Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Chamber Idyll

And then I got to thinking about wood engraving, and in particular about this little beauty - little indeed; the original image is barely three inches by one and a half. It's The Chamber Idyll by Edward Calvert, and it's in Tate Britain, though I don't think it's on display at the moment. An exquisitely beautiful - and erotically charged - work, it's beautifully composed, atmospheric, packed with meaning and amazingly delicately engraved. And yet Calvert only had a few years' experience of wood engraving when he made it, in 1831, and it was apparently the last work he produced in this medium. Calvert was one of the Ancients, the disciples of William Blake who for a few magical years gathered around Samuel Palmer in Shoreham. Later, like Palmer himself, Calvert went into an artistic decline (though Palmer's imagination flared up again in his late etchings and watercolours). Calvert spent the rest of his long life painting competently in a kind of vapid classical style, and the engravings of his golden period remained unseen by the world. Then, ten years after his death, an edition of his wood and copper engravings was published by his son, who later donated The Chamber Idyll to the Tate. The British Museum also has some Calvert prints, but The Chamber Idyll is surely his masterpiece.

8 comments:

  1. It is a wonderful achievement, Nige, particularly bearing in mind his relative inexperience. Your post pushed me to look again at the glorious wood carvings of the great Thomas Bewick, and his woodcut of a man pissing against a wall. The detail is astonishing on a block measuring less than 3” x 2”. Jenny Uglow in her ‘Nature’s Engraver - A Life Of Thomas Bewick’ describes that detail: ‘the variations in his shadow and the arc of his pee, the socks rolling down below broad calves, the widely planted feet and the curve of his back, with the wrinkle in his coat between the shoulders; the tilt of his head and hat as he looks down, the roll of possessions flung down behind him. The wind is from the west, the trees lean and the grasses flow with the gusts towards the stream. ’
    All within a space measuring less than 3" x 2". And not a swan in sight:

    http://www.metro.co.uk/metrolife/625263-tale-pieces-is-a-revelation

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  2. It is astonishing what can be done on one tiny block of wood, isn't it? So many engravers must have ruined their eyesight over this exacting work - but what results! It's boxwood, isn't it - incredibly dense, close-fibred wood (sinks in water), cut across the grain, allows amazingly fine detail...

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  3. It is astonishing, Nige. Jenny Uglow explains the importance of the type of wood used by the master engravers: 'boxwood proved best because box grows so slowly that the growth-lines are very close and on its hard surface the engravers could use the fine tools employed on silver and copper.' What glorious skill!

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