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Experimenting with Print

The dating of a mysterious woodblock

In the last week of our exhibition ‘Transitions in Print’ we can share the findings of research into a mysterious object from our collections. Ed Potten is a research associate on the Werck der Bücher project and Incunabula cataloguing project at Manchester, and co-curator of our exhibition.

In around 1800, the archivist and antiquarian Thomas Astle (1735–1803) gifted George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758–1834) a remarkable woodblock. The block had been carved in relief with two scenes from the blockbook Apocalypse cycle and it was long regarded as the only surviving woodblock from a mid-fifteenth-century blockbook edition. At the time of its gift its early date was not questioned, but it has troubled scholars ever since. Was it indeed a late-medieval artefact, or a later forgery?

Woodblock depicting two scenes from the blockbook Apocalypse cycle, at the top Saint John brought before the prefect and below Saint John taken to Rome by sea
Woodblock depicting two scenes from the blockbook Apocalypse cycle, Spencer 17252

Impressions taken from the Rylands woodblock do survive, but all have proved problematic to print collectors and art historians. They form part a clutch of similar ‘xylographic’ prints – impressions taken from woodblocks – none of which match known examples from the fifteenth century. Many of these prints survive in one single location: within the collections of the bookseller and antiquary John Bagford (1650/51–1716). Trained as a shoemaker, Bagford was famously self-educated and from 1686 worked as a book runner for some of the most notable collectors of the period. His fame, however, rests primarily on the collection of books and ballads he amassed as a primary research source for a proposed, but never completed, history of printing. 

Portrait of John Bagford by Hugh Howard
John Bagford, painting by Hugh Howard.

An article, recently published in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, has, for the first time, drawn together all of these strange impressions, linking them directly to a series of woodblocks and pen and ink drawings scattered across libraries and private collections. It concludes that all were produced not in the fifteenth century, but c. 1705, and the thread which links them is John Bagford.  

In 1707 Bagford issued a prospectus for his proposed history, and in the same year he published an article in the Philosophical Transactions outlining his theory on the origins of printing. In both he advertised his forthcoming history, which would, he promised, be illustrated with ‘specimens … to oblige the curious’ which he had ordered ‘to be cut for my history of printing’. So, we can now hypothesise that all of these strange, anomalous woodblocks and impressions might share a common source – cut to illustrate Bagford’s abortive history of printing.  

This circumstantial evidence can, however, now be supplemented with something more substantial. In 2020 a small sample of the wood was removed from the back of the wood-block by conservators at the John Rylands Library and sent to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow for radio-carbon dating. By comparing the radiocarbon age of the sample to a calibration curve of known tree-ring measurements SUERC concluded that there is a 95% chance that the wood was growing between 1682 and 1735. We know from Bagford’s own published prospectus and from his Essay, that he was actively researching his history of printing and securing facsimile blocks in 1706 and 1707, at precisely the mid-point in the chronological sweep identified by the radiocarbon dating. 

Why does the provenance and dating of the Rylands wood-block matter? Bagford was one of the first English writers, if not the first, seriously to consider the blockbook and its history. His holistic approach to historical bibliography was highly innovative and he was the earliest exponent of the use of bibliographical facsimiles for illustration, comparison, and identification.  

Hence, the Rylands woodblock, its companions at the British Museum, the British Library, and the Bodleian, and the impressions which survive in the Bagford Collection and elsewhere, bear witness to a transformative moment in material bibliography and to the genesis of the serious study of woodblock printing in England. 

You can study the woodblock for yourself with our new 3D model on Sketchfab

Woodblock – Spencer 17252 by The John Rylands Research Institute and Library on Sketchfab

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