When Sir Richard Burton teas preparing his famous translation of The Arabian Nights' he inserted a short but devastating footnote that undercut rival orientalist William Lane and at the same time conferred a new measure of fame on a talented artist named William Harvey. The success of Mr. Lane's 1861 version of The Arabian Nights', wrote Sir Richard, "teas greatly indebted to the many wonderful engravings on wood from original designs by William Harvey; with a host of quaint and curious arabesques, Cufic inscriptions, vignettes, head pieces. These were excellent and showed for the first time the realistic East and not the absurdities drawn from the depths of artistic ignorance and self consciousness."
Whatever the merits of his attack on the hapless Mr. Lane, Sir Richard's praise of Harvey's work was certainly justified. As the accompanying samples suggest, Harvey was a master of one of the perenially popular but extremely difficult art forms of all time: woodcutting.
Woodcutting is a very ancient art. It goes back at least as far as the Egyptians who cut hieroglyphic characters on bricks and clay by pressing the blocks into the clay. The Chinese used woodcuts to pint textile patterns and centuries later the Romans used them to print numerals and symbols. In the 15th century Western Europe also took up the art as a way of printing patterns on textiles.
In the early stages, artisans drew their lines with the grain on the surface of soft wood and then cut away the excess wood so that the lines would print black. Since this type of block could be inked and used on a press it was the perfect method for illustrating books when movable type was introduced and opened the way for the mass printing of books. It became popular and such men as Albert Dürer in the early 16th century raised it to a high art form— although by then the artist and the craftsman who actually carved the blocks were rarely the same person.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, however, metal engraving developed into an even more suitable, if more expensive method, and the popularity of woodcuts declined sharply. By the 18th century it was almost an obsolescent art form. But by experimenting with hard end-grained wood and sharper tools, craftsmen developed a new technique that teas the reverse of the older method. It was called the "white line method." Instead of cutting away the wood so that the lines printed black, they cut V-shaped trenches into the wood. These V-shaped trenches printed white—like a chalk line on a blackboard. The technique is known now as wood engraving and although it could not match the fine crisp lines of copper plates immediately, constant improvement in execution plus the cost of copper engraving—copper plates had to be printed separately—enabled the art to survive. With the advent of Thomas Bewick wood engraving even began to surpass the metal engravings. Thomas Bewick, (1753 to 1828) was a talented Scots artist who is called the father of modern wood engraving. Not only did he turn out such masterpieces as the illustrations he designed and cut for British Birds and The Fables of Aesop,—unmatched to this day—but he also taught his art to a long list of notable pupils. One of them was William Harvey.
A skilled engraver himself as well as an excellent artist, William Harvey was "a master of florid and luxurious decoration"—a skill that fitted him uniquely for the task of providing illustrations for The Arabian Nights' when Mr. Lane turned in his translation to his publishers. Working under the critical eye of Lane him self, Harvey drew each design with painstaking attention to detail and then turned it over to the engravers to cut into the blocks. There were so many illustrations—he illustrated three volumes—that he employed no less than 25 different wood engravers. It was to be his finest work and provides to this day some of the best examples of woodcuts ever to appear between the covers of a book.
John Brinton specializes in material on the Middle East found in his personal collection of old books about the region.