#NWConnect: Curating a Centenary

Anne Desmet RA is an engraver who studied at the Ruskin and London’s Central School of Art and Design. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers and was editor of Printmaking Today (1998-2013). Here, she discusses the process of curating the Society of Wood Engravers’ centenary exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, which is now postponed until 2021. 

When Pete Lawrence and Nigel Hamway approached me, over three years ago, to ask me if I’d consider curating the SWE’s centenary exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, my initial instinct was to say ‘no’! At that time, I was tackling a huge editing and writing job for the Print REbels catalogue for the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers (RE). The producing of lavish catalogues for such events do have a way of occupying all one’s waking hours for months at a time, so I was not eager to commit myself to another such enterprise chasing so swiftly on the heels of the RE one! Also, while I have been an SWE member for some 30 years, I wondered if I was the right person to take on this task as I can’t claim to have a deep historical knowledge of the medium.

On the other hand, I am intensely drawn to the immense versatility of the medium and feel strongly that its potential is far broader than the cheerful bucolic imagery (however fine much of that is) by which it is so often stereotyped. So, while somewhat daunted, I was also immediately tempted by the challenge of presenting both an overview of the medium and a personal selection of works by those who are, in my view, amongst its strongest exponents past and present. The potential research delights of trawling the Ashmolean’s collection and various other private collections to put together a handsome show and catalogue also appealed. So of course, without too much hesitation, I said ‘yes’ and that decision has taken over my life since then!

In curating the show, my 20th– and 21st-century selections were primarily determined by what moved me: engravings that drew me in, demanded attention and lingered in the mind. I spent a good many days in 2017 (until major surgery on my leg set me back a bit) trawling through the engraving delights in the Ashmolean’s Western Art Print Room. I resumed my research early in 2018 and later set about organising my 150-odd choices into themes that the thousands of engravings I studied seemed to embrace, namely: commercial uses in advertising, public art, fine lettering design and the ex libris; the theatre of human life; storytelling – usually in book illustrations; the natural world; the built environment; and abstraction, often allied with keenly observed detail – and the sometimes-surprising relationships between those apparent antitheses.

I sought to tell, through those images, the story of wood engraving in Britain over the last 100 years, while also including outstanding artist-engravers from all over the world whose work interacts with British wood engraving over the 20th century and into the 21st.

The exhibition will open with a section about the beginnings of the medium and its diverse usage, so its first image will be a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) – whose technical bravura influenced many 20th century wood engravers. There will be engravings by Thomas Bewick, William Blake (1757–1827), Edward Calvert (1799–1883) and Samuel Palmer (1805–81) – the earliest independent artists to experiment with the medium. A Harper’s Weekly newspaper illustration (from 1871 – a glorious image from a paper I picked up on Ebay) will be included to demonstrate wood engraving’s widespread commercial usage until it was superseded, in the early 20th century, by technological advances in photography.

A large section of the exhibition, which I have titled The Theatre of Life, plays out in images of exuberant fantasy, work and play, war and peace. Edward Wadsworth ARA’s First World War dazzle-ship woodcuts influenced many engravers, so I have included a fine example, while Gertrude Hermes RA RE’s Second World War engraving The Warrior’s Tomb (1941) is perhaps her tour de force. Edward Gordon Craig (son of the famous actress Dame Ellen Terry and one of the earliest founders of the SWE along with Pissarro, Gill and others) used engraving to design sets for stage plays, suggesting epic spaces on tiny woodblocks. The exhibition includes one such tiny engraving for King Lear (1908). From the 1920s, artists experimented with wood engraving as a new, exhilarating medium, creating images in light out of the wood’s darkness. Whether darkly dramatic or flooded with sunshine, their subject matter was as animated and diverse as their technical ingenuity. From Gwen Raverat’s Bowls players in Sunlight (1922) to Clare Leighton RE’s grimly dramatic queue of the hungry: Bread Line, New York (1932), all human life is here.

It is surely testament to the strength of wood engraving as a vibrant artist’s medium in the 21st century that the pool of wonderful engravings was simply too full for everyone to be included in this centenary exhibition. Looking back to the SWE’s catalogue for its inaugural exhibition in 1920, Campbell Dodgson (1867–1948) wrote: ‘The woodcut has an illustrious past, an exciting, enquiring present, and, let us hope, a brilliant and prosperous future’. One hundred years on, I can safely say that it has had and continues to have just that!

Find Out More

This article, titled Centenary Celebrations, originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of SWE’s Multiples quarterly magazine. Read the full-length article here:

Centenary Celebrations by Anne Desmet

Scene through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving was due to show at the Ashmolean Museum from 28 March – 12 July 2020 before touring other UK museums. New dates to be announced. A sister Centenary Exhibition from Society of Wood Engravers shows at The North Wall from 28 October – 7 November 2020. View the online catalogue.

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