Printing from Bewick’s block is not only an honor, but also a challenge to get a good print from a block that is not type high, but also wavy, dented and also in need of serious cleaning of dried ink left over from printers past.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) was an English engraver, illustrator, naturalist and author. He is remembered for the artistic beauty and technical quality of his wood engraving blocks, most of which are depictions of birds and rural life.
Sam Davidson from the Davidson Gallery here in Seattle contacted me to print some thank you cards from two Bewick blocks and two other blocks from about the same era. I jumped at the chance, having been, and still am, a Bewick fan for many years. In fact, when our Wood Engravers Network toured England a few years ago and visited most of the paths that Thomas trod, but also where a lot of his blocks reside, personal collections, libraries etc. We were privileged to have inspected many of his blocks, photographed, fondled and really enjoyed that part. However, without actually printing from them, we were unable to really assess the condition of the blocks, but now I have experienced it first hand.
First upon unwrapping the block, I checked with a type high gauge and could see right off I might have a challenge in front of me, but could not see the low spots, troughs etc. I started by adding temporary make ready on the back of the block to come to as near .918 as I could. Gingerly locked it up in my 8×12 C&P, and gently pulled the first print, alas, blank spaces appeared all over the block, also showing inking problems. After wiping the block off, I started over by adding tiny amounts of ink to the press, bringing quite a bit of detail out of the old engraving. Then starting by adding thin bits of paper to the tympan, both behind and some final ones on top bring out the lovely image in all its detail that dear old Thomas wanted.
All I needed at that point was to print off a hundred or so cards of each block, being very careful in adding ink to the ink disc only with a fairly well charged small brayer so as to not over ink any one of those very lightly engraved blocks.
I pulled a few extra prints on good archival paper seeing the image even more clearly than on card stock. Overall, it was a very challenging experience, and I, even at my advanced years still was able to learn to be very careful printing from such valuable blocks as these.