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Woodblock Collection

The Elephant, by Thomas Bewick. Woodblock 314, used in p.186 of the 1791 Newcastle edition of the General History of Quadrupeds
McGill’s woodblock collection dates from 1932 with the acquisition of 797 woodblocks from Northern England and London. Subsequent smaller acquisitions bring the current total to 822 blocks. The collection includes interesting examples from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, mostly from the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area in England, but also from York, London, Edinburgh, and even New York. Images represented on the woodblocks range from biblical scenes to animals, to early flying machines and household scenes, and they were used for a wide variety of publication types.

The oldest pieces come from the printing shop of John White (1689-1769) in Newcastle. His collection then passed to several other Newcastle printers who enriched it with contemporary additions from local engravers, including Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) and his pupils. From the 1830s until its purchase by McGill Library, the various parts of the collection were carefully preserved by private collectors, especially Bewick lovers.

The work of Thomas Bewick and his pupils is likely the reason for the original purchase. Some blocks were used in editions of Bewick’s most famous works, such as Fables of Aesop and others (McGill has several editions, the earliest being PA3855 E5 B49 1818), the Select Fables (idem, PN982 S4 1820), the History of British Birds (idem, QL690 G7 B57 1809) and the History of Quadrupeds (idem, QL706 B57 1791). But the bulk of the collection consists in examples of early work by both Thomas Bewick and his brother John Bewick, as well as their pupils’ engravings. Over 300 of McGill’s woodblocks are the product of this “Bewick School”. This aspect of the collection is well supported by the RBSC’s Bewick Collection)

Passing from one owner to another, the collection developed beyond the Newcastle area and the work of the Bewick School. It displays a fairly important number of blocks used in small chapbooks and children books, especially, such as fables and fairytales. Some of the titles illustrated with McGill’s woodblocks were very popular in the nineteenth century and count numerous editions from different parts of the UK. In particular, McGill holds forty five blocks designed and engraved by Robert Cruikshank (1789-1856) for the 1833 first edition of Fifty one original fables, printed in London. About one hundred blocks were designed or engraved by his brother George Cruikshank (1792-1878) and his pupils for London chapbooks and newspapers, especially caricatures and comic designs. Fourteen blocks designed by William Blake are housed in Lawrence Lande Blake Collection.

Ten woodblocks are part of the Sheila Bourke Collection and provide an example of wood engraving in the United States. The blocks were used for an edition of Cinderella and the Little Glass Slipper published around 1863 in New York (PZ8 C488 1863). As for several other woodblocks, McGill Library holds a copy of this edition using the blocks.

A detailed inventory of the collection is available on request. The woodblocks housed in the Blacker Wood Collection, the Blake Collection and the Sheila R. Bourke Collection can be viewed in the online catalogue.

Description: Christopher Heppner, "A Collection of Wood Blocks and Related Material at McGill University", The Book Collector, vol. 35, no. 1 (Spring 1986), 53-66.




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