Monday 9 July 2018
The Society of Wood Engravers (SWE), an international group of artists who produce prints using the relief printing technique known as wood engraving, was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Eric Gill, Lucien Pissaro and Gwen Raverat. It held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton. The SWE was revived in the 1980s and has built up an international reputation for excellence.
Here we can see some of the work exhibited in the 70th annual exhibition – a far cry from the haystacks and rabbits that characterised exhibitions of wood engravings some thirty years ago, though there is space for prints featuring traditional themes.
The SWE exhibitions attract work from across the globe with artists in Japan, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Holland, France, Brazil, Canada and the USA regularly submitting their work. All the prints are subjected to a selection committee including the members' prints – there is no automatic right to inclusion. Steadily rising standards in recent years justifies the rigorous policy. Exciting work by a newcomer that is not perfect in its execution will be strongly supported for inclusion, ahead of prints that are more skilled but might be more predictable or less interesting.
Subjects are wide-ranging and so are the techniques. Shortage of traditional timbers forced experiments with other materials and tools. Paradoxically, the closure of the last boxwood
block-maker in the UK galvanised the SWE into setting up its own workshop in Gateshead, run by young engraver Chris Daunt, who had been making his own blocks for several years. He is now producing blocks that are better than we have seen for decades and the future of engraving on wood looks to be secure. But there will still be demand for man-made alternatives, in part, because they are cheaper but mainly because they allow for far greater scale and are not vulnerable to changing atmospheric conditions.