In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Kristin Bluemel of Monmouth University explains the appeal of early twentieth-century books illustrated by female engravers.
Kristin Bluemel is a professor of English and the Wayne D. McMurray-Helen Bennett Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Monmouth University. Her teaching and research interests include twentieth-century British and Irish literature, the novel, literary criticism and theory, children's literature, and language and linguistics. She is currently working on a forthcoming book titled, Enchanted Wood: Four Women Wood Engravers and the Twentieth-Century Illustrated Book Trade. She holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.
Dr. Kristin Bluemel – Female Wood Engravers
In the 1930s, in England, Scotland, and Wales, perfectly intelligent, rational adults decided that they wanted their favorite books by writers like Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, or Charlotte Bronte to appear with illustrations. But they didn’t want just any kind of illustration. They wanted black-and-white wood engravings in the style of the beloved late-eighteenth-century printer Thomas Bewick.
Bewick had worked his magic on one inch squares of boxwood. Amid the austerities of the Great Depression and threats of Nazi Germany, books with wood engraved illustrations that recalled Bewick’s tiny pastoral scenes were astonishingly popular. Also astonishing is the fact that many of these books were engraved by women.
For example, wood engraver Gwen Raverart—the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and a family friend of Virginia Woolf—earned commissions from highbrow publishers Faber and Faber and Cambridge University Press. Raverat's illustrations of children, field hands, and pastoral landscapes were often seen as sentimental, nostalgic, even conservative, especially compared to epic paintings like Picasso’s Guernica. And yet wood engravings by Raverat and other women artists were believed by publishers, authors, and readers to "elevate" every book in which they appeared. If not high art, they communicated through their delicate, miniature forms higher and artier aims of whatever piece of writing they decorated.
Why is that? Why did this women's art, alone among women's arts, manage to escape cultural degradation by association with a woman's hand? Is it merely national nostalgia overwhelming gender bias in an age of international aggression? Such questions demonstrate how study of an obscure illustration practice of the 1930s can plunge scholars into the most lively areas of humanistic inquiry, at the crossroads of modern art, book history, and gender politics.