Society of Wood Engravers – 80th Annual Exhibition

23rd February - 17th March

Main Gallery

UPDATE: Please note that due to severe weather conditions, we have made the decision to cancel the Private View of the Society of Wood Engravers exhibition on Thursday 1st March. 

The Zillah Bell Gallery is excited to welcome back The Society of Wood Engravers for the 80th annual exhibition.

The exhibition is on from 24th February to 17th March.

The show includes a vibrant new selection of wood engravings and relief prints from the UK and around the world. Drawn from an open submission and a rigorous selection process, this annual exhibition showcases around 150 prints demonstrating a wide range of approaches and subject matter, combining wit and vision with often astonishing levels of skill.

While the exhibition will comprise mainly of wood engravings other forms of relief print such as woodcut and linocut will also be on display.

About the SWE: Founded in 1920

The Society exists to promote wood engraving. It is the principal organisation and rallying point for those interested in the subject; it also maintains a lively interest in other forms of relief printmaking. Essentially, it is an artists’ exhibiting society. There are currently seventy-eight members, practising artists who, having joined as subscribers have been elected members.

The Society’s wider support group of subscribers includes other artists both professional and amateur, collectors, museum people and members of the general public who have simply liked what they have seen at exhibitions or in books and have become interested in knowing more. Anyone at all may be a subscriber.

The Society was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Philip Hagreen, Robert Gibbings, Lucien Pissaro, Gwen Raverat and Eric Gill. They held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton. The group thrived until war broke out, disrupted the demand for their work and cut the supply of materials. In the years that followed, there was a return to the annual exhibition but the group and the cultural context had changed.

After a decade in which there were no exhibitions, the SWE was revived in the early 1980s and has built up an international reputation for excellence. The regular activities of the Society are its annual touring exhibition, quarterly journal ‘Multiples’ and monthly Newsletter. The exhibition, stringently selected from an open submission, visits several venues each year, showing the best of current work from Britain and other countries.

The Society’s role is an important one because it is devoted to creating contacts between wood engravers and those interested in their work, in Britain and around the world, and to sustaining this unique artform.

What is Wood Engraving?

Wood engraving is at once the simplest and one of the most exquisite forms of printmaking. The print is made, first, by engraving the reversed design or picture to be printed into the mirror-smooth surface of a block of endgrain wood. Boxwood is best, though cheaper alternatives such as lemonwood and synthetic materials are now frequently used.

Secondly, the block is rolled up with ink (on its top surface) and printed onto paper. The cuts that were made into the wood therefore come out as white, the remaining top surface which gets inked, as black; the artist is, in effect, drawing with light – with a white mark as opposed to the black mark that comes from a pencil, brush or pen.

Most wood engravings tend to be closely worked and relatively small because the tools used are finely pointed. Because the finesse of wood engraving produces a particularly rich tonal range, wood engravings are usually, but by no means exclusively, black and white.

The image that results can only be made by this particular process, just as paintings can only be made with paint or photographs with a camera. Printmaking is thus a potentially creative process: it is part of its nature that many prints can be taken from the block once it is engraved, but each of those prints is an original – made by that process, not copied.

Wood engravings appear both as prints and in books. In galleries, as artists’ exhibition prints, taken by the artists themselves from the woodblocks, they are customarily ‘editioned’ prints, as expressed by the ‘fraction’ written on the print near the artist’s signature. 10/75 means the 10th print in an edition of 75.

In books, they may also be original prints. ‘Fine print books’, limited editions made to the highest standards with traditional hot-metal type, are often illustrated with wood engravings. Since these are also printed direct from the woodblock, which can be set alongside the type in this sort of printing, they too are original prints.

However, in all other publications these days, art-work is scanned in, so what you see is a reproduction of a previously existing original. Here, the crisp black-and- white of the wood-engraved image still sits well with type and takes reduction and enlargement well. From fine art through editorial illustration and advertising to packaging, wood engraving finds more applications in the real world than most printmaking media.

Artists who make illustrations regularly send prints of the work to the Society’s annual show. Work intended for the wall may therefore be seen alongside work designed for the page, both as original prints. The Society is equally enthusiastic about both.