The Living Art of Wood Engraving

Hilary Paynter’s commitment to craftsmanship and artistic innovation

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 meeting Bideford based artist, wood engraver and Chairman of the Society of Wood Engravers, Hilary Paynter.  Hilary’s subject matter ranges from rugged coastal scenery such as Clovelly harbour to dramatic landscapes, often portraying distinctive geological forms to domestic observations and controversial socio-political commentary that are intellectually subtle.

Meeting at Hilary’s home studio overlooking the River Torridge, I was blown away by Hilary’s beautiful nineteenth-century iron press, her busy studio, the prints, which were everywhere, piled up to be framed, the hive of activity, but also the calmness of the space.  Hilary graciously gave me a studio tour and took the time to talk through the process she uses when engraving, humbly sharing her little tips and tricks!

For those ‘non-woodengravers’ amongst us, simply, you take a piece of wood, specifically “boxwood,” and then layer paint on one side. Once the paint is set you painstakingly etch away with millions of score marks using a sharp tool called a  “spit sticker’ until you have created a final design. The raised surface is then coated in a fine layer of ink and once through the press prints directly on paper.  In addition, wood engravers need to remember that the image cut on the block is the reverse of the final print. Like any true professional, Hilary made it sound and look so easy!

When asked what her most proud moment has been, Hilary’s face beamed, “I was commissioned to undertake a suite of 14 wood engravings “From the Rivers to the Sea” to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Thomas Bewick, the inventor of wood engraving.  This suite was enlarged from small wood blocks to panels that are 2 metres high by 22 metres wide, and installed on the Metro platforms at the Central Station, Newcastle,” said Hilary.  Hilary proudly shared the images of her installation in situ at the station.  Some of the images showed commuters at the station rushing crazily past. The irony of the absurd acceleration of our lives, in contrast to timeless calm of a wood engraved installation struck.

We now live and work in flux; technologies and markets come and go, converge and fragment at unbelievable speed and in unpredictable ways.  Has technology made us all feel overwhelmed by the relentless demands in our lives? How refreshing then to come across Hilary and the world of wood engravers in which masterpieces are made one dash at a time, with the very same tools, and with the very same speed, as those made over 100 years ago.

Hilary is a truly inspirational artist who has quietly developed her working life with incredible vision and purpose.  Hilary can see things from a different point of view, which I think liberates and stimulates her to think differently.  Hilary’s work is real and “human” in this fast paced, robotic world we live in.

For those of you in North Devon this week why not take time go for a walk along the Tarka Trail in Bideford and make new connections.  Sit and watch the River Torridge from Victoria Park, take time, observe and ponder how you would draw what you see, or indeed how you would create that image as a wood engraving.  If you need further inspiration, visit the Burton Art Gallery from July 26 – September 15 to view Hilary’s work, alongside other wood engravers in The Society of Wood Engravers 76th Annual Exhibition.

Things you may not know about Hilary Paynter

Hilary started her working career as teacher and in the evenings had a hobby as a stone-carver, which she enjoyed.  However with two small children at home, and this hobby taking place in her kitchen, complaints followed from the family of grit in the food resulting in her giving this hobby up!

Her favourite “job” was working with “stroppy kids” in an education unit in Hammersmith of teenage boys, all of whom had been expelled from school.  Hilary enjoyed helping these children, whose previous points of reference were failure, sharing with them all forms of art, including sculpture, watching them grow and become more accepting of themselves and life.

Every year Hilary is creating between 40 -50 pieces of work, ranging from huge public installations to small illustrations.

Hilary is currently the Chairman of the Wood engravers Society and the President of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.

1n 1982 Hilary created the societies first exhibition, for many years,  ‘The Revival” at the Garden Gallery in Kew.  This was the start of the touring exhibitions which are still going strongly today, with, on average 6 exhibitions a year.

Venue Contact Details:

The Society of Wood Engravers 76th Annual Exhibition at The Burton Art Gallery is on until 15 September 2014 at THE BURTON ART GALLERY & MUSEUM, Kingsley Road, Bideford EX39 2QQ.   01237 471455

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