Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Lying on my desk as I write is a modest little hardback volume entitled Change: The Beginning of a Chapter in 12 Volumes, edited by John Hilton & Joseph Thorp. It was printed and published in January 1919 at The Decoy Press, Plaistow, London.

Herbert Rooke, The Torch

The appearance of the word Plaistow in the address is enough to suggest that this booklet has something to do with the Curwen Press, whose printing works was in Plaistow. And indeed on page 122 of Joanna Selborne’s British Wood-Engraved Book Illustration 1904-1940 a footnote tells us that, “The Decoy Press, Plaistow, was Thorp’s publishing imprint only, not a printing press, used sometimes by the Curwen Press when it was impolitic to use their own imprint.” This was one of those times, for Change was a radical publication, calling for a new post-war order based on socialist and spiritual values.

Eric Gill, The Decoy

This idealistic publication did not find a ready market—of the announced 12 volumes, only two appeared. But apart from offering its readers a thoughtful alternative to the glib talk of “reconstruction” in the popular press of the day, Change is notable for its nurturing of the green shoots of the between-the-wars wood engraving revival.

Robert Gibbings, The Little Copse

It would appear to be Joseph Thorp who was responsible for commissioning, publishing, and championing the engravers. Thorp was one of the founder members of the Design and Industries Association in 1915, alongside Frank Pick and Harold Curwen, and soon became closely involved with Curwen as a consultant and ambassador. Herbert Simon’s Song and Words: A History of the Curwen Press has a whole chapter devoted to Joseph Thorp. He writes, “Thorp was an eccentric and an entertainer. He had the gift of giving substance to the spirit of joy and to outline to war-weary audiences how a new Jerusalem could be built in England’s pleasant land.”

Herbert Rooke, He Stirreth up the People

Most of the wood engravings in Change are tiny vignettes. The contributors are Herbert Kerr Rooke (1872-1944), Robert Gibbings (1889-1958), Philip Hagreen (1890-1988), and Eric Gill (1882-1940). All of these men shared the political vision of the editors. This is most obvious in Herbert Rooke’s full-page engraving, He Stirreth Up the People, but also evident in a vignette such as Gibbings’ The Burst Bonds, and in Philip Hagreen’s sardonic portrait of a bloated war profiteer in One of Our Conquerors. In Change 1 there are also drawings by Claude Lovat Fraser, Raymond Binns, and George Morrow. 

Philip Hagreen, One of Our Conquerors

Philip Hagreen, A Head

Philip Hagreen, A Head

Unfortunately I haven’t seen Change 2. According to Joanna Selborne, the two volumes of Change include work by a total of nine wood engravers. Change 2 apparently includes work by Millicent Jackson, Vivien Gribble, Rachel Marshall (Ray Garnett), and Gabriel Pippet. The ninth engraver is Paul Woodroffe; his contribution may be confined to the title page device, though this is not explicitly stated to be an original wood engraving, and I’m not sure that Woodroffe ever made his own engravings.

Robert Gibbings, The Burst Bonds

At the end of Change 1 is an interesting announcement that shows how interwoven the magazine’s support for wood engraving was with its calls for social renewal:
“The Editors would also like to draw the attention of those interested in modern English art, who are not merely patrons of the dead, to the woodcuts which embellish this little volume. There are a score or so of really competent wood engravers and woodcutters in England, who have great difficulty in finding a market for their excellent work. Their names are unknown often even to the connoisseur, and a fine craft, now just raising its head, may be starved back into oblivion through lack of the patronage of discerning folk.
Change in its very modest way will continue its attempt to advertise this workmanlike and attractive process. Replicas of any woodcut appearing in Change may be had from the artist, pulled on India paper, mounted and framed in passe partout, on application to the Editors, who will put correspondents in direct touch with the artist himself. He will charge his own price, which will be a very modest one—too modest, in our opinion.”

No comments: