacy of colour, we can say a little more than that the only work of art which surpasses a complete Medieval book is a complete Medieval building. This must be said, with the least qualification, of the books of from about 1160 to 1300. After this date, the work loses, in purity and simplicity, more than it gains in pictorial qualities, and, at last, after the middle of the fifteenth century, illuminated books lose much of their individuality on the ornamental sides; and, though they are still beautiful, are mostly only redeemed from commonplace when the miniatures in them are excellent.

But here comes in the new element, given by the invention of printing, and the gradual shoving out of the scribe by the punch-cutter, the typefounder, and the printer. The first printed characters were as exact reproductions of the written ones as the new craftsmen could compass, even to the extent of the copying of the infernal abbreviations which had gradually crept into manuscript; but, as I have already mentioned, the producers of serious books did not at first supplement the work of the illuminator by that of the wood-cutter, either in picture work or ornament. In fact the art of printing pictures from wood blocks is earlier than that of printing books, and is undoubtedly the parent of book illustration. The first woodcuts were separate pictures of religious subjects, circulated for the edification of the faithful, in existing examples generally coloured by hand, and certainly always intended to be coloured. The earliest of these may be as old as 1380, and there are many which have been dated in the first half of the fifteenth century; though the dates are mostly rather a matter of speculation. But the development of book illustration proper by no means put an end to their production. Many were done between 1450 and 1490, and some in the first years of the sixteenth century; but the earlier ones only have any special character in them. Of these, some are cut rudely and some timidly also, but some are fairly well cut, and few so ill that the expression of the design is not retained. The design of most of these early works is mostly admirable, and as far removed from the commonplace as possible; many, nay most of these cuts, are fine expressions of that passionate pietism of the Middle Ages which has been somewhat veiled from us by the strangeness, and even grotesqueness which has mingled with it, but the reality of which is not doubtful to those who have studied the period without prejudice. Amongst these may be cited a design of Christ being pressed in the wine press, probably as early as the end of the fourteenth century, which may stand without disadvantage beside a fine work of the thirteenth century.

The next step towards book illustration brings us to the block-books, in which the picture-cuts are accompanied by a text, also cut on wood; the folios being printed by rubbing off on one side only. The subject of the origin of the most noteworthy of these books, the Ars Moriendi, the Lord's Prayer, the Song of Solomon, the Biblia Pauperum, the Apocalypse, and the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, has been debated, along with the question of the first printer by means of moveable types, with more acrimony than it would seem to need. I, not being a learned person, will not add one word to the controversy; it is enough to say that these works were done somewhere between the years 1430 and 1460, and that their style was almost entirely dominant throughout the Gothic period in Flanders and Holland, while it had little influence on the German wood-cutters. For the rest, all these books have great merit as works of art; it would be difficult to find more direct or more poetical rendering of the events given than those of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis; or more elegant and touching designs than those in the Song of Solomon. The cuts of the Biblia Pauperum are rougher, but full of vigour and power of expression. The Ars Moriendi is very well drawn and executed, but the subject is not so interesting. The Apocalypse and the Lord's Prayer are both of them excellent, the former being scarcely inferior in design to the best of the Apocalypse picture MSS. of the end of the thirteenth century.

We have now come to the woodcuts which ornament the regular books of the Gothic period, which began somewhat timidly, the two examples in Germany and Italy, not far removed from each other in date, being the Historie von Joseph, Daniel, Judith, und Esther, printed by Albrecht Pfister, at Bamberg, in 1462; and the Meditations of Turrecremata (or Torquemada), printed at Rome by Ulric Hahn, in the year 1467, which latter, though taken by the command of the Pope from the frescoes of a Roman Church (Sta Maria Sopra Minerva) are as German as need be, and very rude in drawing and execution, though not without spirit.

But, after this date, the school of wood-carving developed rapidly; and, on the whole, Germany, which had been very backward in the art of illumination, now led the new art.

The main schools were those of Ulm and Augsburg, of Mainz, of Strasburg, of Basel, and of Nuremburg, the latter being the later. The examples which I shall presently have the pleasure of showing you are wholly of the first and the last, as being the most representative, Ulm and Augsburg of the earlier style, Nuremburg of the later. But I might mention, in passing, that some of the earlier Basel books, notably Bernard Richel's Speculum Humanae Salvationis, are very noteworthy; and that, in the fourteen-eighties, there was a school at Mainz that produced, amongst other books, a very beautiful Herbal, and Breydenbach's Peregrinatio, which, amongst other merits, such as actual representations of the cities on the road to the Holy Land, must be said to contain the best executed woodcuts of the Middle Ages. Of course, there were many other towns in Germany which produced illustrated books, but they may be referred in character to one or other of these schools.

In Holland and Flanders there was a noble school of wood-cutting, delicately decorative in character, and very direct and expressive, being, as I said, the direct descendant of the block-books. The name of the printers who produced most books of this school was Gerard Leeu (or Lion), who printed first at Gouda, and afterwards at Antwerp. But Colard Mansion, of Bruges, who printed few books, and was the master of Caxton in the art of printing, turned out a few very fine specimens of illustrated books. One of the most remarkable illustrated works published in the Low Countries - which I mention for its peculiarity - is the Chevalier Deliberé (an allegorical poem on the death of Charles the Rash), and I regret not being able to show you a slide of it, as it could not be done satisfactorily. This book, published at Schiedam in 1500, decidedly leans towards the French in style, rather than the native manner deduced from the earlier block-books.

France began both printing and book illustration somewhat late, most of its important illustrated works belonging to a period between the years of 1485 and 1520; but she grasped the art of book decoration with a firmness and completeness very characteristic of French genius; and, also, she carried on the Gothic manner later than any other nation. For decorative qualities, nothing can excel the French books, and many of the picture-cuts, besides their decorative merits, have an additional interest in the romantic quality which they introduce: they all look as if they might be illustrations to the Morte d'Arthur or Tristram.

In Italy, from about 1480 onward, book illustrations became common, going hand-in-hand with the degradation of printing, as I said before. The two great schools in Italy are those of Florence and Venice. I think it must be said that, on the whole, the former city bore away the bell from Venice, in spite of the famous Aldine Poliphilus, the cuts in which, by the way, are very unequal. There are a good many book illustrations published in Italy, I should mention, like those to Ulric Hahn's Meditations of Turrecremata, which are purely German in style; which is only to be expected from the fact of the early printers in Italy being mostly Germans.

I am sorry to have to say it, but England cannot be said to have a school of Gothic book illustration; the cuts in our early printed books are, at the best, French or Flemish blocks pretty well copied; at the worst, they are very badly copied. This lamentable fact is curious, considered along with what is also a fact: that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the English were, on the whole, the best book decorators.

I have a few more words to say yet on the practical lessons to be derived from the study of these works of art; but before I say them, I will show you, by your leave, the slides taken from examples of these woodcuts. Only I must tell you first, what doubtless many of you know, that these old blocks were not produced by the graver on the end section of a piece of fine-grained wood (box now invariably), but by the knife on the plank section of pear-tree or similar wood: a much more difficult feat when the cuts were fine, as, e.g., in Lützelberger's marvellous cuts of the Dance of Death.

Mr. Morris then showed a series of lantern slides, which he described as follows:

1. This is taken from the Ars Moriendi, date about 1420. You may call it Flemish or Dutch, subject to raising the controversy I mentioned just now.

2. The Song of Solomon, about the same date.

3. From the first illustrated book of the Ulm school. The Renowned and Noble Ladies of Boccaccio. It begins with Adam and Eve. The initial letter is very characteristic of the Ulm school of ornament. The trail of the serpent forms the S, and in the knots of the tail are little figures representing the seven deadly sins.

4. Another page from the same book. Ceres and the Art of Agriculture. One of the great drawbacks to wood block printing in those times was the weakness of the presses. Their only resource was to print with the paper very wet, and with very soft packing, so that the block went well into the paper; but many books, and this amongst others, have suffered much from this cause.

5. Another page of the same book. The date is 1473.

6. This if from an Augsburg book, Speculum Humanae Viae, written by a Spanish bishop, which was a great favourite in the Middle Ages. It gives the advantages and disadvantages of all conditions of life. This block contains a genealogical tree of the Hapsburg family, and is an exceedingly beautiful piece of ornamental design very well cut.

7. From the same book; representing not the Five Alls, with which you are familiar, but the Four Alls; the gentleman, the merchant, the nobleman, and the poor man, who is the support of the whole lot, with his toes coming through his shoes. This is a fine specimen of the printing of Gunther Zainer. The initial letters are very handsome in all these Augsburg books.

8. There is a picture of the Unjust Lawyer, from the same book, taking money from both sides. The date of this book is about 1475.

9. From Aesop's Fables, a reproduction of the Ulm Aesop, by Antony Sorg, of Augsburg (but the pictures are printed from the same blocks), the Fly on the Wheel, and the Jackdaw and Peacock. These designs for the Aesop pictures went all through the Middle Ages, with very little alteration.

10. King Stork and King Log, from the same book.

11. This is from the Fable-book of Bidpai, by Conrad Dinckmut, who carried on the early glories of the Ulm school in a later generation; about 1486.

12. The Parrot in a Cage, with the ladies making a sham storm to cause the poor bird to be put to death. Dinckmut did some very remarkable work: one of the best of which was a German translation of the Eunuchus of Terence; another the Chronicle of the Swabians.

13. The Schatzbehalter, published by Koburger, of Nuremberg; 1491. Although so late, there is no trace of any classical influence in the design. The architecture, for instance, is pure late German architecture.

14. From the same book, Joshua Meeting the Angel, and Moses at the Burning Bush.

15. A page, or part of a page, from the celebrated Nuremberg Chronicle, printed by Koburger in 1493. This is in a way an exception to the rule of illustrated books being in the vernacular, as it is in Latin; but there is also a German edition.

16. Another specimen of the same book.

17. From a curious devotional book, Der Seusse, printed by Antony Sorg, at Augsburg; 1482.

18. Another page, which shows the decorative skill with which they managed their diagram pictures.

19. An example of the Flemish school, and characteristic of the design of white on black, which is so often used both by the Florentine and the Flemish wood-cutters. It is from a life of Christ, published by Gerard Leeu in 1487.

20. Another page from the same book. There are certainly two artists in this book, and the one on the left appears to be the more pictorial of the two; though his designs are graceful, he is hardly as good as the rougher book illustrator. Gerard Leeu had a very handsome set of initial letters, a kind of ornament which did not become common until after 1480.

21. Another one from the same book.

22. From another Flemish book, showing how the style runs through them all. St George and the Dragon; from The Golden Legend, 1503.

23. The first of our French series, from a very celebrated book called La Mer des Hystoires. It begins the history of France a little before the deluge. It is a most beautiful book, and very large. One would think these borders were meant to be painted, as so many Books of Hours were, but I have never seen a copy which has had the borders painted, though, as a rule, when the borders are meant to be painted, it is not common to find one plain.

24. Another page from the same book; but the slide does not do justice to it. I will here mention that one failing of the French publishers was to make one picture serve for several purposes. The fact is, they were more careful of decoration than illustration.

25. Another French book by a French printer, the Arbre des Batailles, which illustrates that curious quality of romance which you find in the French pictures. It is true that many of these cuts were not made for this book; in fact, they were done for another edition of the Chevalier Deliberé, the Flemish edition of which I have mentioned before, for some have that name on them.

26. Another from the same book.

27. Another good example of the French decorative style. It is from Petrarch's Remedy of either Fortune. This is the author presenting his book to the king, and is often used in these French books.

28. From another French book of about the same date (the beginning of the sixteenth century), The Shepherd's Calendar, of which there were a great number of English editions, even as late as 1656, the cuts being imitated from these blocks.

29. A page from one of the beautiful Books of Hours, which were mostly printed on vellum, every page of which is decorated more or less with this sort of picture. Here is the calendar, with the signs of the Zodiac, the work of the months, the saints that occur in it, and games and sports; on the other side is the Sangraal. This book is throughout in the same style, wholly Gothic. It was printed in 1498, and about twenty years after these service-books became very much damaged by having Renaissance features introduced from German artists of the time.

30. Another page from the same book. The Resurrection, and the Raising of Lazarus are the principal subjects.

31. Nominally an Italian woodcut; the book was printed at Milan, but this cut is probably of German design, if not execution.

32. From a very beautiful book in the Florentine style. One of the peculiarities is the copious use of white out of black.

33. Another from the same, the Quatre reggio. 1508.

34. Another, very characteristic of the Florentine style, with its beautiful landscape background.

35. This is one in which the ornament has really got into the Renaissance style. It is a sort of Lucky Book, with all sorts of ways of finding your fortune, discovering where your money has gone, who is your enemy, and so on. One of the Peschia books, actually printed at Milan, but of the Venetian school.

36. From a book of the Venetian style, about the same date. I show it as an example of the carefulness and beauty with which the artists of the time combined the border work with the pictures. There is something very satisfactory in the proportion of black and white in the whole page.

Now you have seen my examples, I want once more to impress upon you the fact that these designs, one and all, while they perform their especial function - the office of telling a tale - never forget their other function of decorating the book of which they form a part; this is the essential difference between them and modern book illustrations, which I suppose make no pretence at decorating the pages of the book, but must be looked upon as black and white pictures which it is convenient to print and bind up along with the printed matter. The question, in fact, which I want to put to you is this, Whether we are to have books which are beautiful as books; books in which type, paper, woodcuts, and the due arrangement of all these are to be considered, and which are so treated as to produce a harmonious whole, something which will give a person with a sense of beauty real pleasure whenever and wherever the book is opened, even before he begins to look closely into the illustrations; or whether the beautiful and inventive illustrations are to be looked on as separate pictures embedded into a piece of utilitarianism, which they cannot decorate because it cannot help them to do so. Take as an example of the latter, Mr Fred Walker's illustrations to Philip in the Cornhill Magazine, of the days when some of us were young, since I am inclined to think that they are about the best of such illustrations. Now they are part of Thackeray's story, and I don't want them to be in any way less a part of it, but they are in no respect a part of the tangible printed book, and I do want them to be that. As it is, the mass of utilitarian matter in which they are embedded is absolutely helpless and dead. Why it is not even ugly, at least not vitally ugly.

Now the reverse is the case with the books from which I have taken the examples which you have been seeing. As things to be looked at they are beautiful taken as a whole; they are alive all over, and not merely in a corner here and there. The illustrator has to share the success and the failure not only of the wood cutter, who has translated his drawing, but also of the printer and the mere ornamentalist, and the result is that you have a book which is a visible work of art.

You may say that you don't care for this result, that you wish to read literature and to look at pictures; and that so long as the modern book gives you these pleasures you ask no more of it; well, I can understand that, but you must pardon me if I say that your interest in books in that case is literary only, and not artistic, and that implies, I think, a partial crippling of the faculties; a misfortune which no one should be proud of.

However, it seems certain that there is growing up a taste for books which are visible works of art, and that especially in this country, where the printers, at their best, do now use letters much superior in form to those in use elsewhere, and where a great deal of work intending to ornament books reasonably is turned out; most of which, however, is deficient in some respect; which, in fact, is seldom satisfactory unless the whole page, picture, ornament, and type is reproduced literally from the handiwork of the artist, as in some of the beautiful works of Mr Walter Crane.

But this is a thing that can rarely be done, and what we want, it seems to me, is, not that books should sometimes be beautiful, but that they should generally be beautiful; indeed, if they are not, it increases the difficulties of those who would make them sometimes beautiful immensely. At any rate, I claim that illustrated books should always be beautiful, unless, perhaps, where the illustrations are present rather for the purpose of giving information than for that of giving pleasure to the intellect through the eye; but surely, even in this latter case, they should be reasonably and decently good-looking.

Well, how is this beauty to be obtained? It must be by the harmonious co-operation of the craftsmen and artists who produce the book. First, the paper should be good, which is a more important point than might be thought, and one in which there is a most complete contrast between the old and the modern books; for no bad paper was made till about the middle of the sixteenth century, and the worst that was made even then was far better than what is now considered good. Next, the type must be good, a matter in which there is more room for excellence than those may think who have not studied the forms of letters closely. There are other matters, however, besides the mere form of the type which are of much importance in the producing of a beautiful book, which, however, I cannot go into to-night, as it is a little beside my present subject. Then, the mere ornament must be good, and even very good. I do not know anything more dispiriting than the mere platitudes of printer's ornaments: trade ornaments. It is not uncommon now-a-days to see handsome books quite spoiled by them: books in which plain, unadorned letters would have been far more ornamental.

Then we come to the picture woodcuts. And here I feel I shall find many of you differing from me strongly; for I am sure that such illustrations as those excellent black and white pictures of Fred Walker could never make book ornaments. The artist, to produce these satisfactorily, must exercise severe self restraint, and must never lose sight of the page of the book he is ornamenting. That ought to be obvious to you, but I am afraid it will not be. I do not think any artist will ever make a good book illustrator, unless he is keenly alive to the value of a well-drawn line, crisp and clean, suggesting a simple and beautiful silhouette. Anything which obscures this, and just to the extent to which it does obscure it, takes away from the fitness of a design as a book ornament. In this art vagueness is quite inadmissible. it is better to be wrong than vague in making designs which are meant to be book ornaments.

Again, as the artist's designs must necessarily be reproduced for this purpose, he should never lose sight of the material he is designing for. Lack of precision is fatal (to take up again what I have just advanced) in an art produced by the point of the graver on a material which offers just the amount of resistance which helps precision. And here I come to a very important part of my subject, to wit, the relation between the designer and the wood-engraver; and it is clear that if these two artists do not understand one another, the result must be failure; and this understanding can never exist if the wood-engraver has but to cut servilely what the artist draws carelessly. If any real school of wood-engraving is to exist again, the wood-cutter must be an artist translating the designer's drawing. It is quite pitiable to see the patience and ingenuity of such clever workmen, as some modern wood-cutters are, thrown away on the literal reproduction of mere meaningless scrawl. The want of logic in artists who will insist on such work is really appalling. It is the actual touches of the hand that give the speciality, the final finish to a work of art, which carries out in one material what is designed in another; and for the designer to ignore the instrument and material by which the touches are to be done, shows complete want of understanding of the scope of reproducible design.

I cannot help feeling that it would be a good thing for artists who consider designing part of their province (I admit there are very few such artists) to learn the art of wood-engraving, which, up to a certain point, is a far from difficult art; at any rate for those who have the kind of eyes suitable for the work. I do not mean that they should necessarily always cut their own designs, but that they should be able to cut them. They would thus learn what the real capacities of the art are, and would, I should hope, give the executant artists genuine designs to execute, rather than problems to solve. I do not know if it is necessary to remind you that the difficulties in cutting a simple design on wood (and I repeat that all designs for book illustrations should be simple) are very much decreased since the fifteenth century, whereas instead of using the knife on the plank section of the wood, we now use the graver on the end section. Perhaps, indeed, some of you may think this simple wood cutting contemptible, because of its ease; but delicacy and refinement of execution are always necessary in producing a line, and this is not easy, nay it is not possible to those who have not got the due instinct for it; mere mechanical deftness is no substitute for this instinct.

Again, as it is necessary for the designers to have a feeling for the quality of the final execution, to sympathise with the engraver's difficulties, and know why one block looks artistic and another mechanical; so it is necessary for the engraver to have some capacity for design, so that he may know what the designer wants of him, and that he may be able to translate the designer, and give him a genuine and obvious cut line in place of his pencilled or penned line without injuring in any way the due expression of the original design.

Lastly, what I want the artist - the great man who designs for the humble executant - to think of is, not his drawn design, which he should look upon as a thing to be thrown away when it has served its purpose, by the finished and duly printed ornament which is offered to the public. I find that the executants of my humble designs always speak of them as `sketches,' however painstaking they may be in execution. This is the recognised trade term, and I quite approve of it as keeping the `great man' in his place, and showing him what his duty is, to wit, to take infinite trouble in getting the finished work turned out of hand. I lay it down as a general principle in all the arts, where one artist's design is carried out by another in a different material, that doing the work twice over is by all means to be avoided as the source of dead mechanical work. The `sketch' should be as slight as possible, i.e., as much as possible should be left to the executant.

A word or two of recapitulation as to the practical side of my subject, and I have done. An illustrated book, where the illustrations are more than mere illustrations of the printed text, should be a harmonious work of art. The type, the spacing of the type, the position of the pages of print on the paper, should be considered from the artistic point of view. The illustrations should not have a mere accidental connection with the other ornament and the type, but an essential and artistic connection. They should be designed as a part of the whole, so that they would seem obviously imperfect without their surroundings. The designs must be suitable to the material and method of reproduction, and not offer to the executant artist a mere thicket of unnatural difficulties, producing no result when finished, save the exhibition of a tour de force. The executant, on his side, whether he be the original designer or someone else, must understand that his business is sympathetic translation, and not mechanical reproduction of the original drawing. This means, in other words, the designer of the picture-blocks, the designer of the ornamental blocks, the wood-engraver, and the printer, all of them thoughtful, painstaking artists, and all working in harmonious co-operation for the production of a work of art. This is the only possible way in which you can get beautiful books.

* * * * *

After a discussion on the subject Mr Morris, in reply, said it was a pity that the contrary point of view to his own had not been put forward by some one, as there was a good deal to be said pro and con. What Mr Sachs had said about texture was very true, but it applied after all to a particular kind of wood-cutting, not to that which he was thinking of as being suitable to the ornamentation of a page. He remembered a lecturer showing a very beautiful slide of Berwick's starling, which looked exceedingly handsome, but it had no relationship whatever to the type on the page on which it appeared, or rather the type had no relationship to it, and the result was that the starling did not make an ornament to the page, and one would prefer to have a separate proof of the starling. That was a strong case, because he yielded to no one in his admiration for Berwick's work, especially when it was employed on fur and feathers. But this view of texture may be carried so far as to apply it to the mere presentation of outline; since it made all the difference in the world whether those lines were cut nice and round and sweet, or whether they were reduced to a straight needle point on the one hand, or, on the other hand were chopped out and were made edgy and sour. He did not propose to go into any battle of the styles, but the page of the book, the type, and the woodcut ought to go together. If it were necessary to have such woodcuts at Mr Fred Walker's illustrations to Philip, the type ought to go with them, to be of the same style. But though this might be possible, it was unnatural, because the essential character of a book was that it was stamped; printers called the types stamps, and the woodcuts were stamps. There ought to be that same kind of clearness and distinctness: that absence of vagueness which you got in the stamping of a coin. Mr Webb said there might be a difficulty in reconciling the story-telling function of a woodcut with its ornamental function, and no doubt that was true; but it seemed to him that it was just that kind of difficulty or limitation which made an art worth following. If there were no difficulty in carrying out a work of art in any special material, instead of learning to be an artist in pottery, or glass, or wood-cutting, why not follow the most simple and direct form of art, which gave the advantages of all others, not perhaps in the easiest, but in the fullest, way - that of oil painting? But that was not what was wanted. Oil painting might be the most important of all the arts, though he was not quite sure about that; but nevertheless you wanted other arts as well. The wood-cutter or the artist had no more right to grumble at the conditions under which he worked than the poet had at having to write in rhyme instead of prose. If he wanted to write prose he could do so. As a matter of fact, if books were largely ornamented in this way, some modus vivendi would be found between the ornamental and the story-telling capacity of the art; a school would grow up which would have its own due and proper conventions, under which it would work with perfect ease. The question raised by Mr Day as to what hope there was for an improvement in book illustration and ornamentation, was really whether it could be hoped for as an ordinary and general thing. He did see certain difficulties, which mostly reduced themselves in the long-run into commercial ones, with which he was not bound to deal on the present occasion. If people chose, they could have such books in very large measure, but no doubt the commercial difficulty would put a stopper on many attempts to decorate books properly. He thoroughly sympathised with what Mr Day said about the publisher and his man interfering with the artist. The publisher ought to select the artist, tell him what the book was, and the subject required, and let him do his best. But there was one thing in favour of the possibility of having beautiful books; they were self-contained. If he were asked whether it was possible to have buildings generally good in the present day, he should say, no; but, in the case of books, which were self-contained things, he would say, yes. There were not the same difficulties with a book as with many other articles of commerce. The first thing necessary was to have a certain number of artists who had an intense desire to produce work suitable for book ornament; and those artists would, in some way, force the public to give them an opportunity for producing those books. He threw the whole burden really on the group of which he was a humble member, the artists themselves; the public could only take such books as were offered them. The publishers' part was to open their purse as widely as possible, not be afraid to spend a good deal of money on a good book, though they only sold a few copies. Finally, even if books were not beautiful, they might be made tolerable good looking. Perhaps some little advance had been made. The principal difficulty in getting a cheap book to look well was the paper, but if people would only turn their attention to this matter, they could easily get paper much better for its purpose than what was now considered good paper: paper which would show on the surface of it that it was common paper, but would not be disagreeable to handle or read, and would not be of that horrible shiny character, and look as if you could rub it all to pieces, which, in fact, you could. Some books you could not even carry comfortably from one end of a room to the other, on account of the extra weight of the adulterants necessary for that kind of paper. He had had in his hand a moderate-sized book, a royal 8vo, which weighed as heavy as the biggest folio of the fifteenth century. All that extra weight was not real finish, it was only trade finish, and was done in order that the books might sell. There was as much hope of doing something in the way of producing good-looking and even beautiful books, as of getting any betterment in any kind of decoration whatever; and after all it need not cost more to print books from beautiful stamps rather than ugly ones. He had the highest possible hopes, if artists would only be true to themselves.

Bibliographical Note


On the Woodcuts of Gothic Books


  1. 26th January 1892 at a meeting sponsored by the Applied Art Section of the Society of Arts at the Society's Rooms at John Street, Adelphi, London
  2. 21st February 1894 at a meeting sponsored by the Birmingham Municipal School of Art at the Birmingham and Midlands Institute
  3. 14th December 1895 at a meeting sponsored by the Technical Education Department of the London County Council at the Bolt Court Technical School, Fleet Street, London


  1. The Times, on 25th and 28th January 1892
  2. Journal of the Society of Arts, 40, 12th February 1892