Papillon 1766, first woodcut manual


The first and only detailed manual of woodcut technique with a historical volume, derided for its inaccuracies but an important document in the history of the appreciation of woodcut prints.

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PAPILLON, Jean Michel (1698–1776)

Traité historique de la gravure en bois. Ouvrage enrichi des plus jolis morceaux de sa composition & de sa gravure.

Paris: chez Pierre Guillaume Simon, 1766–1768.

2 volumes including Supplément bound in vol. II, 8vo: I: π4 a8 b8 A–2H8 2I4 2K–2L8 2M2,  286 leaves, pp. xxxii 540; II: a8 A–2A8 2B2; χ2 2A–H8 (blank H7 present, blank H8 lacking) ($4 signed except first gathering unsigned except a6 signed a2, 2B $1 signed), 266 leaves, pp. xvi 388; (Supplement:) pp. [4] 124 [2] (last leaf blank). A large number of woodcuts printed in the text, initial on vol. I. p. 369 printed in red.

7 inserted leaves of woodcuts: vol I: woodcut portrait, chiaroscuro woodcut (bound at p. 369); vol. II: 5 plates, progressive stages in printing a chiaroscuro woodcut (bound at p. 154).

Condition: 195 x 1255mm. Oxidation to first chiaroscuro print (the green tone block), other colours strong and generally a good clean and fresh copy.

Binding: Contemporary French mottled calf, gilt spine with red lettering pieces, red edges, marbled endleaves. Joints and corners rubbed, head and tail caps chipped.

Provenance: John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick (1770–1859) with engraved armorial bookplate. Northwick was a major art collector who extended Thirlestaine House, Gloucestershire to allow visitors to see his collections; the house was later bought by Sir Thomas Phillips to house his enormous book collection.

References. Bigmore and Wyman II, p. 116; Burch Colour printing and colour printers pp. 77–78.

The first extensive history and practical manual of woodcut technique, essential for understanding the making of blocks as well as their printing with type for book illustration. Volume I is historical, volume II, technical, dealing with design, cutting, proofing and printing.  Papillon, whose father and grandfather were also block cutters, was one of the best French designers and cutters of woodcuts for book work, employed by both French and Dutch publishers. He uses the Traité as a showcase for his work which contains 136 woodcut head and tail pieces and 257 other illustrations, large and small, some tiny illustrations incorporated in the text; only the portrait is by another hand. The technical illustrations in volume II were cut for the book but the other cuts were borrowed back from publishers, some of them having already been used to print many thousands of impressions. The titlepage vignette on Volume I is dated 1766, that on the titlepage the Supplément1768, others have dates as early as 1733 (I, p. 369).

His Treatise, beside a somewhat apocryphal history of the art, contains a most exact and complete account of engraving with the knife, the method of execution and all that could be wanted for instruction in it. (L. Linton, The Masters of Wood-Engraving, 1889, p. 121).

Though regularly scoffed at for its inaccuracies, the historical first volume is nonetheless a remarkable survey of early woodcuts. The text is full of small woodcuts of the monograms of designers and block cutters. Papillion provides an index of over 500 block cutters, claiming to be the first to identify 157 of them. However many are designers rather than cutters, as Chatto and Jackson point out: ‘from his desire to enhance the importance of his art, [Papillon] claims almost every eminent painter whose name or mark is to be found on a cut, as a wood engraver’ (Treatise on wood engraving, 1839, pp. 546–7).

The invaluable second volume gives us a first-hand account – really the only one we have – for the process of block cutting for woodcut illustrations. Although well after the heyday of woodcut in the Renaissance, there is no reason to think that the techniques would have been very different in say Dürer’s time. Landau and Parshall note that ‘As the examination of early wood-blocks makes clear, the basic tool used by block cutters was much the same as it is now –a  simple knife, pointed at the tip and beveled along one side of the blade.’ (The Renaissance Print, 1994, p. 23). The voids – the white areas of the print – are cleared with chisels and gouges. This is exactly what Papillon describes. His descriptions and illustrations are detailed and physical: the different postures for different operations, the exact positions of the fingers and joints of each hand. Papillon was a long-time supplier of blocks to the printing trade and the treatise is an important – and little studied – source for the printing of woodcuts with text and the relationship between block cutters and book printers.

Several chapters deal with the history and techniques of chiaroscuro woodcuts with a series of 5 plates showing the successive stages of printing a chiaroscuro woodcut.

Papillon began writing the Traité in 1734 and began printing it in 1736 but put it aside due to pressure of other work and the writing of the articles for Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, as he notes in Volume I (p. x). He also contributed a number of vignettes and other decorations for the Encyclopédie, including the titlepage vignette dated 1747.  Diderot got more text than he bargained for and heavily edited Papillon’s memoires, extracting the main article ‘Gravure sur bois’ (Encyclopédie Volume 7, 1757) and various subsidiary articles. Dissatisfied with Diderot’s editing, Papillon uses the Traité for corrections and extensive additions to the Encyclopédie articles (Volume II, pp. 379–388).

Had Papillon’s earliest version of the Traité been published it would have been the first account of woodcut technique. In the event it was preceded by Johann Michael Funcke’s Kurtze, doch nützliche Anleitung which includes brief instructions on making woodcuts, aimed more at the printer who needed to make his own blocks than those aspiring to Papillon’s high standards.