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Inquiring Readers,

Joan Hassall's portrait of Jane Austen

Joan Hassall's portrait of Jane Austen

Every once in a while I contribute a small amount of information to Wikipedia, and only when I think I can add to the general pool of knowledge. When I consulted Wikipedia’s entry on Joan Hassall, the exquisitely talented wood engraver, I found it woefully lacking and added what little I knew. The best online information about her life (1906-1988) sits at this site: Joan Hassall Wood Engraver: Textualities. Between 1957 and 1962, Joan was commissioned to create wood engravings for the Folio Society editions of Jane Austen’s novels, which is her main association with the author. These editions have been frequently reprinted, but the  first folio editions of Austen’s works are now quite scarce.

Joan was known for carving detailed illustrations using an exacting medium that allowed for few mistakes. One wrong move with an engraving tool and a wood block could be ruined. She also had to plan backwards, for dark areas on the wood block printed light and light areas filled up with ink and came out as lines or shadows. Printed on paper, the image came out in reverse. The wood had to have just the right firmness and even texture. The grain could not present resistance to cutting, yet it had to be hard enough to withstand wear and permit a sharp edge to the line. Fruitwoods, such as pear or cherry were ideal candidates for this medium, whereas American oak or walnut were considered much too hard. – Technique for the Color Woodcut: Cutting

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Joan Hassall

Joan Hassall

C. E. Brock and Hugh Thomson are better known illustrators of Jane Austen’s novels, however I find it interesting that Joan Hassell, who resembled a matronly British lady, created more forceful images than these two famous men. Brock’s and Thomson’s works are delicate and airy, while Hassall’s are stark and masculine. Her style was defined by her medium – the wood block. Hassall generally worked in black and white, scraping out thin  and thick lines with engraving tools, and adding stippled variations in between, yet she attained an astonishing amount of detail with an unerring hand. One of the reasons why I like her image of Fanny Price in Portsmouth is not only because of the robustness of the scene, but because I can practically smell the sea air. She managed to evoke waves dashing against the shore, children playing, clouds scudding by, and a stiff breeze blowing against the ribbons and short capes of the strollers. In less capable hands, this scene would have been nearly impossible to attempt in such a small area. She also moves from light to shadow effortlessly. Witness how the ships’ masts are outlined against the white cloud bank and how the legs of the little boy on the right, who stands in dark shadows, are limned by a single light line. Masterful.

Fanny Price in Portsmouth, Mansfield Park, Folio Society, illustrated by Joan Hassall

Fanny Price in Portsmouth, Mansfield Park, Folio Society, illustrated by Joan Hassall

Hassall’s talents as a wood engraver did not mean that she did not possess a delicate hand, as this exquisite watercolor invitation for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 demonstrates. The queen commissioned Joan to create an invitation especially for Prince Charles, who was only five years old at the time. It is still proudly displayed in the royal collection.

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Imagine the young Prince Charles’s delight when he saw these whimsical details:

Lion detail, Prince Charles's Invitation

Lion detail, Prince Charles's Invitation

Unicorn detail, Invitation to the royal coronation

Unicorn detail, Invitation to the royal coronation

The Saturday Book, Joan Hassall dust jacket, 1951

The Saturday Book, Joan Hassall dust jacket, 1951

This 1951 dust jacket for The Saturday Book shows how expertly Joan can handle a brush as well as an engraver’s tool.

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Joan’s themes also ran to nature, and she was so well known for her natural studies that people like Flora Thompson, the author of Lark Rise to Candleford, collected her individual prints. In a 1989 JASNA article (Illustrating Jane Austen), Keiko Parker discusses Hassall’s ability to add interesting details in this wood engraving of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet as they take a turn in the “prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn.” The print demonstrates Joan’s ability to add exquisite details. You can even see the leaves between the scrollwork of the bench. One errant slip, and the back of the bench would have been ruined. Her handling of the leaves, grass, and dirt path are reminiscent of her nature studies; and she even manages to create a vista, leading one’s eye to the waiting carriage and the road that will take Lady Catherine back to her home.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet

Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet

Hassall’s talents as a carver were recognized by her peers and she was the first woman to be elected as a master member to the Art Workers Guild (1964). In 1950 she designed an edition of Robert Burns poems and created a series of illustration that are among her most delightful small prints, especially the one of a tiny mouse rolling in the grass.
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The Old Tree, 1950

The Old Tree, 1950

Joan’s family members led lives that were as interesting and creative as hers. Her father was John Hassall, an illustrator of posters and childrens books, whose most famous work of art, a 1908 poster of The Jolly Fisherman, still promotes Skegness as a seaside resort today. Joan’s brother, Christopher Hassall, was a poet, actor, and librettist famous for his collaborations with composer Ivor Novello. Modern audiences have heard  I Can Give You the Starlight, sung by Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park. The words by Christopher and Ivor’s melody evoke “Britishness” in the 1930’s to a tee.

Learn more about Joan Hassall at these links:

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