Engraving and Illuminated Printing
Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, “The Moxon Tennyson as Textual Event: 1857, Wood Engraving, and Visual Culture”
By convention the launch of the so-called “golden age” of wood-engraved illustration in Britain, also known as “the sixties,” is Edward Moxon’s publication, in May 1857, of Alfred Tennyson’s Poems, with 54 wood-engraved illustrations designed by 8 artists, including the Pre-Raphaelites John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Although the Moxon Tennyson was neither a commercial nor critical success on first publication, before the decade was out its Pre-Raphaelite designs were considered a touchstone for artistic illustration, a reputation that continues today. Without disputing the significance of this aesthetic achievement, I want to shift critical focus to the Moxon Tennyson’s status as mass-produced work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. My interest here is in how its visual communication was expressed through its reproductive technology at the historical moment of its production and reception. This essay re-positions the Moxon Tennyson as a textual event by reading it in the context of documentary, satiric, and artistic wood-engraved images selected from the crucial six-month period after its publication. By situating the Pre-Raphaelite illustrations for Tennyson’s Poems in relation to representations in the public press of such disparate events as the Art Treasures of the United Kingdom Exhibition in Manchester, the reportage on Indian uprisings at Meerut and Cawnpore, the Matrimonial Causes Act, and the Christy Minstrels show in London, I aim to show the complex ways in which the Moxon Tennyson was a worldly event, caught up in, and contributing to, ways of seeing and knowing in 1857.
William Blake invented a printing technique known as relief etching and used it to print most of his poetry. He called the technique illuminated printing and the poetry illuminated books. Nearly all of his critics believe that the idea for illuminated books preceded the invention of relief etching, that either the idea of text integrated with images on the same page or Songs of Innocence actually mocked up on paper was the mother of invention. This essay, however, approaching the question of the technique’s origin from the context of other new print technologies of the day, argues that illuminated poetry was the child and not the mother of invention. There were no “illustrated songs” on hand or even in mind needing a technique by which they could be printed in facsimile. Blake’s idea of publishing himself occurs only after the invention of relief etching, once he sees that he could use his new mode for writing as well as images and both in the same space.