BOOK REVIEW: Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut by Jon Crabb (editor)

The end is nigh, but hasn’t it ever been thus? And whose fault is it? Well, if we really need to point fingers then the inventors of ARPANET, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates and those clever chaps and chappesses at the Google, oh and Steve Jobs (may the great RAM be with him) would be at the end of my accusing digit. Disruptive technology is the culprit here. How new, how modern. And woe betide us, in these modern times, as the old structural certainties aren’t eroded but swept away in a tsunami of information. We have no point of reference, no historical guide, being the post-modern snowflakes we all are, right? Wrong.

There’s nothing new here. And what happened the last time a disruptive information technology swept the world. Oh, just a few centuries of religious bloodshed, civil war, the fall of empires and the rise of the nation state.

What has this to do with a book review? Well, as luck may have it dear-soon-to-be-engulfed-in-centuries-of-political-turmoil reader, those wonderful boffins at the British Library have just produced a splendid miscellany from their archives, covering that most wonderful of Hobbesian periods. And it’s full of pictures to boot. Graven Images: the art of the woodcut gives a startling and illustrated insight into the Early Modern period through the ephemera of the day: broadsides, pamphlets, ballads, sermons and advertisements (probably for a hanging), adorned with images produced from the cheap woodcuts.

It is a truly beautiful book. From the quality of the paper, the binding, the Portrait typeface, to the overall black and orange aesthetic: it is a thing to fetishize. Leave it nonchalantly on a coffee table to increase cultural capital with literati friends, while bemoaning house prices and the Trots back in the Labour Partyover freshly ground Italian coffee. And what’s more, like all the words in post-modernist philosophy and Marx people never really read, there aren’t many words in Graven Images. But this is not criticism (of the book, I mean). The image is King (or Queen or whatever decentered subject one fluidly identifies with nowadays).

The book is ordered into six sections: Strange Sights and Monsters; A Phantastick Age; Damnable Practices; Drinking and Good Fellowship; Murder and Misfortune; and Wanton Women and Gallants. The images cover the bazar to the strikingly familiar, accompanied with a combination of the originals’ descriptions and helpful explanations. The monsters are particularly wonderful as are the supernatural and religious images. They provide us with an iconography not much plundered by our modern hyper-textual reality, more akin to the medieval carvings on English churches than the legacy of Renaissance realism. An English reader may find the sectarianism of the religious images novel. However, reading this from Northern Ireland, their echoes still resonate in these parts.

What I particularly liked is how bawdy and punk it felt. More visceral than polished prose and poetry of the same era. Though ol’ Will Shakespeare, knew how to get down with the common man – “I bite my thumb at you, sir”. The subjects range from serious, irreverent, pious to silly (side note: etymologically, ‘silly’ originally meant ‘pious’).

As someone who occasionally pens a horror story, the iconography of monsters, demons, witches and the devil, set in their religious context is imaginatively stimulating.

It is refreshing to glimpse the everyman and low culture of the past, rather than salivating over elites and the ‘great man’ view of history.

Graven Images is a wonderful book, as stimulating as it is beautiful. Visually gorgeous, luxuriously tactile: an object to hold admiringly in the hand and in the mind. Bravo!

Jon Crabb

By day (and sometimes evenings and weekends, such is the life) Jon works as an editor on a mixture of illustrated reference books and literary anthologies for British Library Publishing.

By night (and sometimes really early mornings and bank holidays), he also writes about various – and only tangentially related – things that intrigue him. He has written for various books, journals, magazines and websites, some of which even still exist.

Jon’s interests are mostly clustered around three broad areas: William Burroughs and Brion Gysin; Decadence and the fin de siècle; Early Modern satire and esotericism. He has also written variously about alcohol, cult literature, 20th-century art, higher mathematics, and illustration. 

Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut was published by The British Library on 6th April 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about British Library click here

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Review by Daniel Soule

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