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George Johnson Wood-Engraving Collection

Date range: 1713-1993

Number of items: 1,000 items.

Dr George C. Johnson (1920–2001), who worked as a librarian at The University of Manchester for over thirty years, was an authority on and dedicated collector of wood-engravings. He assembled an impressive collection of over one thousand works charting the rise of English wood-engraved book illustration, from its popularization by Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) to its heyday in the 1850s and 1860s when the Dalziel brothers dominated the market. He also utilized his library cataloguer’s expertise to produce a meticulous twenty-volume catalogue of the collection. Following Dr Johnson’s death in 2001, the Library purchased the collection from his executors, with generous financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Thomas Bewick himself is particularly well represented, with over 50 editions carrying his illustrations and published in his lifetime, and scores of posthumous publications. The collection also includes George Johnson’s handwritten extracts from the daybooks of Ralph Beilby (1744-1817) and Bewick, covering the period from the start of Bewick’s apprenticeship to Beilby in 1767 to 1820. Dr Johnson compiled indices of the names of over five hundred customers, the subjects of the wood-engravings, and the titles of the books for which they were commissioned; they constitute a key resource for anyone studying these pioneers of the art.

Bewick’s apprentices are also well represented, such as his younger brother John Bewick (1760–1795), Charlton Nesbit (1775–1838), Luke Clennell (1781–1840) and Henry Hole (1782–1852), and those that belonged to the ‘London school’, headed by (Allen) Robert Branston (1778–1827) and his most celebrated pupil, John Thompson (1785–1866). Many of Bewick’s pupils found employment with London publishers such as Charles Knight (1791–1873). One of the highlights of the collection is a set of over 650 proof wood-engravings, which were supplied for Knight’s William Shakespeare, The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespeare (London: Charles Knight and Co., 1839–43). All of the proofs are untrimmed, and some bear annotations or corrections by the draughtsmen employed on the project. Bewick’s favourite pupil, William Harvey (1796–1866), designed 343 illustrations for the edition.

Harvey was also associated with the brothers George (1815-1902), Edward (1817-1905) and Thomas Dalziel (1823-1906), publishers as well as wood-engravers themselves, who did much to promote the quality of book illustration in the mid-19th century. The Dalziel brothers employed a host of established and lesser-known artists, whose works are to be found in the collection, such as George Cruikshank (1792–1878), Sir John Tenniel (1820–1914), and Miles Birket Foster (1825–1899).

Dr Johnson was the author of G. C. Johnson, French and English Wood Engraving: An Essay (Manchester: G. C. Johnson, 1969), and contributed a chapter on ‘English Wood Engravers and French Illustrated Books’ to French 19th Century Painting and Literature: With Special Reference to the Relevance of Literary Subject-Matter to French Painting ed. by Ulrich Finke (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1972).

See also:

Further Information:

  • Recorded in Library Search.

  • Detailed, handwritten catalogue compiled by George Johnson available via Special Collections reading rooms.

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