10 January 2018 -

Report: DHS Research Exhibition Grant by Rose Roberto

Thanks to the assistance of a DHS Research Exhibition Grant, I was able to travel to Edinburgh in November 2017 to work with staff at National Museums Scotland (NMS), along with the collections held in the NMS stores. The NMS holds 20,000 wood engravings formerly belonging to the W. & R. Chambers firm. Since 2014 I have been researching the illustrations in two editions of Chambers Encyclopaedia produced by the firm between 1860 and 1892 as part of a collaborative PhD between the University of Reading and the NMS. A summarised version of my research, suitable for general audiences, will be published on the NMS website as an online resource.

During my time in Edinburgh, I met with Elaine Macintyre, from the NMS Digital Media Team and Alison Taubman, Principal Curator for Science and Technology, to discuss the content of the online resource.

Prior to the meetings, I selected nearly 200 woodblocks from the NMS stores to be professionally photographed and digitised. This was not an easy task, given that over 7,000 woodblocks from the Chambers collection that were used in the production of the encyclopaedias are not catalogued. Although the museum has made progress over the years by sorting this collection into drawers by the publication they appeared in, many wood engravings are still not well sorted. The photo headlining this report shows where I've been working in the NMS off-site stores. My selection of specific blocks, showing how printing technology changed between both editions from the mid-to-late nineteenth-century provided criteria for curators to individually register blocks.

Some other backend tasks that I completed in support of this online project include:

  1. Providing smaller images of the prints from the encyclopaedias that matched the woodblocks, so that Digital Media could also display these in the online resource. Displaying prints next to an image allows audiences to have a reference point for the woodblocks and better understand the woodblock
  2. Writing captions for each digital image
  3. Cataloguing each digital image: by subject category, by illustration style, and by type of material used in its creation.

Part of my research determined that categories most frequently illustrated in Chambers's Encyclopaedias were: vertebrates, botanical illustrations, machines and vehicles, architectural features, and medical illustrations. Illustrations that changed dramatically in proportion between editions were the categories of human and mythic figures (which halved) and maps, which increased threefold. My research also determined that there was a shift in illustration style between pictorial illustrations, which occurred 45% of the time in the first edition and 15% of the time in the second edition, while facsimile illustration occurred 7% of the time in the first edition, and jumped up to 36% of the time in the second edition. Interestingly, use of schematic representation in Chambers's Encyclopaedias was chosen to illustrate abstract concepts 48% of the time across both editions.

Examples of illustration subjects and illustration styles are shown below:

Although the items in the W. &. R. Chambers collection are collectively called 'wood blocks', there are, in fact, four types of objects housed in drawers at the NMS store that were relevant to my project. First, there are engraved wood blocks, which have been created for printing from directly - that is the blocks were locked up in the form and printed together with the metal type (refer to example 1 shown in the image below). Illustrations made from these prints were created directly from them and they were part of an integrated printing system. Although they vary in size, these blocks are fairly uniform in appearance, and they typify the majority of objects used to print images in the first edition of the Chambers's Encyclopaedia.

The second type of object is also made from wood, but while there is a clear image in the centre of the block, the background around the image's printing surface has not been cleared away. This shows that these blocks were not to be printed from, but were used as templates for the creation of stereotype or electrotype blocks (examples 2 and 3 above). The third and fourth types of objects are stereotype or electrotype copies of wood-engraved blocks. Some of them are finished and mounted on wood, while others are in different stages of being processed (examples 4 and 5 above).

Cataloguing the facets of these different blocks will enable the NMS Digital Media team to create online search and display features, allowing users of the online resource to search for blocks and their prints by subject and/or material used to create the print or illustration style. Due to the heavy production schedule of NMS Digital Media, the online resource will go live on 31 January 2018, and will be accessible via the following URL.

Once again, assistance with this project has been greatly appreciated.

Rose Roberto
University of Reading & 
National Museums Scotland


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