The Legend of St. Christopher and the Fascinating World of Woodblocks

I’ve spent the past ten weeks on placement with the National Museum of Scotland, working to organise a section of their W. & R. Chambers Collection of wood-engraving blocks, stereotypes, and electrotypes.[1] The Chambers Collection has been housed in the museum’s collections centre in Granton (Figure 1) since its donation by the W. & R. Chambers, the Edinburgh-based publisher in 1982, when they moved from their offices on the high street.

Figure 1 – The Archives Room of Building 14, National Museum Collections Centre, Granton

An estimated amount of 20,000 blocks and plates make up their collection, and past students on the book history course have worked to organise and informally catalogue different drawers of blocks, as related to specific publications, such as the ones used in The History of Peeblesshire (1864) or the Chambers’s Encyclopaedia (1859-68).

I have been working with The Book of Days (1863-4)(Figure 2), an almanac and miscellany in two volumes that centres on British folklore and history. The book is unique among Chambers’s other publications, with expensive illustrations from leading London engravers like the Dalziel Brothers accompanying each entry. One such illustration has raised a lot of questions and brought intrigue for me and my supervisor, Alison Taubman, the Principal Curator of Communications at the museum.

Figure 2b – The Book of Days (1868-9 edition) title-page

Figure 2a – The Book of Days (1868-9 edition) cover detail

The illustration for the entry on ‘The Legend of St. Christopher’ (Figure 3) seems innocuous at first glance, a copy of a woodcut from the middle-ages, which is common throughout The Book of Days. However, after looking through the drawers labelled ‘Book of Days’, the electrotype that matched the engraving was far too big for the illustration in the book (Figure 4). Yet, the back of the block had writing in black ink (as many of the blocks do, in the same hand) reading: ‘St Christopher for Book of Days’. Despite its labelling, the electrotype clearly does not match up with the much smaller illustration in the book.

Figure 3 – The Legend of St. Christopher illustration as it appears in The Book of Days (1869 edition), Volume 2, page 123

Figure 4a – St. Christopher woodblock (measurements), an electrotype mounted on wood

Figure 4b – St. Christopher woodblock (measurements), writing on the back of the block: ‘St Christopher for Book of Days’

Upon showing Alison this oddity, she recognized the illustration from a few other Chambers’ publications, including Information for the People (1835)(Figure 5) and the New Encyclopaedia (1892)(Figure 6). In addition, a proof for the woodblock appears in the NMS’s library scrapbook of proofs under the title ‘Information’ (Figure 7). It is used in the other two capacities as an exemplar for the history of wood-engraving, whereas in The Book of Days  it details the legend of the man himself, it does note, ‘The saint has come to have an interesting place in the history of typography, in consequence of a wood-engraving of his figure, supposed to be of date about 1423, being the earliest known example of that art’.[2] This quote proves useful as it references the prior publications in which the block was used by pointing to its importance as a turning-point in the history of typography and wood-engraving.

Figure 5 – The illustration in Information for the People (1835), page 721, used in an entry about wood-engraving history and techniques

Figure 6 – The illustration in the New Encyclopaeda, volume X (1892), page 720, used in an entry about wood-engraving history and techniques

Figure 7 – The illustration in the National Museum Library’s scrapbook of proofs, under the title ‘Information’

Because a past student had sorted the drawers and created an image store for the New Encyclopaeda, we were able to locate the original woodblock and compare it to both the illustration in The Book of Days and the large electrotype. Its size and marks matched the illustration exactly, leading us to conclude its use in The Book of Days as its first among the publishers’, yet confounding us as to the purpose of the large electrotype. Why was the electrotype created and labelled, to then not be used in the book? Had it been used in any other Chambers publications? The company was known to make stereotype and electrotype copies of woodblocks for ease of print runs (Figure 8), yet never a larger size, as is the case with St. Christopher.

Figure 8 a woodblock (left) next to its electrotype copy (right) from the St. Valentine’s Day entry in The Book of Days

These questions do not yet have their answers, but instead provide endless opportunities for further study. In addition, this is only one example from the many mysteries that emerged throughout my work placement, showcasing how there is much more that can be learned from woodblocks than has been previously acknowledged in scholarship. Overall, the study of woodblocks is integral to book history and the history of illustrations, yet remains undervalued in the field despite the rich and abundant prospects it provides. By focusing on the material aspects in the creation of an illustrated book, new questions can be answered that we never even thought to raise.

Report by Helena Meier, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

[1] A stereotype is a printing plate copy of the original woodblock in lead, then mounted on wood to be type-high. An electrotype is also a printing plate copy of the original woodblock, but with an additional layer of copper over the lead for reinforcement.

[2] ‘The Legend of St. Christopher’, The Book of Days, edited by Robert Chambers, vol.2, Edinburgh, W.&R. Chambers, 1869 edition, 2 vols: 122-123.

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