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THE PRESENT STATE OF WOOD-CUTTING AS IT
REGARDS RURAL SUBJECTS.
Unmeaning glitter, unprecedented softness, unprincipalled novelty, shall sometimes set aside for awhile the truth and simplicity of nature, and the approbation of ages.—Life of Ryland.
From what has been said in the last chapter, it is obvious that had Bewick been but one of a series of wood-cutters during the established period of the art, his merit would have been eminent and peculiar; but when it is recollected that, at one stride, he brought it to comparative perfection, our obligations to him are wonderfully increased.
The direct consequence of his revival of the art is, that we have now tens of thousands of volumes embellished with wood-cuts, and upwards of two hundred engravers in this department. The Penny Magazine alone is said to pay for its wood-cutting 20001. per annum. This magazine and some of its cheap cotemporaries have made a peculiar application of this art, which is, in itself, a great national blessing. By stereotyping wood-engravings, they are enabled to
strike off any number of copies of them with their letter-press, and by this means, prints of a large size, and of great strength of effect, are made to circulate amongst the people, even to an extent to which the only limits must be those of education.
Thus are many pictorial subjects placed before the eyes of tens of thousands who could otherwise never have seen them. Subjects from the paintings of the old masters ; landscapes from every country on the globe, with their peculiar characteristics; prints of ancient and modern buildings; of ancient and modern sculpture; of animals, plants; in fact, every subject of natural or human history, all brought livingly to the sight, and at such an amazingly trivial expense, that the desire of knowledge is, at once, quickened and gratified in a degree of which our fathers had not the most distant idea; nor of the effect of which have we, perhaps, any adequate conception. We feel, however, that it must be full of virtue and happiness. Throughout thousands and tens of thousands of cottages shall the eyes which, without these blessed facilities, would never have glanced on anything beyond the objects surrounding their daily life, now gaze in living delight, on the magnificent scenes, the beautiful productions of every land and climate; on the stern or fantastic splendour of foreign towns and cities, domes and minarets; on the forms and costumes, the dwellings and implements of the most distant nations; on the animal natures of air, earth, and ocean; on the faces of men who have been the lights, or terrors of the world; of those who have fought for, and thought for, sung for, and died for man and his cause; the spread of knowledge and religion ; in fact, for that social and illimitable hap
piness of which these things are the precursors; a happiness that shall be brought to every house, in city or in desert, to every fireside, however humble.
This is a great and beneficent result, from the union of two noble arts ; for, whatever tends to embellish human life; to give to toiling men
a refining pleasure; to bring them from base excitements and public haunts, to the pure and peaceful enjoyments of home; to draw them to their own ingles; to induce them to sit among their children, and delight their eyes with objects of beauty, and feed their growing spirits with those natural facts, in wbich the wisdom and goodness of God are made so sensible to young minds; whatever does this, does the work of love; the work of human happiness and national greatness. To enlighten the general mass, and at the same time to kindle the noblest feelings of the soul of man, is the sure means to build up the state with true citizens; to protect the people from despotism, and government from popular caprice.
This, I say, is one great result; yet even this does not seem to me the highest legitimate province of the art. It is obvious that prints of the kind describedof buildings, portraits, or historic scenes, must, after all, come from metal with greater perfection than from wood. To most subjects metal gives a richness and delicacy that wood can never equal. Wood can give great strength and boldness, but accompanied nevertheless with something of hardness and constraint. It is only the power of striking off prints with the letter-press which gives wood that admirable advantage over metal of which I have been speaking. It becomes, in that case, a substitute for metal, where
metal could not be used without defeating the ultimate object by its expense. There it is merely a good substitute for metal. But there is one department in which it is superior even to metal; and that is in such vignette representations of rural life and scenery as Bewick has used it in. Here it triumphs over metal; for it does not here require so much brilliance, or richness, or extreme delicacy, as a certain homely beauty belonging to rustic objects. The beauty of nature does not consist in showyness and dazzling lustre, so much as in pleasing colours, a simple grace of form, and a certain roughness and opacity of surface, on which the eye can rest longer without fatigue than on more polished substances. Now it is in these qualities that Bewick’s engravings abound. He is sacredly faithful to Nature. He catches at once the spirit of the country and of its wild denizens. He is simple, beautiful, but not glaring;nature is never so.
Yet amongst all our wood-engravers,—and many of them are continually employed on rural subjects, it is as true as it may seem astonishing, that there is not one of them who can bear a moment's comparison with Bewick as a delineator of rural life. This is owing to no deficiency of talent - we have many artists of the highest talent, it is owing to other
If it seem surprising that no one from the time of Bewick's restoration of the art, to the present moment, should have equalled him in the representation of nature, it is not more surprising than that from the time of Milton to that of Cowper no one wrote good blank verse; that with Milton's free and natural majesty as a model before them, we should have had
nothing better than the stilted stiffness of Akenside, and the pompous inflations and ungrammatical distortions of Thomson. The same causes in both cases have produced the same effect. Our artists, like the poets, have forsaken nature herself, to study and imitate one another. While our artists are employed to depict Nature, they are living in our mighty capital, cut off from the very face of nature. They have full employ; for the eyes of those for whom they labour are not more familiar with the country than their own. Dash, and meretricious show captivate the multitude, and therefore dash and show are given in abundance; the wondering lover of nature looks for her in vain. The ambitious and frippery taste of the age is stamped on all the most excellent productions of what should be the rustic burin. We now and then see a better spirit; things overflowing with talent; and on the
very verge of nature. Such are some of the beautiful recent illustrations of Grey's Elegy, Chevy-Chace, Aiken's Calendar of the Year, the bold sketches in Hone's Table-Book, and the elegant ones in some of their books for the young published by Darton and Clark, Tegg, and others: but, in general, our most skilful artists are not contented with the simplicity of nature; they want better bread than can be made of wheat. Hence while they are admired in cities, Bewick reigns sole and triumphant all through the country.
But how is this to be remedied? As I have said, we have talent and manual skill equal to anything; what we want are purer designs,—designs, in fact, from Nature! We want subjects drawn from the same source that Bewick drew them.
I do not mean that our artists should imitate Bewick; no, that they