Wood Engravers’ craftsmanship at the Burton Art Gallery

Make your Mark! 

Having earned a reputation for creativity, excellence, skilled craftsmanship and distinctiveness of design, wood engraving is valued for its sense of heritage and quality.  Prized by collectors the world over, wood engraving, a very old form of printmaking, has an international reach extending way beyond its English roots.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Burton Art Gallery to view The Society of Wood Engravers 76th Annual Exhibition. The Society of Wood Engravers was founded in 1920 and is the oldest and most prestigious wood engravers society in the world. The Society had its resurgence in 1980 and since then has toured throughout the UK sharing works from all over the globe, indeed in the current exhibition in Bideford, the UK works on display are alongside those from the US, Japan and beyond.

Most wood engravers work in a similar way.  Initially the “boxwood” is drenched with paint, once set, the image is painstakingly formed by etching away with millions of score marks using a sharp tool called a “spit sticker,’ until the final design has been created. The raised surface is then coated in a fine layer of ink and once through the press prints directly on paper.  Unlike most artists, wood engravers need to remember that the image cut on the block is the reverse of the final print.  As such, seeing the final image through the press is a great moment, unlike most forms of art, for wood engravers, this is the first time the intricate finished artwork is seen.

In every exhibition I visit at the Burton I try to work out why different pictures appeal, in technical terms, and with regards to wood engraved work, the complexity and range of techniques employed by the artist’s marking with the “spit sticker,” and the content and message the artist is intending to convey.

Hilary Paynter attracted my attention at this exhibition; I guess part of the connection was knowing a little about her work and her intention to make a statement and indeed in many of her pieces, social commentary.  Also as an artist living and working from her home base in Bideford, I feel I can relate to her.

I was also interested in how many of the works depict very physically dramatic locations and for the artist to record them would have meant many hours perched on the edge of a hill, on the side of a river, or cliff whilst the changing seasons, weather and light become a part of the final appearance of the work.

Much of the work on display features intricate designs with beautifully thought through compositions and the range of “marks” is truly extraordinary.  The exhibition, featuring over 140 engravings from Britain and around the world, recognised as the showcase for the engraver’s art, is well worth a visit, and is on at the Burton Art Gallery until 15th September.

Alongside the exhibition, this year’s special feature is a master class day on wood engraving. For anyone who would like to learn more about the art of engraving and create their own wood engraving why not book yourself a place on the workshop day at the Burton Art Gallery on 30th August.  The master class will explore tone, tints and textures in black and white with internationally renowned Hilary Paynter, the past President of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers and Chairman of the Society of Wood Engravers.  For more information on the master class and booking information please visit the Burton Art Gallery website www.burtonartgallery.co.uk

Venue Contact Details:

The Society of Wood Engravers 76th Annual Exhibition at The Burton Art Gallery until 15th September – FREE ADMISSION.

THE BURTON ART GALLERY & MUSEUM, Kingsley Road, Bideford EX39 2QQ
(e) burtonartgallery@torridge.gov.uk   (t) 01237 471455 (w) www.burtonartgallery.co.uk

Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm.  Sunday 11am – 4pm.

Lucy Goaman

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