Block Printing and its Impact on Textile and Book Arts

This article was written by a friend who passed away in July 2017.  It was originally self-published in “A Boke of Dayes: A Journal of the Festival of St. Hildegard” (1994)  I have augmented this article with photos from a catalog of his works that was part of his estate.

Gordon not only carved blocks, but taught carving and printing as well, and volunteered much of his time to the furtherance of this art form.  I hope this article will inspire others to continue on that path.

History
Block printing can be traced back to Egypt.  From there come the best examples of printing and tools because items were buried intentionally for use in the next life.  The environment was dry, free from bugs and rodents. Many pieces are available for study, because grave robbers were only interested in gold, and left the more common items behind. 

Block printing appears to have come to Europe from India and Rome.  In early Europe, dyes were used rather than ink, on surfaces that weren’t as well prepared as they were in their country of origin.

Block printing was part of textile production, rather than a separate industry.  By the 10th century, gold and silver were mixed with linseed oil and printed onto dyed fabrics.  Multi-colored prints were done by block printing a dark outline and painting in the details by hand.  This process led eventually to the manufacture of printed needlework patterns 

The process of block printing textiles led to a number of other forms of reproduction.  In China, paper was printed using clay blocks. By the 10th century, clay letters were set into an iron frame for the purpose of printing pages. This technique was developed by the country people, but later abandoned when the government started using the process for their own purposes. With the advent of printing in Europe, manuscripts could be mass produced, although illumination [illustration] was still done by hand. These hand illuminated printed books were the forerunners of the modern day coloring book.

Notes on technique
Linoleum is made by grinding linseed and flax into a paste, and spreading it out into a sheet. Its’ properties and lack of grain make it an ideal substance for the novice block carver to use. Linoleum can also be purchased and adhered onto wood blocks.  Wood is more difficult to carve because of its grain, which makes mistakes harder to remedy. [One of Gordon’s preferred woods was Pear, I assume because of its tight grain.]

The design is drawn directly onto the wood, either freehand or as a tracing from another source. The design is then carved in such a way as to slope away from the design, rather than carve straight down into the surface.  This gives better structural support to the edges of the design. Wood carving chisels are used rather than razor blades, which can break and become imbedded in your work.

A selection of Gordon’s original blocks and prints are available in an album entitled  “Gordon’s Arts” on Flickr

“Dietmar von Aist – a minnesanger – Uf der linden obenedâ sanc ein kleinez vogellîn.vor dem walde wart ez lût:dô huop sich aber daz herze mînan eine stat dâ ez ê dâ was.ich sach dâ rôsebluomen stân:die manent mich der gedanke vildie ich hin zeiner vrouwen hân.”
See his Flickr page for the English translation … 

Chicago’s Cultural Center

The Preston Bradley Hall

This building opened in 1897 as Chicago’s first central public library and was reestablished as a cultural center in 1991. It was designed in the Revivalist Style by architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. The interiors are modeled after the Doge’s Palace in Venice (been there), the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (seen that), and the Acropolis in Athens (which I have not yet seen).

The staircase leading to the dome sits in a vaulted 3-story space, 40 x 52 feet wide and is considered one of the grandest staircases in the country.  Ascending this staircase took my breath away when I reached the top and arrived in the Preston Bradley Hall, originally the reading room for the Chicago Public Library. It houses the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, measuring 38 feet across. The symbols in the ring at the top are the signs of the zodiac, separated at cardinal points by floral panels, although I am informed that these cardinal points are not placed accurately (which would place them at the actual solstice and equinox points between the zodiac signs in accordance with the astrological calendar).

The light fixtures were also designed by Tiffany. The architects liked to mirror their designs and motifs, as you will see here in the fish scale pattern (a popular Roman-era motif) that makes up the body of both the dome and the chandeliers. The metalwork was done by the Chicago Ornamental Ironwork Company.

I laid on the floor to take photos through a zoom lens – a thing I have always regretted not doing in the Baptistry in Florence. The color variances are due to my shooting these photos at various times over three days when I was able to get into this dome between concerts and large groups of visitors.

It was interesting to note that the dome turned green on overcast days.

The mosaics surrounding the dome were also designed by Tiffany, based on Renaissance scrollwork. The inlay appears to include gold, mother of pearl and possibly other semi-precious stones. On sunny days the walls glittered.

The photo below shows the foyer just outside of the Preston Bradley Hall. I was so focused on the Tiffany dome that I missed major pieces of mosaic in this foyer, which were assembled in the Tiffany Studios in New York City before being transported here. They feature the names of classical artists and quotes in Chinese, Hebrew, Persian and Egyptian, selected by librarians during the building’s construction. 

The mosaics on the staircases were designed by Robert Spencer and Jacob A. Holzer, who were both employed by Tiffany Studios at the time. The mosaics were finished in 1898 in a Byzantine Revival style made popular by “Theodora” – a play starring Sarah Bernhardt. They were executed in mother of pearl, gold backed tesserae glass, and Favrile glass which Tiffany patented in 1894. The mosaics are set in Carrera marble, in a style of ornamentation known as Cosmati – an Italian style dating to the 11th century.

I think this is the staircase that leads to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial (G.A.R. rotunda), and a patch of the mosaic floor on the landing.

The G.A.R. Rotunda was crafted by Healy & Millet and exquisite in its own right. It was built as a meeting place for the group and was furnished by A.H. Andrews Company. The Rococo style furniture disappeared prior to the reopening of the Cultural Center in 1977.

Of all the things I saw in Chicago, this was probably the most spectacular of them. If you only have an hour to spend in Chicago, spend it here.

“Architecture, sculpture and painting have fallen away from each other. They could be put back again if society would return to the time … when every object was beautiful because it was made by the hands of man.”

William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Yesterday’s Main Street and the DuSable Museum

Today I start my day at the Museum of Science+Industry. The building that houses the Museum of Science+Industry was designed in 1892 by Burnham & Co. to house the Palace of Fine Arts for the Colombian Exposition. I believe it’s one of the only buildings still standing from the Expo.

Head on over to DavenoTravels.blog to read about planes, trains and automobiles (and ships and bicycles). Here you will find softer stuff.

“Yesterday’s Main Street” is a replica of a typical Illinois Main Street, with storefronts filled with the latest in ‘turn of the century’ fashions, including foundations from Gossard Corset Shop.

Downstairs is Colleen’s Fairy Castle, which I read about as a child. It was primitive compared to the Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute, but I reminded myself that this was a working dollhouse, and shouldn’t be compared to architecturally correct scale models.

After posing in front of a Seattle diorama in the Trains Room, and grabbing lunch downstairs, I hop a bus towards the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The first gallery I entered was Rewriting History – Paper Gowns and Photography” by Fabiola Jean-Louis. She created life-sized paper gowns and staged photography to tell African-American history, in the trappings of the European Renaissance. The rest of my photos from this installation are here. Additional photos from the DuSable are here.

My final feat for the day was neither museum nor fashion. The White Sox play the Texas Rangers at a place once called Comiskey Park. Play Ball!