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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 15. 1964.

Wood-Engravings — —E. Mervyn Taylor

page 14


—E. Mervyn Taylor

. . . poet and printer, recently published a collection of his own work-entitled "Enter Without Knocking". Many years ago he helped to found the first studnet newspaper, "Canta", while doing a BA at Canterbury University. Founder of the Caxton Press, he is now with the Techinical Correspondence Institute.

In Writing of Mervyn Taylor's work. I shall confine myself to his wood-engraving. It is not that I am unaware of the excellence and continual exploration that he carried into other media: he was always an inquiring artist, ready to establish to himself the possibilities and limitations of any technique. Perhaps all artiste do this, but once they have established a genre they tend to stick to it as more profitable, however exacting in a narrow scope. The search for perfection leads to a loss of adventurous initiative in other directions.

This did not happen with Taylor. I hope others will discuss his murals, his watercolours, his pen and wash landscapes, and the carving in which he was latterly developing such a sure touch. (It must be very difficult to move from the fiat to the round.) And there were sand-blasted church windows, faute de mieux of which I have seen only the designs. He was more than a mere artist, two a penny when people want to "express" their nothingness today: he was a craftsman-artist. The Renaissance would have understood him exactly. He would have walked and talked on common ground with Cellini. William Morris would have had him designing wallpaper or even writing poetry.

But, as I say, I want to write about the wood-engravings. I do this as a printer, working with a man who was my friend and collaborator. Printers suffer much from friends and collaborators: it is not often that they find someone quick and ready to appreciate the difficulties of transla tion on to paper. With thorough patience Mervyn Taylor addressed himself to those difficulties so that it was a pleasure to address him as an equal in yet another craft or mystery.

Is this surprising? To me yes Long before Gutenberg's time wood blocks, even carved text to go with them, were widely known and printed. Hand in hand with holy pictures went the Tarot pack of cards. Printing from a raised surface is the oldest of the methods; naturally when the early printers called for illustrations they called on artists who could cut in wood, the easiest and cheapest medium. But note that this was wood-cutting, not wood-engraving. It was a simple line effect all the way, with superfluous wood cut away below type-height. The end-grain technique, which means engraving fine lines on black, or at any rate balancing black and white, was some centuries away. Nor could primitive inking have handled it. Copperplate engraving, printed Intaglio, was an early substitute: and this is where we get back to Mervyn Taylor.

woodcut print of a shell by E. Mervyn Taylor

He began as a jeweller's engraver. You know—you delicately scribe on a gold watch "In appreciation of 100 years of faithful service by Wm. Bloggs from his ever-grateful Directors." But Taylor saw early that printing was the answer the oldest mass production technique and readily applied his skill as an engraver from metal to wood whether it was the Ideal boxwood (mainly from Turkey) or end-grain Southland beech—and he tried other material, more handy, such as pear.

We must take his skill for granted, though among skilled engravers he remains outstanding. Bookplates, vignettes, occasional illustrative pieces—and here School Publications were quick to realise what he could do—consolidated that skill while he tried the temper of his medium. But mastery of tools alone does not make a great artist: there must be conception as well as execution. He looked at things we all know, and presented them with a brilliance that alone can illuminate the commonplace. He had done work for publishers (notably Bob Lowry in Auckland), but I was privileged to print, and publish in 1946. "A Book Of Wood Engravings." Some of the titles illustrate what I have said: Field-mouse. Snail. Fantail, Skull. Fungi, Weta, Tui. Morepork, Wry-bill Plover. Tuatara. There were others that pointed the way to a later development.

It must be admitted that the wood-engraving has severe limitations. Its pictorial possibilities though developed by Thomas Bewick in the late eighteenth century, and with astounding verisimilitude and virtuosity last century, yielded place to a decorative quality. As we see it now, the wood-engraving is an extension to the feeling of a text rather than an illustrative addition to it. This means that it can exist in its own right. And it takes an artist-craftsman to do it, (The same applies, of course, to etching or lithography on the stone.)

woodcut print of a kiwi by E. Mervyn Taylor

It was here, surely, that Taylor came into his own. He could interpret with delicate subtlety, he could embellish or decorate in such a way as to present to the reader (and the author, and the typographer) that sense of unity which makes a book valid. The artist as an interpreter of the text has a formidable task: having to work with a typographer and his limited range of types makes that task even harder. He trained himself, with all patient humility, to do that.

woodcut print of a tuatara by E. Mervyn Taylor

The second book. "Engravings On Wood," was more ambitious, and not a highly limited edition as was the first, with paper shortages then such an anxiety. Blocks in private hands were gathered in on loan, and we spent many hours arranging them to best effect. (This has to be done for inking reasons as well as appearance.) I think my favourites will always be some of the vignettes and those on Shakespearian themes. Less happy (to me) are the engravings on Polynesian themes, with which the artist was becoming more and more pre-occupied especially in murals. This may be because I am indifferent to Maoriolatry and prefer the gods of Homer to Ra, Rangi, Maui and other dumb deities of the brown twilight.

I think the artist in his last years was turning away from wood-engravings, which. I have said, have their limitations. The amount of exacting work they demand can be disproportionate to the value of the result. Taylor was widening his horizons, learning and exploring with a tenacious integrity. We must remember that he was an outstanding artist in many of the graphic media.