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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Printing Surfaces - Relief

Substrates, formats, and letterforms are all elements of the physical book that readers can see and touch. What cannot be so readily seen in books are the various kinds of equipment used to make them: for example, the blocks, plates, and stones that, when inked, transmit texts and images via relief, intaglio, or planographic processes onto a substrate.

Relief printing surfaces—such as carved woodcuts or an individual sort of printing type—are among the oldest means for creating multiple copies of books. Printing with woodblocks developed in East Asia as early as the late 600s. These relief printing surfaces bear three-dimensional texts and images that, when printed, press into substrates.


Rare Book School illustration toolkit. Assembled by Terry Belanger.

A variety of tools were used to create relief and intaglio printing surfaces in Western books during the handpress period. This illustration “toolkit” is one of a seven identical sets used in RBS courses. It includes an assortment of woodblocks, metal plates, and hand-held instruments integral to various illustrations processes, including a piece of cherry plank used for making woodcuts, a copper plate for intaglio printmaking, and handheld tools, such as a burin, mezzotint rocker, and etching needle. 02_Chapter5PrintingSurfaces_Relief botanical a.jpg

Georgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck. Woodcut block illustrating cumin made for Pier Andrea Mattioli’s De materia medica. Prague, 1562; Mattioli restrike polymer plate, 2018; Prints from RBS Illustration Packet 89 L 05a, "Virginia Gardner Mattioli restrikes."

Gift of Virginia Gardner.  

RBS’s original woodcut block of cumin is a teaching powerhouse used in fourteen different classes. It comes from a set of large botanical woodcut blocks designed by Georgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck for use in an herbal, De materia medica, originally written in late antiquity by the Greek physician Dioscorides and then later published in the 16th century with a commentary written by Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–1577). In the early 16th century, the woodcut was the primary illustration process for books in Europe.

RBS Illustration Packet 5b S149 “Effect of inking on woodcuts.” Nine enclosures; containing specimens from Monsignor Cornelio Musso. Il secondo libro delle prediche del reverendiss. Venice: Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1580.

This illustration packet is one of hundreds used in RBS courses. Each packet typically contains 13 specimens of a particular illustration process, often taken from broken or defective books. This packet, “Effect of inking on woodcuts,” is meant to provide additional context for how woodcuts were printed. It contains disbound leaves from a book printed in Venice in 1580 by the firm of Giolito de’ Ferrari along with leaves from a later production using the same woodblocks. Together, they show how differences in inking and printing on the common press affected the look of the printed page.

Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan (春秋公羊傳). Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. Huzhou: Min Qiji, 1621.

Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.

Printing in two colors (red and black) began in China during the mid-Yuan period (1271–1368). But multicolor printing with three or more colors became popular only during the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Min Qiji was from one of two lineages of publishers who specialized in color printing during this time. He published this copy of the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, which is printed in black, with blue and red used for punctuation and notes via the taoban multiblock technique; separate blocks were cut to print each color.

Jean-Michel Papillon. 13 proof impressions of woodcuts or wood engravings made for an almanac (Étrennes spirituelles dédié[es] a M. Le Dauphin). [Paris], 1733.

Purchased with funds provided by the B. H. Breslauer Foundation and with funds donated by Terry Belanger.

These relief proof impressions, intended for inclusion in an 18th-century almanac, were cut, printed, assembled, and then labeled in manuscript by Jean-Michel Papillon (1698–1776), an esteemed French woodcut artist and printer, who wrote a well-known manual on how to prepare relief woodcuts. The jury is still out on whether these are extremely fine woodcuts or early examples of endgrain wood-engraving.

Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai manga (北斎漫画). Vol. 2. Nagoya: Eirakuya Tōshirō, [1814 (Bunka 11)1878 (Meiji 11)].

Gift of Vincent Golden.

The series Hokusai manga reproduces original drawings by the famed artist Katsushika Hokusai (17601849); the drawings were collected by his students and reproduced in a series of 14 volumes from 1814 to 1878. The original blocks would have been made from cherry wood. Each color in the final image required inking on separate blocks; if the different colors were small and isolated on one block, more than one color could be printed at once.

Tsangnyön Heruka (གཙང་སྨྱོན་ཧེ་རུ་ཀ). The Life of Milarepa (རྣལ་འབྱོར་གྱི་དབང་ཕྱུག་དམ་པ་རྗེ་བཙུན་མི་ལ་རས་པའི་རྣམ་ཐར་ཐར་པ་དང་ཐམས་ཅད་མཁྱེན་པའི་ལམ་སྟོན་). [Püntsok Chöding Ling, ca. 1700–1900.]

Woodblock printing continued to persist in Asia through the 19th century. This pecha contains The Life of Milarepa, a biography originally composed by Tsangnyön Heruka circa 1488. Widely republished over the course of centuries, it remains among the most popular pieces of Tibetan literature in print. This undated edition was likely cut in Mongolia in the 18th or 19th century. The text was likely produced at the monastery where the book’s colophon was written: Püntsok Chöding Ling.

Woodcut block of three tarot cards. [France?], ca. 1700.

This woodcut block of three tarot cards was produced in a style reminiscent of the Tarot de Marseille, an early modern deck popular in France. The block was possibly part of a much larger block, depicting many more cards. At some point after the large block was no longer used for printing, it was repurposed as a cabinet door—traces of where the hinges were mounted are evident on one of the long edges of the block. The door was eventually removed from the cabinet and sawn into our strips, one of which appeared in a flea market in the 1990s.

Knife for woodcuts, round coir inking brush and double-sided original Qing dynasty textual woodblock for a traditional medical text. Huangdi neijing taisu (黃帝内經太素) (juan 12, folios 11 and 12), late 19th century.

Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.

Invented circa 700, woodblock printing was the dominant form of printing in China until the end of the 19th century. This double-sided woodblock was used to print a classic medical text: Huangdi neijing taisu, or The Grand Basis of the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon. Block-cutters made characters and images by hand with knives. Printers used round coir brushes to ink blocks for printing. They would then pull a piece of paper tightly over the block and use a rectangular brush, or print burnisher, to make an impression.

Original woodblock of a horse race attributed to Thomas Bewick. [Newcastle], ca. 1800.

Purchased with funds donated by Florence Fearrington through the good offices of Terry Belanger.

In the late 18th century, Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) revived the technique of working the endgrain cut of woodblocks, rather than the side-grain (plank) block, using his own version of the burin more typically used for copper engraving. This technique allowed for a much higher level of detail than was possible with woodcuts. This small block depicting a horse race, possibly cut by Bewick or perhaps by someone in his workshop, exemplifies his small, finely executed vignettes.

Wood-engraved block used to print Rudolph Erich Raspe’s Aventures du baron de Münchhausen. Illustrées par Gustave Doré. Paris: Furne, Jouvet et Cie, éditeurs [1866]. Purchased in part with funds donated by Terry Belanger.  

Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was one of the most prolific and successful book illustrators of the 19th century. Although the bulk of his illustrations were reproduced via wood engraving, Doré himself was not trained in the technique. Instead, he drew his illustrations directly on the end-grain woodblocks using gouache and wash before handing them over to wood engravers. The block in RBS’s collection was covered in white chalk when the School acquired it.

H. D. Minot. The Diary of a Bird Freely Translated into Human Language. Boston: A. Williams, 1880; accompanied by electrotype blocks and stereotypes plates.

Gift of the Massachusetts Historical Society through the good offices of Jeremy Dibbell.

This book, told from the perspective of a black-throated green warbler, advocates for more stringent legislation to protect game birds, waterfowl, and other classes of birds. Its author, Henry Davis Minot, likely funded the publication. The book’s two woodcuts (one of the warbler, the other of an owl) were electrotyped in Boston and then stereotyped alongside the text. If you examine the surface of the stereotype plates, you can see the residual impressions of the nails used to affix the metal electrotypes to their wooden bases. 16_Chapter5PrintingSurfaces_Relief Lola_Ridge_FINAL_b USE.jpg

Electrotype plates for Lola Ridge’s The Ghetto and Other Poems, ca. 1918.

Gift of Smith College through the good offices of Martin Antonetti.

Lola Ridge. The Ghetto and Other Poems. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1918.  

Written by Lola Ridge, a prominent avant-garde Modernist poet, The Ghetto describes the lives of Jewish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her publisher, B. W. Huebsch, also brought out the work of D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. But the dissident-socialist ideals that defined Ridge’s work also contributed to its neglect. The electrotype printing plates for The Ghetto appear to have been made for an early, if not the very first, printing, as they bear repairs that correlate to corrections listed in the erratum sheet tipped into this uncorrected first edition.

Curved electrotype relief printing plate used to print page 66 of the 19 February 1972 edition of the Saturday Review. New York: Saturday Review, 1972.  

This curved electrotype plate was used in February 1972 to print page 66 of the Saturday Review (1921–1986), an American weekly magazine that had reached its highest circulation of 660,000 in 1971. The thin electrotype plate, faced with nickel or chrome, is mounted onto a heavier metal surface that can withstand the pressure of printing. It includes a letterpress half-tone reproduction of a photograph of General George S. Patton Jr., the subject of the article. 

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Mo Yan. Da Feng. Beijing: Zhuyu Shanfang, 2015. (大風. 莫言著. 2015年北京煮雨山房刻本.) No. 70 of 274 copies. Woodblock-printed edition. One vol., thread-bound. Cloth case.

Gift of Xia Wei and Soren Edgren.

The book is a limited edition of Da Feng, a previously unpublished short story by the Nobel laureate Mo Yan. It features unusual illustrations; printed in red, the woodcuts are based on original handmade papercuts. The book was produced and published by Zhuyu Shanfang studio, the xylographic workshop of the late Jiang Xun—a talented poet and painter, book collector, bookshop owner, and award-winning book designer, who unexpectedly died in 2022, but whose work is remembered.