The Knight of the Burning Pestle, 1909, by Gwen Raverat, sold by Abbott and Holder.

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It would seem that wood engraving is now a generic term for anything pulled from wood, yet they are totally different production methods. A woodcut is a relief print and is produced by a knife, and a wood engraving is an intaglio print produced by a burin.

I guess this confusion is not surprising when the British Museum itself defines a wood engraving as: “a variety of relief [my italics] printmaking using a wooden block, into which lines have been cut using a burin or other fine-pointed tool.”

Martin Steenson

ATG replies: Well spotted. The remainder of the definition on the British Museum website reads as follows:

“The distinction between wood-engraving and woodcut is between hard end-grain wood (usually boxwood) cut across the grain with engraving tools (wood-engraving), and soft-grain wood cut along the grain with a knife and gouge (woodcut). With Japanese prints, the term ‘woodblock’ is traditionally used in preference to ‘woodcut’. The type of wood used for woodcut/woodblock is always a soft wood: in Japan it is usually cherry, in the West pear, lime wood or similar.”

The book How to identify prints by Bamber Gascoigne states: “Woodcuts had been carved on the plank side of the wood, with the grain… In place of this the English engraver Thomas Bewick… perfected a method of working across the end grain of very hard wood such as box.

“On this much more dense and stable surface he was able to use a version of the conventional copper engraver’s tool, driving a graver through the wood away from him. From this difference comes the distinction between the names – woodcut for a block which has been cut with a knife on the plank side, wood engraving for a block which is engraved across the grain.

“There can be verbal confusion between an engraving and a wood engraving, since they share a name and use a similar tool; but the wood engraver creates a relief block, cutting away the non-printing areas, whereas the intaglio engraver scoops out the lines which will print…

“…but the easiest clue may be the date. Before the second half of the eighteenth century it will be a woodcut; from then to the late nineteenth century it is likely to be a wood engraving; in the twentieth century each medium has been used by artists, the woodcut for broad effects, often making much of the natural grain, and the wood engraving with precisely cut white lines and very clear-edged shapes. A finely engraved line in white will always indicate a wood engraving rather than a woodcut, for the graver cannot be successfully used for such delicate effects on the plank edge.”

Editions of The Knight of the Burning Pestle sold at auction at Dominic Winter in 2015 and at Forum in 2020 were both catalogued as a woodcut.

In ATG No 2587 the work – described as a wood engraving – appeared as an item available from dealership Abbott and Holder. We’re pleased to say that on the firm’s website it is now shown as having been sold.