Pen worn, hand weary and eye dimmed from transcribing text after text for the Continental book market, the adoption of the new process of book printing by the 15th-century Kentish merchant William Caxton was as swift as it was successful.
Similarly fed up with the drudge of translating the classical texts which were the mainstay of the European publishing industry, Caxton’s relocation from Bruge to “The Almonry” at Westminster was marked by an entrepreneurial perspicacity in his choice of popular stories, chivalric romances, the Golden Legend and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that has sealed his legacy as one of the top 100 Greatest Britons.
Like the “vulgar” London dialect which Caxton unapologetically deploys as his textual lingua franca (which was soon to replace the actual lingua franca of government rolls) the woodcut illustrations that were part of his productions are possessed of a similar workaday crudeness in their execution. The historian of English woodcut prints, Edward Hodnett, is disparaging, describing the images in Caxton’s Mirror of the World as “miserably executed … England stumbles on to the book illustration stage with some of the poorest cuts ever inserted between covers”.
That the print in England never acquired the same status of “fine art” object (that saw this particular art form underpin the intellectual status of the likes of Albrecht Dürer’s patron Emperor Maximilian I) might be explained by Caxton’s commercial bent. It is possible that the relegation of the image in English printed books can be ascribed to the premising of commercially popular texts, such as The Canterbury Tales, and the part these played in England’s advanced levels of adult male literacy curtailing the need for pictures, while on the Continent there was a preference for books with images but very little text. Caxton often sent orders back over to the craftsmen of the low countries for woodblock illustrations.
These days, assailed by ghastly, unwelcome, throwback, graffiti art and the crushing pointlessness of the NFT’s visual embodiment of dodgy money transfers, the charm of the simply executed black line characters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims cheers. These images have just been republished for the first time in more than 500 years by Eglantyne Books, adding a poignant adjunct and a helpful authenticity to the perennial text for readers old and new.
Armed with my own set of chisels, forged by a blacksmith in Calcutta, I have set about recreating one of Caxton’s woodblocks in the fashion of the originals for the entertainment of Catholic Herald readers while recommending you buy this novel publication to accompany the volumes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of which every household in England is surely in possession by now.
1. A design is transferred onto the woodblock which has been dusted with chalk for legibility. My woodblock is a tight-grained hardwood salvaged from a recycled grand piano. Not having access to such musical instruments, the craftsmen of Caxton’s age would have used seasoned timber from fruit trees such as cherry. Hardwoods allow for multiple prints to be “pulled” without wear and tear and for finer lines to be cut without their integrity disintegrating (splintering).
2. Areas of the woodblock are removed to create “the Matrix”, the raised surface which when inked will carry the mirrored image to be transferred to paper through the printing process.
3. Ink is applied to the raised parts of the cut printing block via leather “dabbers”. These days this job is carried out using gelatine rollers.
In the case of Caxton’s operation, the illustration woodblocks would have been incorporated on the printing press with blocks of text and “pulled” together. Paper was expensive in the 15th century and would have been damped with water for the ink to “take” better.
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