From Alice in Wonderland to Cadbury’s Cocoa: the Brothers Dalziel’s Victorian wood engraving

During the nineteenth century, technological changes led to an expansion in print culture.

Improvements in printing and paper production, in addition to the advent of road and railway distribution networks, provided the impetus for this radical production of print.

Matthew Tauton suggests that ‘the sheer volume and diversity of printed matter was unprecedented [and] these works were reaching broader audiences than ever before, from across the social scale’.

Educational and social developments had helped to generate a literate society in Britain, creating a widespread audience for the publication of the printed word.

The creation of this mass market was aided by such factors as rising literacy rates and the reduction in prices of printed material, which occurred due to printing press developments bringing down the costs of manufacturing.

In addition to the printed word, image reproductions were fundamental aspects of this revolution in print culture.

Wood engraving was seen as the key medium of mass image production. ‘The history of nineteenth-century printing is intimately bound up with engraved boxwood block, the single most significant piece of illustration technology, which dominated early Victorian book illustration’, states Philip V. Allingham.

The Brothers Dalziel were the most celebrated wood engravers of their day, and they witnessed high demand for their work due to the mass print market and the centrality of wood engraving to this emerging platform.

George and Edward Dalziel founded their wood engraving firm in 1839, producing a huge variety of images during the nineteenth century, and working with many important Victorian artists to produce their illustrations.

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In his 1947 text English Book Illustration 1800-1900, Philip James suggests that the images produced by wood engravers for sources such as illustrated books demonstrated ‘a partnership between author and artist to which the artist contributes something which is a pictorial comment on the author’s words or an interpretation of his meaning in another medium’.

In their graphic work – which included illustrations for Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, adverts for Cadbury’s chocolate, and optic anatomy diagram – the Brothers Dalziel provided a variety of reinterpretations of ‘meanings’.

The brothers’ company was known for being pre-eminent in the trade, producing highly skilled work for books, magazines, catalogues and packaging – meaning that their work would serve as this ‘pictorial comment’ on everything from advertising to natural history illustration.

For example, George Dalziel was frequently commissioned by the Illustrated London News, and had worked on John Leech’s first Punch illustration. In comparison with this type of graphic work, produced for all newspaper readers of a class-driven Victorian society, the Dalziels also produced work for ‘high class’ fine art. The brothers produced the blocks for the Edward Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson’s Poems, which featured images by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt.  

Several of the images the Brothers Dalziel’s firm produced are iconic illustrations well known today, particularly the pictures they produced for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books.

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Until recently, these beautiful Victorian illustrations have been archived at the British Museum but were not generally known to the public.

In order to remedy this, two researchers from the University of Sussex have been working to help a wider audience enjoy the Dalziel works.

Bethan Stevens leads the project and is writing a book on the Dalziel family. Her catalogue of the archive is now viewable online, and she is curating the project’s virtual exhibition and museum display.

George Mind is curatorial assistant, web designer, and co-organiser of the workshops and educational events the Dalziel project has been hosting.

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In producing the online catalogue of illustrations, the Dalziel project team have made the wood engraving work accessible to the public for the first time.

This vast archive consists of 54,000 fine burnished proofs of illustrations, which were drawn onto woodblocks by various designers and then engraved by the Dalziel Brothers firm.

In addition to this, Bethan and George are expanding their project in order to encourage others to experience the artwork and learn something about the world of Victorian wood engraving.

The project team hosts creative workshops, encouraging the public to interact with the illustrations and the tools used to create them. An upcoming gallery display in the British Museum is also planned, an event which will be open to all.

Bethan, whose research expertise includes book illustration and the history of printmaking, said: “Whilst working on the William Blake collection catalogue at the British Museum, Sheila O’Connell, the museum’s curator of British prints, told me about the Dalziel Archive.

“Although Alice in Wonderland scholars were accessing it for the illustrations used in Carroll’s books, the Dalziel Archive was not really being utilised. I thought it would be great to make the archive more accessible, and so I took on the huge task of cataloguing the 49 Dalziel albums!

“The initial plan was to spend about a day and a half on each volume – but sometimes, each book would take closer to four days.

“The outcome is a summary catalogue, highlighting everything that I thought was interesting. One thing that particularly strikes you is the variety – there’s illustrations for work by Trollope and Dickens, and engravings designed by Dalziel for Rossetti’s poetry, but there are also advertisement illustrations for products such as Hudson’s extract of soap.”

The team behind the Dalziel project hopes to continue to make the catalogue accessible to a wider audience.

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Bethan said: “We’re planning to take it out further, hopefully into schools – we’re really keen to work with young people and to make the Dalziel works better known and available for use.”

George added: “It’s not just an academic project – we want people from all walks of life to use the catalogue and enjoy the online exhibition!”

“We have held a creative writing workshop, in which we encouraged participants to generate creative responses to some of the materials held at the British Museum. We had tools and woodblocks out, and the participants responded to the objects. Some of this creative work is now on our website.

“We welcome any further contributions from anyone who would like to share their creative responses.”

The Dalziel project’s outreach work also includes an online exhibition entitled Alice to Alice: Dalziel 1865-1871, which examines key works produced by the brothers Dalziel between the publication of the two Alice in Wonderland books by Lewis Carroll.

Bethan feels that the Dalziel wood engravings can be credited with setting the style for Victorian book illustration.

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‘Not only are these two of the most famous books for which the firm engraved images, but the Alice illustrations also sit among the ranks of the most famous book illustrations of all time,’ she said.

The Dalziel project also has a website, ‘Woodpeckings’, which hosts the online exhibition, as well as showcasing the creative work contributed by those who have attended workshops.

George, who designed and built ‘Woodpeckings’, joined the project in July 2016.

She said: “Initially, I had no idea how to go about creating the website, as I’d never built one from scratch before. However, I starting going to free coding lessons with codebar in Brighton, which is an initiative to help those underrepresented in the technology sphere to learn programming. It’s a really cool, collaborative environment, where everyone is encouraged to keep moving, changing and learning. Bethan and I have been quite ambitious with our website, but we are really proud of our virtual gallery!’

The Dalziel project hosted a workshop on ‘Victorian Trade Engraving and Contemporary Practice’ at the British Museum on April 8, where a conference is also set to be held on June 16 to 17. Registration for the ‘Woodpeckings: Victorian prints, book illustration and word-image narratives’ conference is now open.

Bethan and George are now collaborating with two colleagues in the University of Sussex School of English, Hannah Field and Lindsay Smith, developing a broader educational project on nineteenth-century illustration. They have plans to run a workshop with students on the ‘Stretch and Challenge’ programme at Portslade Aldridge Community Academy in April and a workshop for KS3 teachers at the British Museum in July on how to use nineteenth-century illustration to support the National Curriculum.

The Dalziel project is AHRC funded and works with project partners the British Museum and Sylph Editions.

To see the online exhibition, access the Dalziel catalogue, contribute work and find out more about the project, visit the website at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/english/dalziel/.

 

Works Cited:

Allingham, Philip V., The Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Illustration: Woodblock Engraving, Steel Engraving, and Other Processes, <http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tech1.html> Web. Accessed April 4, 2017.

Taunton, Matthew. Print Culture <https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/print-culture&gt;. Web. Accessed April 4, 2017.

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