Woodcuts: Methods and Meanings of Ballad Illustration

by Simone Chess (2007)

Though not all early modern ballads contain images, a majority are designed to include woodcut illustrations. These woodcuts, along with black-letter print, are part of the distinctive “look” of the seventeenth century printed ballad. And yet woodcuts have not generally been considered fine art. Because England lagged behind other European nations in some areas of artistic innovation, these English prints have been, in the words of James A. Knapp, “relegated to the status of derivative and instrumental representation,” and their creators, the woodcut carvers, he adds, were considered commercial producers, not “original artists.”1 Not only has the quality of woodcuts been questioned but also their relevance. As you will see throughout this archive, pictorial woodcuts are often only loosely related (or not related at all) to the ballad texts that they accompany. For these reasons—because of woodcuts’ contested quality and relevance—some scholars have suggested that “in many cases the woodcuts on ballads are neither illustrative nor decorative in the conventional sense.”2 But, by including woodcuts as part of our facsimile transcriptions of ballads, this archive hopes to demonstrate both the illustrative value and decorative merit of these under-valued images. Though ballad illustrations might seem rough or loosely relevant, they are at the same time a fundamental part of the culture of broadside ballads, their printing history, their readership, and their multiple meanings.3

The art and skill of carving images or designs onto the surface of a woodblock was actually an ancient form that grew in popularity and refinement in Europe (especially Germany) around 1500. In England, the woodcut was first popularized by Catholic devotional images printed on single sheets. Scholars have speculated that, due to their associations with Catholic “graven images,” the production of woodcuts decreased in early sixteenth-century Europe as the Protestant Reformation gained sway.4 Despite these religiously and politically motivated fluctuations in woodcut manufacture and circulation, there was consistent use and sale of woodcut images throughout the Elizabethan period in England, followed by an upsurge in production and sales during the Jacobean period (ca. 1603-1625). The Jacobean surge of interest in ballad illustrations and woodcuts in general is evidenced by the inclusion of “pictures” in the Wood-Symcocke patent for the printing of broadsides (1619); this is the first time that images are directly mentioned in the licensing instructions concerning ballads and pamphlets.5 Also during the Jacobean period, woodcuts began to be more closely associated with the subjects of the ballad texts with which they were printed.6

Musical Notation

Ballad illustrations, and the aesthetics of broadside pages in general, underwent another shift in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century. Around this time, ballads began to be printed increasingly in roman type, and pictorial woodcuts were gradually removed and sometimes replaced with lines of musical notation. Pepys himself noticed this turn-of-the-century change in broadside ballads, as Gery Egan notes in the previous essay, and wrote at the front of his ballad collection that “the form, till then peculiar thereto, vizt [namely; that is to say], of the black letter with pictures, seems (for cheapness sake) wholly laid aside, for that of the white letter without pictures.” In Pepys’s collection, most of these later broadsides are collected in the fifth volume, which contains almost exclusively roman letter ballad sheets without pictorial woodcuts. Of the 435 ballads in this final volume of the collection, 156 have woodcuts representing musical notation at the head of the page, in the space previously used for pictorial woodcut images, while the vast majority have neither pictorial nor musical woodcuts.7 Interestingly, the majority of these woodcuts of musical notation are usually inaccurate or meaningless—that is, they do not represent actual singable tunes, or they offer a “corrupted” and illegible version of a melody—but they do indicate that the text is a ballad that could be sung. Because they were affordable and attractive, many musical woodcuts were used repeatedly as stock images on ballads of all kinds.8 For examples of musical woodcuts, see Pepys ballads 5.62, 5.105, 5.195, 5.196, 5.263, 5.280, 5.330, 5.398, and 5.401r.

Woman with Fan

Musical notations were not the only “promiscuous” woodcuts; many woodcuts were reused again and again and were circulated among printers or printed by a single printer for multiple booksellers.9 Not only were woodcuts traded and shared, but they were also copied for reuse by an original owner or an imitative competitor. This reuse could span centuries: sixteenth-century broadsheet blocks show up in eighteenth-century prints, evidence of the reuse of extant woodcuts in printing shops. Whether copies or originals, many woodcuts were used until they wore down, becoming faded, warped, or cracked. These changes in a single woodcut sometimes allow readers to follow one print’s appearance through a succession of ballads, and can also help to date the ballads on which it appears. Over time, certain woodcuts became stock images, and might even have started to carry their own subtle meanings or implications. As you read the ballads in EBBA, you may see the same woodcut images used as illustrations for a variety of different ballad texts—do they take on new meaning? Do they get faded or copied? One example to start with is the repeating woodcut of a woman with a fan, who can be found in EBBA in Pepys ballads 1.84-85, 1.50-51, 1.162-163, 1.226-227, 1.236-237, 1.296-297, 1.378-379, 1.394-395, 1.396-397r, 1.412-413, and 1.458-459.

Though an early modern printer might have had artistic or ideological reasons for repeatedly choosing and reusing or even copying a single woodcut, there were also practical reasons to consider. A great deal of investment and labor went into the creation of new woodcut images for use in ballad printing. First of all, in order to carve a clear and lasting image, the quality of the wood was very important; good woodcuts require a resilient and fine-grained type of wood, dense enough to withstand the repeated and sustained pressure of the printing press. This wood was often expensive or hard to obtain, and might have needed to be imported from Germany, Asia Minor, or the Black Sea. Some popular wood choices included nut wood, lime wood, pear wood, and other nut and fruit woods like cherry, beech, maple and apple.

Once raw wood was acquired, planks for the woodcuts were usually cut from the outer sections of a log and were cut parallel to the grain. The parallel cut created a weakness in the cuts, such that warping often split cuts vertically, along their longer axis. Nevertheless, despite this warping and splitting problem, the parallel cut was most logical because a plank cut at an angle to the grain was more likely to split under the pressure of a printing press. By the latter part of the sixteenth century, the problem of parallel cuts began to be resolved by cutting woodblocks along the end-grain instead of along a plank. This tactic became popular because, with no bias of the wood grain, it allowed for more delicate carving with a knife or even (as became more and more popular) with engraving tools. End-grain blocks are strong and long lasting, but often restricted by limited log size.10

Impression from Damaged Woodcut

After it was cut into planks, wood for woodcuts was prepared for carving by careful planing, to create a smooth, flat surface with no knots or splits. Small imperfections (and, later, artist's mistakes) in the wood were hidden by cutting them out and filling the holes with wedge-shaped plugs. As the woodblocks aged, the plug warped more drastically, and its contraction would leave a gap in the design. These splits and gaps are flaws that we now see in many popular block prints. To make larger woodcuts, the artist might also join two or more small planks into a larger block. This technique sometimes led to seamed or partial prints as the woodcut aged. Many damaged woodcuts, as well as woodcuts with holes from worms, were used in printing the ballads in EBBA; a few examples can be found in Pepys ballads 1.110-111, 1.274-275, 1.292-293, 2.124-125, 2.61, 3.363, and 4.197.

The basic tool of woodcutters was a strong and sharp steel knife with a pointed tip and beveled edge. This shape allowed for the dense cross hatching, tight lines, and curling patterns that we see often in Renaissance cuts. Chisels were also used for more open areas of the cut. Later, block cutters would turn to engraving tools for more sophisticated work. To sketch the design of the woodcut, an artist would often cover the block in white paint to make his design more clear, or he might paste a design directly on the block to trace, or use carbon or incising to show the design. However, all of these techniques would likely have inhibited delicate carving, so finer prints are assumed to have been carved and designed free-hand.

Blotchy Impression

When the woodcut was carved and ready for printing, it would be set alongside text in the press. If the woodcut was too thin to line up with the text type, a thin reinforcement plank might be nailed to the back (this also helped stop warping). Often, a cut would be carved on both the recto and the verso (front and back) of a block, utilizing the wood to its full extent. Finally, the woodcut and the composed text type would be coated in ink with a dabber. If the ink was not applied smoothly, the design could be clogged or blotchy. For an example of a blotchy woodcut, see Pepys 1.500-501, 3.319, 4.75, 4.100, and 4.273.

Indeed, the production of even a single woodcut for use in illustrating an early modern ballad required a tremendous amount of work and a significant financial investment. And the final product ran the risk of being perceived as crude, inartistic, random, or irrelevant. So why, we ask again, do ballad woodcuts matter? Why were they used again and again? What do they bring to the experience, early modern or current-day, of reading a broadside ballad? Through reuse, certain woodcuts may have acquired their own meanings and resonances separate from the texts that they accompany: Alexandra Franklin suggests that “through repetition, the printers created an iconography legible to the ballad audience.”11 Or perhaps, as Roger Chartier offers, illustrations could offer new readers “familiar faces” to introduce less familiar texts.12 Certainly, the woodcut prints that illustrated early modern ballads add layers of meaning and options for interpretation to the texts that they accompany. Ballad illustrations inform and alter ballad meanings. So, as you read the ballads in this archive, don’t forget to look at the pictures.


1 James A. Knapp, “The Bastard Art: Woodcut Illustration in Sixteenth Century England,” in Printing and Parenting in Early Modern England, ed. Douglas A. Brooks (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2005) 158; 158-160.

2 Claude M. Simpson, “Introduction,” The Broadside Ballad and Its Music (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1966), p x.

3 As Alexandra Franklin remarks, “The resulting images might be decidedly rough—yet this itself suggests that ‘mere decoration’ was not the aim of the broadside compositors, who might have presented a neater and a prettier page with no woodcuts at all”; “The Art of Illustration in Bodleian Broadside Ballads before 1820,” Bodleian Library Record 17, no. 5 (2002), 329.

4 Tessa Watt makes this argument in the chapter “Idols in the Froncepiece,” in her important book, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 131-177.

5 Watt, Cheap Print, 147.

6 Franklin, “Art of Illustration,” 339.

7 Simpson, Broadside Ballad and Its Music, xii.

8 Simpson, Broadside Ballad and Its Music, xii.

9 Here, I borrow the term "promiscuous" from Pepys himself, who includes in his ballad collection a category of randomly grouped ballads that he calls the "promiscuous supplement," as Eric Nebeker discusses in his essay on Pepys’s categories below. In giving the category this name, Pepys is most likely defining "promiscuous" as “consisting of members or elements of different kinds grouped or massed together without order" (OED). But the word can also imply indiscriminancy, especially sexual indiscriminancy. Some ballads, it seems, as Nebeker notes in his essay above on the ballad’s heyday, have by their very nature a tendency to "get around," and certain commonly repeating woodcuts share this quality of prodigious and undiscerning proliferation. One prominent example of this "promiscuous" woodcut circulation is the frequent use and reuse of a woodcut of a woman holding a feather fan (affectionately known among our ballad team as "Our Lady of the Artichoke," because of the fan's size and shape). This woodcut is a constant throughout the Pepys collection, appearing on ballads from nearly every category and spanning many years of printing. Our Lady of the Artichoke's proliferation became part of that woodcut's meaning, and the cut was used on the title page of Joseph Swetnam's famously misogynist text, The araignment of lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women (London, 1615). The publisher's choice to include this "promiscuous" woodcut on the cover of this pamphlet suggests a connection in meaning between the woodcut's proliferation and the "problem" of promiscuous women that Swetnam undertakes to discuss. See Franklin, "Art of Illustration,” 330, for information about the frequency of woodcut reuse. Thanks to Jessica C. Murphy, for her discovery of Our Lady of the Artichoke's pamphlet appearance.

10 These details and the details that follow about the mechanics and techniques of woodcut making are drawn primarily from David Landeau and Peter Parshall’s The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) and Antonella Fuga, Artists’ Techniques and Materials, trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006).

11 Franklin, “Art of Illustration,” 331.

12 Paraphrased by Franklin, “Art of Illustration,” 331.

Works Consulted

Franklin, Alexandra. “The Art of Illustration in Bodleian Broadside Ballads before 1820,” Bodleian Library Record 17, no. 5 (2002): 327-52.

Fuga, Antonella. Artists’ Techniques and Materials. Trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia, Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.

Knapp, James A. “The Bastard Art: Woodcut Illustration in Sixteenth Century England.” In Printing and Parenting in Early Modern England. Ed. Douglas A. Brooks. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2005, 151-72.

Landeau, David and Peter Parshal. The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Simpson, Claude M. “Introduction.” In The Broadside Ballad and Its Music. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1966, ix –xxxiii.

Thomas, Keith. “The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England.” In The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 97-131.

Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.